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6 June 2018updated 08 Jun 2018 8:18am

The British public of the 1970s was not ready to think the worst of Jeremy Thorpe

Tom Mangold’s documentary, made in 1979 and just shown for the first time on BBC Four, gives a good sense of the period and why Thorpe was cleared.

By Peter Wilby

In their eagerly awaited (not) book, Saving Britain, Will Hutton and Andrew Adonis propose “A Great Charter for Modern Britain” as an alternative to Brexit. It includes devolution to “the cities, towns and counties of Britain”, a senate in the English north to replace the Lords, and “a fully fledged written constitution”. Alas, I fear that “get yourselves a great charter” or “make Britain modern” doesn’t quite have the emotional heft of “take back control”. On the contrary, “great charter” sounds like the sort of elite abstraction that irritates the Brexit-supporting masses so much. David Cameron took office in 2010 pledging to bring about the “big society”. Eight years later, society is more fractured than ever and the value of most people’s wages considerably lower.

Notes on a scandal

Tom Mangold’s documentary on Jeremy Thorpe, made in 1979 and just shown for the first time on BBC Four, gives a better sense of the period and why Thorpe was cleared that year on a charge of conspiracy to murder than a dramatised account of the scandal, even one starring Hugh Grant as Thorpe, could possibly do. It shows Mangold sitting behind a desk, addressing us like a bank manager considering a loan application; an interviewee referring to “homosexual associations” as though he had a bad smell under his nose; and a senior police officer explaining how files that might “cause a public scandal” were deposited in a special safe so they couldn’t “be seen by all and sundry”.

The 1970s was a febrile, jumpy decade in which military figures plotted coups, the security services suspected the prime minister (Harold Wilson) of being a KGB agent, and violent fringe groups, such as the Angry Brigade in Britain, threatened the peace across Europe and the US. Top people in politics, the civil service and the judiciary believed that the social fabric was in danger of being torn apart. So did some newspaper editors. They saw it as their duty to cover up a leading politician’s criminality.

As for the wider public, people were not then ready, as they are now, to believe the worst of any politician, particularly not a charming Old Etonian with a nice piano-playing wife. Despite the papers being full of accounts of buggery and attempted murder, Thorpe fought the 1979 general election in his North Devon constituency while awaiting trial and, though he lost the seat, won 23,338 votes against a smaller than average swing to the Conservatives.

Ferguson’s lonely furrow

The historian Niall Ferguson admits in the Sunday Times to sending “intemperate language” in emails about left-wing students. The poor man’s excuse is that he is lonely. “Today,” he writes, “scarcely any conservatives are to be found among academic historians” and the Stanford University, California, campus where he works is “dominated by progressives”. He quotes a study of academics at 40 leading US universities – which, as he doesn’t mention, appears in a journal published by a group dedicated to promoting free-market economic policies – showing that, in history faculties, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by 33 to one.

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Has it occurred to Ferguson that the Republican Party has moved so far from evidence-based policies that it would seem natural for historians, who dedicate their lives to an evidence-based subject, to abandon it?

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Towering work

Andrew O’Hagan’s 60,000-word investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire, published in the London Review of Books, raises uncomfortable questions for what is now called the mainstream media. How can a fortnightly literary paper with a circulation in the tens of thousands – albeit owned, edited and subsidised by a woman with access to inherited wealth – produce a richer, more textured and (evidence to the inquiry suggests) more accurate account of Britain’s biggest recent disaster than national newspapers? One answer is that the latter invest too many resources into celebrity profiles, the tedious manoeuvrings of Westminster and Washington politics and instant, often ill-informed opinion. But there is more to it than that.

Newspapers habitually create a simple narrative of heroes and villains at an early stage. The story, which invariably suits a newspaper’s political agenda, then rarely changes. In Grenfell’s case, the villains included Kensington and Chelsea Council, with little distinction made between elected Tory councillors and modestly remunerated officers in housing and social work. The heroes included the tenants’ groups and the firefighters.

O’Hagan shows a more nuanced and complex picture that even the best weekend papers now seem incapable of presenting.

Cross to bear

I do not normally pay attention to my Wikipedia entry and nor, I imagine, does anyone else. But within the past week rival “editors” have been quarrelling over its contents and, after friends alerted me to this spat, I stumbled over a curious character calling himself or herself (or even themselves) “Philip Cross”.

In all, “he” has made 133,612 Wikipedia edits over 14 years or an average of 30 a day. Entries for Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Alex Salmond, John Pilger, Owen Jones and George Galloway are among many that have received “his” attentions. According to the former British diplomat turned left-wing activist Craig Murray, “Cross” tries to undermine anyone who challenges the “dominant corporate and state media narrative”. Wikipedia records suggest that, all day and every day, “he” does nothing else.

I feel sorry for this “Cross”. On 31 May, “he” spent more than five-and-a-half hours editing my entry. “He” needs a break. I wonder if, as a former editor who was sometimes accused of excessively rewriting contributors’ copy, I could offer “him” lessons in speedier editing. 

This article appears in the 06 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family