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Home > Reviews > The Peer and the Gangster

The Peer and the Gangster

Author Daniel Smith

ISBN No 9780750993296

Review date 15/08/2022

No of pages 256

Publisher History Press

Publisher URL

Year of publication 29/09/2020


Our Review


£ 20, hardback

For those of you who have interest in such British scandals as the Profumo Affair, try this forensic yet easy to follow story of Conservative politician Bob Boothby and the East End 'underworld thug' Ronnie Kray.

One of the ironies of history is that at the time of the crisis of the story - the July 1964 publication of innuendo that an unnamed peer and gangster were the subject of a 'Yard probe', to use the Sunday Mirror quaint tabloidese - Boothby was the famous one, and the Kray twins were, as yet, unknown to the British public. Today, it's quite the opposite. Boothby has gone from being 'the Nation's favourite', an early and indeed pioneering example of the politician turned media personality, thanks to a smooth voice and repartee, to utterly forgotten (if only because so many MPs have followed in his footsteps; in other words, each is dispensable). By contrast, the Krays are notorious and among the best-known British characters of the 1960s, such is the public's appetite for true crime.

To tell the actual story of The Peer and The Gangster briefly: the Sunday Mirror ran stories about yet not identifying Boothby - who heard to his horror that the Mirror meant him, when he rang the Labour MP (and homosexual) Tom Driberg. Boothby 'knew his life could not bear too much close examination' and the Mirror came upon that picture on the cover, of Boothby and Kray sharing a drink, that seemed to clinch it.

Boothby brazened it out, in a letter to the then Conservative Home Secretary Henry Brooke (father of a Thatcherite minister); and legally, earning him a grovelling apology in the Mirror and a payment of £40,000, in the era when £2000 would buy you a nice semi-detached. Boothby had won - not only avoided a public downfall, but he was quids in (and all his BBC appearances were partly because he needed money for his lifestyle)?

As the author adds however: "There was just one problem. Boothby had been casting a web of lies – and he knew that were plenty of people out there who could prove it. The truth was that while Boothby and Kray were not lovers, a curious relationship had built up over the previous year in which they bonded over their shared love of sex with young men."

And as Smith concludes; the cover-up was as damaging as the original crime, as so often (think Watergate for example), and it set a precedent for future 'sex scandals' involving powerful and famous Britons ('turning a blind eye became the preferred strategy').

The book having set out the scandal then changes tack and we're taken through Boothby's life (he was born in 1900, went to Eton and Oxford, had a posh house in Eaton Square, but no wife or children) and such undeniably striking stories as his 1931 meeting with Hitler (the way that Boothby told it, Hitler gave his salute and said 'Hitler!' and Boothby did the same and said 'Boothby!') and his long affair from 1929 with Dorothy Macmillan, the wife of future Conservative prime minister Harold. In 1930 Dorothy gave birth to a daughter Sarah - who was the father?! As the author puts it, 'the likelihood is that no one really knew for sure'.

If the 1930s are too far back for your taste, try the 1950s, when Boothby is 'a patron of the Soho scene with, on the one hand, its incongruous offering of piping hot Italian coffee from one of the new linoleum-and-Formica cafés then springing up and, on the other, the promise of hard vice overseen by the likes of mobster Bernie Silver'.

Accompanying it all is the press, giving the paying public some titillating glimpses of 'sex parties', as through the memoirs of actress Diana Dors ('off came the sweaters, bras and panties', but not the lights - was this all in her own words, or did the tabloid journalists improve on the tale?!). Dors knew Boothby and Kray - indeed, as so often in British 'cover-ups', it's a small world, in and around central London.

Some things never change - the hypocritical attitude of the press, that disapproves of vice while selling copies of newspapers thanks to it; links between the press and police, in the interests of both; the libel law, that hamstrung the Sunday Mirror and arguably made the press all the more eager to go after stories when it could; and the links - with genuine public 'need to know' in view of the potential corruption - between high and low, lords and gangsters. Boothby turned down a 'Nigerian investment opportunity' that in his letter to Henry Brooke he claimed was his only connection with Kray.

As the book shows much later, an unfortunate effect of the 'conspiracy of silence' that saved Boothby was that it saved Ronnie Kray also, and 'Ronnie in particular felt a growing sense of untouchability'. Not that Boothby learned; in passing we are told that when Reggie married in 1965, Boothby sent 'a telegram of congratulation' (which younger readers may need explaining to them).

Smith goes so far as to claim that by getting an apology in 1964 (only Boothby got the money; although he may have passed some thousands to the Krays), Reggie Kray felt free to become ever more violent, and out of control. But for the self-preservation of the establishment, Smith argues, London might 'have been saved those years of the twins’ orchestrated mayhem'. That's only debatable, given that it was so hard to pin anything on the Krays and any other serious criminal, and (as a whole shelf of books have chronicled) some in the police had a dubious relation with the London underworld in the 1960s and beyond.

Some things are utterly different in the 21st century, such as the pace of news and how the internet means that gossip and slurs cannot be kept from the public. This Boothby affair was on the cusp of the change between the old privacy and the tell-all internet-age, as the German magazine Stern published more details, and copies reached London.

In an interesting chapter, one of many signs that the author put in the spade-work on research, we learn of MI5's long-time interest in Boothby, such as because of his friendship with Oswald Mosley, imprisoned in 1940 as a potential collaborator if Nazis invaded. MI5 in 1951 labelled Boothby as 'a right wing Conservative with some fascist contacts'.

The book does well to capture the peculiar feeling in Britain during and after the Profumo case, which did affect the declining years of the Macmillan government that led to six years of Labour government from 1964. Boothby was able to plead he was a victim of a 'witch-hunt'; except that in this case, there were some real witches - Boothby no less deserved disgrace than Profumo - both men lied about what they did and did not do. Intriguingly, while the book does set out the 'bunker mentality' of the 'establishment' (a new phrase in that era; we might say 'the one per cent') that sought to look after its own, Boothby had an equivocal relation to the 'establishment'. Yes, he was well-off, had expensive tastes, and played cameo parts in so many events in mid-century Britain; and appeared on that BBC 1960s institution, This Is Your Life. Yet he had never made the very top in politics (while the cuckolded Macmillan had).

As all this may suggest, the book touches on so many facets of Britain - the media, celebrity culture versus the 'right to privacy', politics, and crime and immorality. So often when a book goes off the point of the title, it's blatant padding; not so here, as much of the story (though still just about within living memory) is so strange to 21st century eyes that it requires some background and explaining. Thus we get pages on the Profumo and Vassall cases although Boothby 'did not publicly stray into either ... in any meaningful way'. However, a couple of pages on the bizarre talk of a coup against Labour in 1968 don't seem to have any connection to Boothby or the Krays.

We only reach the actual 'cover-up' halfway into the book: in 'a combination of outright duplicitousness and what might generously be termed self-deception, the [Conservative] government allowed Boothby to mislead the public and extort a massive pay-out from the International Publishing Company', that is, the Mirror newspapers. In case you feel the story so far is too anti-Conservative, the narrative turns to the Labour MP Tom Driberg, 'a notorious loose cannon', a homosexual in the decades when homosexuality was a crime and a 'public shame'.

Arguably, the story becomes most sordid late on, when the public apology that vindicated Boothby was also an 'albatross around his neck' and the Krays had a hold over Boothby. For instance he spoke up for them in the House of Lords in 1965. As Smith keeps showing, someone like Boothby got on and kept going by having contacts and using influence, even if it by 1965 made him look 'merely a lackey for the Krays'.

A happy ending? In 1967 Boothby married a woman half his age. The author includes the 1970s Jeremy Thorpe scandal and fellow Liberal MP, the sexual predator Cyril Smith, updating the story to the present by noting the difference between homosexuality in the 1960s - illegal - and now, an era readier to see and call out sexual abuse (how many of Boothby, and the Krays', separate 'sexual interactions' were 'non-consensual'?). If such a story broke today? Smith judges: "Boothby’s involvement with the Krays would undoubtedly still be a scandal, just for different reasons to those of 1964."

The book closes by mentioning more recent scandals - such as the disgrace of Sir Jimmy Savile only after his death, and Liberal former leader David Steel's stepping down from politics when he admitted he was told by Cyril Smith of his sexual crimes, and far from reporting him, years later Steel put him up for a knighthood.

In closing, the author seeks to connect these unconnected cases. Those protected, and the institutions that protect them, Smith argues, each have, like Boothby and Driberg, an 'unappealing sense of entitlement'. It's enough to make you wonder whether an equivalent book will come out about these times, in 2070.