Joyce McMillan: Why the British Establishment is bad for the UK

Ruling classes' arrogance helped Jeremy Thorpe escape justice and it now ushers us towards Brexit, says Joyce McMillan.
Hugh Grant's portrayal of disgraced Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe has thrown fresh light on the case (Picture: BBC/Blueprint TV)Hugh Grant's portrayal of disgraced Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe has thrown fresh light on the case (Picture: BBC/Blueprint TV)
Hugh Grant's portrayal of disgraced Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe has thrown fresh light on the case (Picture: BBC/Blueprint TV)

Ever since its first episode was broadcast, a few Sundays ago, viewers across Britain and beyond have been gazing with mouths agape at the bold BBC drama series A Very English Scandal, and the almost unbelievable story it tells. Its subject, of course, is the Jeremy Thorpe scandal of the 1970s; the moment when the former leader of one of Britain’s three main political parties, a popular and progressive politician who had come very close to cabinet office following the first general election of 1974, was tried for conspiracy to murder a young bisexual man called Norman Scott, and eventually found not guilty.

Scott says – and still says today, with great conviction – that he had a sexual relationship with Thorpe for several years in the 1960s, had strong evidence to support his claim, and came within a hair’s breadth of becoming the victim of a botched plot to kill him, after Thorpe realised that he was never going to disappear quietly from his life.

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In tangling with Thorpe, though – a charming and well-liked Eton and Oxford man, whose clandestine homosexual life was generally treated with the mixture of private indulgence and strict public silence that was de rigueur in Britain at the time – Scott was up against the British establishment at its most sinewy and self-protecting. Athough Thorpe’s homosexual adventures were well known to Scotland Yard, he was never prosecuted for any of them, although they were illegal until 1968. And such was the cult of exceptionalism surrounding senior British establishment figures at the time – and the largely unspoken aura of power and privilege that protected them – that it was easy for people like the judge in the Thorpe case, in his notorious summing-up, to dismiss Norman Scott’s accusations as pure fabrication by some kind of low-life fantasist.

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And I couldn’t help thinking about the inner workings of that British establishment of 40 and 50 years ago, as revealed in this series and in the brilliant accompanying documentary by veteran journalist Tom Mangold, as I contemplated the latest outbreak of disorderly behaviour in the UK cabinet over the arrangements for preventing a hard border in Ireland, following Britain’s exit from the European Union. Essentially, there are two wholly exceptional things happening in UK politics at the moment, and the first is the remarkable and unprecedented level of disarray within the government about how to implement the Brexit decision of June 2016. After two years of debate, and of attempted negotiation with increasingly exasperated EU representatives, the truth is that there is still no agreed British government position on customs, or on Ireland; as soon as one minister speaks, another briefs to the contrary, and the brawling continues.

And meanwhile – in the second place – this embarrassing shipwreck of a government, without even an overall majority in the Commons, remains relatively popular, and able to impose what is left of its will on parliament and the nation, because the main opposition party is arguably in even greater disarray over Brexit than the Conservatives. The word is that next week, when the Lords amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill return to the House of Commons, Labour will not even seize the chance, alongside the SNP and Tory rebels, to deliver a historic defeat to the government on an amendment to ensure that Britain at least remains within the European Economic Area.

What seems to be going on, in other words, is a crisis of denial among the main Westminster parties that simply forbids them from confronting voters with the truth that in an interconnected 21st century world, Britain cannot entirely detach itself, at institutional level, from the trading bloc that, in one form or other, includes all its nearest neighbours and biggest trading partners. There might have been a time, during the early years of modernising Blairism, when a British party leader could have found a way of presenting this truth in a positive light; and there certainly was a moment, just after Theresa May’s emergence as Prime Minister, when she could have tried with some chance of success to impose a minimalist interpretation of the Brexit vote, declaring that she simply would not take Britain out of the EEA.

Now, though, it seems that both current leaderships, Tory and Labour, are held hostage by a combination of that razor-thin popular vote of June 2016, and the bizarre extreme interpretation placed on it by some elements in the Conservative Party, backed by their friends in the media – people who seem to believe that Britain cannot move forward unless it cuts itself loose from the whole regulatory and legal structure of Europe’s single market, and – if need be – also from the Good Friday Agreement. To say that this is not a rational position is to state the obvious; it represents the kind of fantasy of complete national autonomy that would be laughed out of court if uttered by the SNP or Plaid Cymru.

Yet so profound is the mythology of the British establishment – its power, its virtue, its image of always doing the right thing even by ruthless means – that neither the Conservatives nor Labour seem able admit to the people that the country is just nor powerful enough, any more, to treat its European links in such a cavalier fashion without suffering colossal harm. Interestingly, the makers of the Jeremy Thorpe film called the story of his downfall a very “English” scandal, rather than a British one.

In truth, though, it reveals a very British post-imperial system of government, immensely confident of its ability – in collusion with the media – to suppress unwanted truths. And if there is disarray in British government and opposition now, it’s because the unwanted truth about the fantasy of perfect sovereignty on which Brexit is based keeps breaking through the surface of the negotiation process, and intruding into the heart of the debate; and will continue to do so, no matter how many short-term victories David Davis may score in cabinet, or how many opportunities to save Britain’s economic bacon Labour chooses to miss, for fear of upsetting those gods of traditional British nationalism that the Brexit vote seems to have aroused, and unleashed on us all.