From Westminster to Whitechapel, and back

Lord Boothby, Reggie Kray and friend

The Peer And The Gangster

Daniel Smith, The History Press, 2020, hb, 256 pages, £14.99

KEN BELL traces an old and sordid story uniting West End and East

The Sunday Mirror thought that it had the scoop of the century in July 1964, when it ran a front-page splash about a prominent peer and a London gangster who were having a homosexual affair. By the following Sunday, the Mirror had obtained photographs of the two men with drinks in their hands, clearly at ease in each other’s company, yet by the following month the paper had issued a grovelling apology and paid the peer the goodly sum of £40,000.

The peer was Bob Boothby, a very well-known radio and television personality in the post-war years. The gangster was Ronnie Kray, who ran the Kray Twins’ gang along with his heterosexual brother, Reggie. Daniel Smith’s book is the story of how and why the tale of these two charmers did not see the light of day for many decades.

Boothby was not a very popular man in senior Tory circles. He had been the lover of Dorothy MacMillan, wife of Harold, who just happened to be the Prime Minister for many of the years when the relationship between Boothby and Kray was in full swing. One would have thought that Harold MacMillan would have wanted to pay back Robert Boothby with interest for putting the horns on him, but the asexual MacMillan just seems to have shrugged his shoulders at the affair. That was probably Boothby’s first bit of luck.

His second came about because the story was set to break in the wake of the Vassall scandal (1) and then the Profumo affair which followed hard on its heels. A third sordid scandal was too much for the government to stand, so the order went out to give Boothby a helping hand. Thus a key hinge to the Mirror story, which was that the Metropolitan Police were investigating the Krays, was kicked away when the compliant Met obligingly denied that any such investigation was taking place.

Labour wanted to take over from the Tories as the government, but they chose to help save Boothby’s political skin. So Harold Wilson sat back whilst the Labour-connected lawyer, Arnold Goodman, went to work putting the screws on the Mirror. Ronnie Kray was not just involved with Bob Boothby, but also Tom Driberg, a homosexual Labour MP. For Wilson, this was about saving Labour as much as anything else. Boothby was obviously bisexual, but there was enough heterosexuality about him to suggest that he might have been able to shrug off the allegations of inversion. That was not the case with the ever-cottaging Driberg, who had no interest in women at all. Had the story been allowed to break, it is quite likely that Labour would have been dragged into it via Driberg, so Wilson seems to have decided that it was better to cover it all up.

The paper provided Boothby’s final card with its poorly-worded story which claimed that the affair was between the peer and the gangster. In fact, Kray had no interest in the fat, over-60, Boothby; what drew them together was a shared desire for “boys”, as they both called the late-teenaged, early-twenties young toughs that came within Ronnie Kray’s orbit and whom he passed on to Boothby.

The relationship between the peer and the gangster, stripped of its homosexuality, was really one of those classical upper-class and working-class meetings of minds based upon a set of shared values. Put bluntly, both groups enjoy their drink, change their bed partners regularly, and both loathe the uptight middle-class. That is probably one of the reasons why working class people vote for Boris Johnson, because he is what they would be if they had money. In mid-1980s Oxford, Boris was very popular with the former miners, steelworkers and dockers who made up the bulk of the Ruskin College junior membership and quite happily voted for him every time he stood for Oxford Union office – and that was at the height of the miners’ strike. I know, as I am the Ruskin man who introduced Boris to my fellows.

The unpleasant aspect of this affair was not the easy sex and louche attitudes of everyone involved. Rather it was the fact that thanks to an establishment cover-up the Krays were allowed to continue wreaking havoc for five more years that left at least two people dead and any number of young men coerced into having sex with Kray and Boothby. One of Kray’s victims was a very young reporter with the Daily Telegraph, who was only able to escape thanks to the intervention of Reggie Kray – but that did not stop Ronnie from sending him on his way with a kick or two, or stop him ordering some underthugs to go and dish out a serious kicking to the poor hack some weeks later. As he was left battered and bleeding on the road, the message was given that it was the price he had to pay for defying Ronnie Kray.

If that could be done to a broadsheet journalist, then the price that a young Eastender would have to pay for defiance does not bear thinking about. That Boothby knew that his playthings had been coerced is beyond doubt, since at least one was produced for him, battered and bruised, and told firmly that if he did not please Boothby he could expect more of the same. This is the sickening aspect of the Boothby/Kray story. It demonstrates that from Boothby via Jeremy Thorpe to Cyril Smith, the list of homosexual abusers really does seem to be never-ending, and all with the connivance of an establishment that seems to be indifferent to the fate of the victims.

Editor’s Note

  1. John Vassall, 1924-1996, was a junior civil servant blackmailed by the KGB into providing the Soviet Union with sensitive naval information. His 1962 arrest and subsequent imprisonment (he was released in 1972) was a major embarrassment to the Macmillan government, and provoked a public investigation of the security services