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The 1970s Gay Sex Scandal That Enthralled Britons Is Back

What the Thorpe affair reveals about the history of elite men seeking sex and relationships with other men

When British Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe was acquitted of conspiracy to murder on June 22, 1979, the press had a field day. Thorpe allegedly paid to have his lover of fifteen years — the horse groom and sometime model Norman Scott — assassinated. The outing of a popular, charismatic politician was only one of many sensationalist elements, which included: a cast of characters comprising several senior members of the Liberal Party and a crew of incompetent Welsh gangsters; a botched assassination attempt in which Scott’s dog had been shot instead of him; and, that favored British theme, class antagonism. The trial pitted patrician Thorpe — from a prominent political family, educated at Eton and Oxford, and married to an aristocrat — against working-class Scott. The judge’s partial summing-up sought to discredit the prosecution witnesses while describing Thorpe as “a national figure with a very distinguished public record”; when the jury acquitted Thorpe, the verdict was widely regarded as a miscarriage of justice, in which the establishment had rallied round to protect its own. Evidence is still emerging about the extent to which the government and the police colluded in protecting Thorpe at Scott’s expense.

A recent high-profile BBC dramatization of the events of the Thorpe affair, A Very English Scandal, reintroduced the British public to these events. The three-part miniseries, directed by Stephen Frears with a screenplay by Russell T. Davies, stars Hugh Grant as Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as Scott, and is based on a book-length account of the scandal that had been published to commemorate the 1967 decriminalization of sex between men in England and Wales. The drama thus drew on the talents of many of the leading lights of queer British film and TV, and staked out a place for the Thorpe scandal in the LGBT history of Britain.

The show also offers a more nuanced — and, to this historian, more plausible — representation of how masculinity and male homosexuality worked in Britain before around 1980 than usually appears in the popular media. The period between the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which allowed for men to be prosecuted for same-sex sex without the prosecution having to prove anatomically that anal sex had taken place, and the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which decriminalized sex between men in private, is usually understood as a time when a clearly-identified category of “the homosexual” — constructed in binary opposition to the “heterosexual” or “normal” man — was harshly oppressed by the legal and medical establishment. In the twenty-first century, this has become part of Britain’s national heritage. The story of Oscar Wilde’s tragic downfall at the hands of the establishment continues to pull in audiences, with a number of movies depicting the playwright’s life. In 2013, the computer science pioneer Alan Turing received an official royal pardon, which was extended three years later to all men who had been prosecuted for gross indecency, thus allowing the Conservative government of the time, under David Cameron, to draw a contrast between those prejudiced times and our own enlightened age.

A Very English Scandal makes clear, though, that in the world Thorpe inhabited, there were clear limits within which elite men seeking sex and relationships with other men could pursue their inclinations without controversy. When Scott first made a public statement about his affair with Thorpe, a police report went on file just in case, in the environment of the Cold War, the prominent politician might become a blackmail risk — but no prosecutions were set in motion, even though sex between men was still illegal. While Thorpe’s colleagues and friends suggest his poll numbers might improve if he marries, they evince no surprise or concern about the fact that he clearly prefers men. Though it is not clear that there is an evidence basis for this, the drama suggests that many of Thorpe’s circle might themselves prefer men too.

This could be interpreted as the establishment wagon-circling and closing ranks to protect its own — and at the time of the trial, many did interpret it as such: a BBC investigation at the time repeatedly asked people involved in the case if there had been a cover-up. But another way to think about this is that, in fact, for much of modern British history, norms surrounding male homoeroticism have been extremely context-specific. From the early nineteenth century until very recently, most elite men spent the part of their lives before marriage (perhaps in their late 20s or early 30s) immersed in single-sex environments, many of these residential: boarding schools, residential universities, gentlemen’s clubs, regimental halls, professional associations, political associations, dining clubs and discussion societies. In these contexts, very close romantic — and sometimes, though not always, sexual — attachments between men were thought a normal and appropriate part of the homosocial life-stage that most men would put aside when they married; within this highly class-hierarchical environment, exploitation of non-elite men for sex was thought not to be much different from exploitation of non-elite women for the same purpose. A significant minority of men — particularly around the turn of the twentieth century, when it was widely thought that too many men were choosing the bachelor lifestyle over marriage to eligible women — found that they preferred this environment to the prospect of matrimony, and stayed, doting on the boys and young men who passed through their care.

Because my historical research focuses on elite educational institutions, I find such men everywhere, working as teachers. In the forties, Thorpe surely met several at Eton and at Trinity College, Oxford. In the still heavily Latin-and-Greek-centric curricula of those days, men seeking paradigms within which to understand their desires often turned to ancient literature, where they would find idealized, romanticized descriptions of the pure and noble love an older man could bear towards a younger man or adolescent. One nineteenth-century Eton teacher, William Johnson Cory, wrote poetry based in large part on the Greek Anthology. His work, which enjoyed considerable mainstream popularity in its time, inspired generations of men who sought to put their own feelings into verse. One such man was Oscar Wilde, whose relationship with Alfred Douglas only came within the purview of the law after it moved outside the walls of Magdalen College, Oxford. But others included a significant social network of men — perhaps the majority of whom worked in education — who circulated amongst each other information that ranged from classical texts to scientific studies to pornography. Those at Eton and Oxford who read Johnson Cory’s poetry collection Ionica in its 1891 and 1905 editions may well have still been there when Thorpe arrived 40 years later.

That life-cycles and generations have a tendency to work like this means that conversation about a particular classically-influenced paradigm of same-sex desire — as well as forms of homoeroticism that were not at all acknowledged, talked about, recorded, or understood as a matter of identity — persisted in these institutions long after the Wilde trials were meant to have shut down all talk about homosexuality, long after the world wars, and long after the Sexual Offences Act. In 1998, a prominent Oxford classicist, who had spent 30 years in that university (and, prior to that, five at Eton), published a mainstream book about Virgil in which he held that a classical conception of pederasty was one of the major paradigms in which people in the nineties might continue to understand homosexuality, and that “[i]t is well known that many adolescents themselves pass through such a phase, and that it can be prolonged or created in institutions from which women are excluded…” This construction of a classical paradigm to understand modern homosexuality does not sound so different from, for example, the writing of the early theorist of male homosexuality John Addington Symonds, who made similar observations in the 1880s and 1890s.

In A Very English Scandal, Davies and Frears show the elite paradigm of male homoeroticism with which Thorpe was familiar butting up against the very different face of seventies gay liberation, the old giving way to the new. Outside the courtroom, a group of gay lib demonstrators give Scott a rapturous reception, welcoming him not only as out and proud, but also as a figure seeking to puncture the hypocrisy of the establishment and their desire to protect their own. When he is acquitted, Thorpe gives a hollow victory speech accompanied by his wife and son, whose lukewarm reception is overshadowed by gay libbers in the background carrying signs with bold slogans. That gay and lesbian activists of the time could paint Thorpe’s behavior as hypocrisy — much like how we now debate whether to out duplicitously closeted politicians — suggests that by then, in 1979, understandings of male sexuality were not so classed as they had once been. This was part of the broader shift in society and politics that accompanied, and followed on from, the victory of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party in the general election of that year. The eighties were when David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and, a few years behind them, Jacob Rees-Mogg attended Eton and Oxford; when they entered politics in the nineties, it was in a more prosperous, more outward-looking, more socially liberal Britain. Though at that time Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which forbade “promoting” homosexuality, still reigned, Cameron commented at the end of his parliamentary career that same-sex marriage was the prime ministerial achievement of which he was proudest.

To understand how we got here, though, we have to understand the links with the past, and the ways in which continuity operates as well as change. Though the present parliament is the most educationally diverse on record, institutions like Eton and Oxford still exert a peculiar influence over public life, as much in demotic conceptualizations of class and social inequality as in hard social-scientific data. Many viewers of A Very English Scandal will likely notice the differences between the world it depicts and our own: the cars, the seventies outfits, the social attitudes, the cod in parsley sauce. But Davies and Frears also went out of their way to emphasize the continuities, from Thorpe’s pro-European politics to the tabloids’ intrusion into the lives of public figures and, of course, the evergreen draw of a story that pits the entitled rich against the bold and scrappy poor who stand up for justice. It’s telling that we look at the story of a cross-class same-sex love affair that went wrong and think that there is something “very English” about it. Watching A Very English Scandal, I come away with a sense of how quickly the country has changed, how the Britain I encountered when I first came to live here in 2011, when Cameron was prime minister, is different — only just — from the Britain in which my friends’ parents grew up, when Thorpe was leader of the Liberal Party. As a historian of gender and sexuality in modern Britain, I come away with a renewed conviction that my late-nineteenth-century classics teachers were not mere marginal eccentrics, but in their own way key to understanding power and politics in modern Britain.

Emily Rutherford is a PhD candidate in history at Columbia University. She is writing a dissertation about opposition to coeducation in British universities between 1860 and 1935. Follow her on Twitter @echomikeromeo.

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