The infamy of Jeremy Thorpe’s downfall unfairly colours all else in his life. Thorpe was a stylish, progressive and popular politician. Under his leadership the Liberal Party won more votes than ever before or since at a general election and helped drive legislation taking Britain into the European Community through a divided Parliament. But the much-promised breakthrough never came and Thorpe’s reluctant resignation left the Liberal Party in a state from which many predicted it would be unable to recover.
John Jeremy Thorpe was born in Surrey on 29 April 1929, the son and grandson of Conservative MPs and part of a political line that can be traced to Mr Speaker Thorpe, beheaded by a mob in 1371. In 1940, as the Blitz began, he was sent to the security of the Rectory School in Connecticut, USA. The contrast between its liberal regime and that at Eton, which he attended from 1943, has been seen as a major influence on his character. At home, he came into contact through his family with the Lloyd Georges; Megan Lloyd George was an influential godmother.
Exceptionally, Thorpe served only six weeks of the usual two-year National Service and went up to Trinity College, Oxford, nominally to study law. Cutting an Edwardian dash in period clothes, a Thorpe hallmark, he associated with many at the university who achieved later distinction, as well as notable Liberal figures, including Dingle Foot, beyond it. Thorpe was noted for his mimicry, speech-making and electioneering. In increasingly acrimonious campaigns he became Chairman of the Liberal Club, the Law Society and, in Hilary term 1951, the Oxford Union.
A third did not stop Thorpe moving to the Inner Temple and looking for a parliamentary seat as a Liberal. Thorpe’s persistence with the party, when he could have succeeded as a left-leaning Conservative or as a Labour candidate, points to a commitment to Liberalism greater than critics have claimed. After enquires in North Wales, and the offer of North Cornwall, Thorpe fixed his attention on North Devon, safely Tory but with a Liberal past, and was adopted in 1952. He set about vote-winning with enthusiasm. His electrifying skills at the hustings and on the doorstep won him renown. In speeches he put forward then unusually liberal views on apartheid and neo-colonialism in south east Asia.
Called to the bar in 1954, he combined advocacy on the western circuit with politics and a short-lived career as a television interviewer. He fought the 1955 election with the energy of a congressional campaign, on the slogan ‘A Vote for the Liberals is a Vote for Freedom’. The Conservative majority in North Devon halved. Unanimously readopted two months later, he threw himself into the 1959 election campaign, on the back of Mark Bonham Carter’s 1958 triumph in next-door Torrington. Thorpe played a prominent part in that victory and went on to win North Devon by 362 votes in the 1959 general election. This was the only notable Liberal result in a disappointing election and led to wild celebrations and a torchlit procession in Barnstaple. He was to hold the seat for the following twenty years.
He made his maiden speech early and acquired a name as a backbench wit. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life’, he said after Harold Macmillan’s night of the long knives. But there was a more serious side; Thorpe was at the forefront of the burgeoning human rights movement, becoming prominent in the campaign against apartheid and being banned from entering Spain by Franco.
Thorpe’s speeches, particularly in 1963, were a highlight of Liberal assemblies. In October 1965, he unexpectedly stood for and won the Liberal Party’s Treasurership. He proved a first-rate fund-raiser; the office also provided a platform from which he gained the Leadership and inspired criticism about his personal control of various party funds. His call, at the 1966 Liberal assembly, for V-Bombers to attack Rhodesia was seen as a publicity bid in preparation for the much-predicted resignation of the Liberal Leader, Jo Grimond. On 18 January 1967 Grimond resigned and the next day, in an election among members of the parliamentary party criticised as unduly hasty, Thorpe emerged as the new Leader. Three of the twelve Liberal MPs stood; Thorpe won six votes to Emlyn Hooson’s and Eric Lubbock’s three apiece.
Marking his new role with a dramatic and costly rally at the Albert Hall, linked by television to sites around Britain, Thorpe hoped to strike a note as a modern radical. He became a privy councillor in March 1967 and took delight at attending prestigious official functions; he also adopted a portentous style in Parliament. Many in the party, accustomed to the simpler intellectualism of Grimond, felt uneasy. In June 1968 there was a serious bid to unseat him during his honeymoon (Thorpe had married Caroline Alpass in May). He returned to face the challenge and was overwhelmingly re-endorsed by the party executive.
Victory at the 1969 Birmingham Ladywood byelection raised hopes of a Liberal revival but the Young Liberals proved a persistent sore. Thorpe’s political aims and style differed greatly from the outspoken party movement. In the 1970 general election Liberal support crashed. Thorpe only just held his seat and only six MPs were elected. The result was unexpected and Thorpe, who had spent heavily on the campaign, came under fire. This was suspended two weeks later when Thorpe’s wife was killed in a car accident. Deeply upset, he ceased most political activity for the rest of the year, later unveiling a monument in her memory. On his return to active politics, he worked successfully with the Conservative government to achieve British entry to the Common Market, one of his proudest achievements.
Thorpe’s return to politics paralleled an upswing in Liberal fortunes. Four notable byelections were won in 1972 and 1973, at the same time as the party’s decision to adopt the strategy of community politics was beginning to bear fruit in local government elections. Thorpe’s involvement in this was limited but he campaigned to allow Ugandan Asians to settle in Britain (even accommodating a family in his house), calling Idi Amin ‘this black Hitler’ in a remarkable speech at the Liberal assembly in 1972.
In February 1973 Thorpe married Marion, Countess of Harewood, but his political standing was marred by his directorship of the failed London and County Securities Bank. This event was overshadowed by the economic and political crisis of February 1974, which saw Edward Heath declare a state of emergency and a general election. Thorpe successfully positioned the Liberal Party as a radical alternative; his performance caught the media eye and although he devoted much time to nursing his seat, the party received six million votes, up from two million in 1970. This translated, however, into only fourteen seats.
Heath attempted to form a government with Liberal and Ulster Unionist support. On the Saturday after the election, Thorpe met the Prime Minister, who offered him a seat in Cabinet and other ministerial posts. They discussed electoral reform; after consultation, Heath offered a Speaker’s Conference but no pledge to support its recommendations. Thorpe turned this down, to the relief of the Young Liberals, many party members and most Liberal MPs, disquieted by his apparent eagerness to prop up a defeated Prime Minister. Instead, Thorpe announced his backing for a government of national unity bringing together all major parties. The Conservatives showed signs of support, but the general election of October 1974 produced a Labour majority. The result was a disappointment to Thorpe, who had campaigned on the slogan ‘One More Heave’.
A deflated Liberal Party spent 1975 campaigning for devolution and for electoral reform, a response to The Great Vote Robbery of the year before. Prior to the Liberal assembly of November 1975, the Young Liberals held a pre-ballot for the party leadership; their distrust of Thorpe was shared by others, but at the assembly he was unanimously backed by Liberal MPs.
This support was short-lived, as the Scott affair emerged to swamp all else. In November 1961, Thorpe had met and become friendly with a groom, Norman Josiffe (later Scott). Scott alleged that a homosexual encounter soon took place, a claim consistently denied by Thorpe. Thorpe certainly helped Scott find work and accommodation, however, and from 1966 his fellow Liberal MP, Peter Bessell made payments to him. In 1971 Scott’s allegations about Thorpe’s behaviour led to a party inquiry under Lord Byers, which concluded that he had no case. By 1975, however, Scott’s mental condition was deteriorating, and he continued to spread ever-more extreme allegations. In response, it was alleged, an assassin, Andrew Newton, was found by senior figures close to Thorpe. In October he drove Scott and his dog Rinka to Exmoor, stopped the car, shot Rinka, threatened Scott and drove off. Either the gun jammed or Newton pretended it had done so.
In January 1976 Scott appeared in court on charges of defrauding the DHSS, and made claims against Thorpe, reported under privilege. Newton was tried and gaoled for the attack on Scott in March, and in May, Bessell sold his story to the press. Thorpe attempted to pre-empt this by publishing his version, including letters to Scott, in the Sunday Times. The following day, 9 May 1976, he resigned as Liberal Leader and was temporarily replaced by Jo Grimond.
Newton was released from gaol in April 1977; he immediately claimed he had been hired to kill Scott. Thorpe held a press conference at which he admitted a close, even affectionate relationship. Bessell accepted immunity to act as a prosecution witness; he also signed a contract with The Daily Telegraph in which he stood to benefit if Thorpe was convicted. Thorpe was charged with conspiracy to murder. Only one Liberal MP, John Pardoe, supported his re-election campaign in the general election of the following year, and he was heavily defeated.
Thorpe’s trial began on 8 May 1979; he was defended by the rising barrister George Carman QC, who destroyed the credibility of Bessell and Scott and kept Thorpe out of the witness box. The judge famously called Scott a ‘crook, liar, whiner …. parasite, fraud’. Initially tied at six all, the jury acquitted Thorpe and his co-defendants on 22 June.
Thorpe’s career was ruined and, in the years that followed, he became ill with Parkinson’s Disease. He retained a fascination with politics, became President of the North Devon Liberal, later Liberal Democrat, Association, and saw his old seat regained by Nick Harvey in 1992. In 1997 he attended the Liberal Democrat conference and received a standing ovation.
Simon Freeman and Barrie Penrose, Rinkagate: The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Thorpe (1996) provides a somewhat sensationalist account of the Scott affair and trial; it was inspired by L. Chester, M. Linklater and D. May, Jeremy Thorpe: A Secret Life (1979). Since Thorpe’s death a number of other biographies and books on the Scott affair have appeared including Michael Bloch’s Jeremy Thorpe (Little, Brown, 2014) and John Preston’s A Very English Scandal (Viking, 2016) which was later filmed by the BBC.
Julian Glover was Deputy Editor of the Economists World in 1996. At the time of writing this piece he was working for The Times as an assistant to the paper’s parliamentary sketch-writer, Matthew Parris.