Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott
The Orion Book of Modern Scandal
edited by Bruce Palling
Great Parliamentary Scandals
Digging the Dirt.
Bruce Palling's anthology will become an essential work of reference for connoisseurs of low life in high places. The obvious scandals (Tranby Croft, Teapot Dome, Profumo, Thorpe, Poulson, Watergate, Chappaquiddick, Milken, Camillagate, Squidgy, etc) are well represented. However, Palling's definition of scandal is broad enough to include the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and the Tate Gallery's purchase of Carl Andre's bricks, the Amritsar massacre and the CIA plot to assassinate Castro with an exploding cigar.
Palling is quick to acknowledge that scandal has its own history and bears only an oblique relationship to the truly significant events that shape our lives, but I was surprised by one gap in his parade of recent examples - the Roman Catholic Church's cover-up of the fact that the Bishop of Galway had sired an illegitimate child. He has been thorough, but also ingenious in gleaning material from newspaper reports (whether from respectable broadsheets or impudent tabloids), judicial proceedings, official reports, memoirs, biographies, diaries and historical works.
As a native Australian, Palling has chosen a number of delightful scandals from his rascally homeland. Breathtaking in its cynicism, for example, is the open letter in 1901 to Edmund Barton, Australia's first prime minister, accusing him of abject drunkenness. It was penned by Ezra Norton, a blackmailing editor and failed politician.
Great Parliamentary Scandals is not an anthology but a series of reflective essays from the feline pen of The Times's parliamentary sketch-writer. Parris does not pretend to comprehensiveness, although I was surprised to find no mention of the South Sea Bubble financial scandal which resulted in the expulsion from Parliament of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and no fewer than five other MPs. Nor is there any reference to the notorious private life of Britain's first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole: “The periodical debaucheries of Houghton (his country seat), which were the talk of the whole country – all these passed uncensured,” wrote one historian, because “the habits and manners of Walpole were congenial to the coarseness and depravity of the times.”
The joy of this book is its author's combination of moral sensitivity and exotic turn of phrase. Parris, who kept his own homosexuality discreetly draped while serving as a Tory MP himself, has interviewed many of those victims of parliamentary scandals who are still alive and has been struck by the emotional desolation they have suffered, but also by the notion that “a brush with scandal can be a redeeming experience”. He even becomes morally indignant in some places, though rarely without due cause. “I am sorry Jeremy Thorpe did not try to have Norman Scott murdered,' he writes. “I would have.”