Jeremy Thorpe has long been the non-person of modern British politics. Never mind that 25 years ago he attained for the then stand-alone Liberal Party more votes (over six million) than Paddy Ashdown achieved for the by now merged Liberal Democrats (five and a quarter million) at the last general election. Discretion, if not sheer political cowardice, decreed that his faintly saturnine presence should be air-brushed out of any contemporary history of Britain’s third party. The man who at one moment seemed set to inherit the mantle of Lloyd George became instead a kind of gruesome ghost haunting any Liberal feast.
The reason was quite simple. In the days when such things were hardly spoken of, Thorpe was accused – first by rumour and then via a more formal judicial process – of having been involved in a homosexual affair. When the story first surfaced, there was a fighting chance that he would survive by taking both his Party and the nation into his confidence. Indeed, I recall a New Statesman editorial of the time urging him to do exactly that. The article did not minimise the difficulties he would have faced, offering him merely ‘a 50/50 chance of success’ if he decided to meet the forces of prurience head-on. But those were different times and, though the New Statesman’s challenge was echoed by the Young Liberals, Thorpe showed no inclination to rise to it. Instead, he tamely resigned the leadership of his Party.
The consequences, even if no one then could precisely have foreseen them, were protracted and macabre: a serious criminal charge leading to a committal hearing at Minehead in Somerset (held just six months before the 1979 general election, at which Thorpe lost his seat), all culminating in a Bonfire of the Vanities trial at the Old Bailey in the summer of 1979, at the end of which Thorpe and his three co-defendants were all acquitted of charges of conspiracy to murder (and in Thorpe’s case of incitement to murder as well).
In this reflective but elusive volume of memoirs the author entirely fails to do justice to his dramatic tale – possibly the most dramatic in the annals of British politics. He merely repeats his old denial that he had ever had a homosexual affair with a young groom and male model called Norman Scott, the man he was eventually to be accused of wanting to have murdered; yet he throws no other light at all on their acknowledged acquaintanceship – immortalised for the middle-aged by that famous phrase in a letter Thorpe once sent to Scott announcing: ‘Bunnies can (and will) go to France.’
By, in effect, disregarding the great drama of his life-story Thorpe has succeeded merely in short-changing himself. The more one reflects on those bizarre events – originating with the shooting of a dog by a hit-man on Exmoor over twenty years ago – the more extraordinary and resilient a phenomenon Thorpe appears to have been.
From the moment he originally met Norman Scott – or Norman Josiffe as he called himself in those days – less than two years after he was first elected as an MP, Thorpe had tied a ball-and-chain to his ankle. Yet no hint of the unremitting pressure he came under (it all started with Scott’s obsession about his lost National Insurance card) was ever allowed to affect the buoyancy of his public performance.
As a young reporter on the Guardian, I covered the contest in North Devon in 1959 that first brought Thorpe to Westminster, and – though I was to write about countless general elections and by-elections thereafter – I never encountered a candidate from any party to equal him. In my mind at least he remains the greatest of all constituency campaigners: with his brown Derby hat (a sartorial touch borrowed, no doubt, from the American Presidential candidate, Al Smith), his jaunty, athletic air (he was forever vaulting over fences) and his marvellous gift for mimicry (enabling him mercilessly to take off his opponents) he was a born showman of the hustings. The local Tories called him ‘a champagne Charlie, all froth and bubble’ – but at the end of the campaign he had translated a Conservative majority of 5226 into a Liberal one of 362 and scored his Party’s sole gain of that election.
At Westminster he seemed part of the hereditary furniture almost from the moment he arrived: not perhaps surprising, since both his father and his maternal grandfather (as he proudly notes in this book) had been Tory MPs. If he thought radically, he always dressed conservatively: frequently black jacket and striped pants, always a double-breasted waistcoat and never without an old-fashioned Edwardian watch-chain. But the Conservative benches soon learnt not to be deceived. When Harold Macmillan callously cleared out a third of his Cabinet in ‘the night of the long knives’ of July 1962, it was Thorpe who caused the Prime Minister to squirm by gravely rising to his feet and intoning in his deep, splendid, actor’s voice: ‘Greater love hath no man than this – that he will lay down his friends for his life.’ There was a moment of hush, as if brought on by shock; but once the brutal, irreverent message had got through, they laughed and laughed.
Unlike his two successors, David Steel and Paddy Ashdown, Thorpe was, in fact, a pretty considerable Commons performer. His natural habitat, though, was the platform and, after he became Party leader in 1967, his annual address at what was still then called the Liberal Assembly took its regular place as one of the oratorical high-spots of the year. He was a mannered rather than an inspirational speaker and there was generally rather too strong a whiff of the midnight oil about the phrases (and even the jokes) that he employed. He may not have had the authority or gravitas of his immediate predecessor, Jo Grimond, but he seldom failed to entertain his audience.
Even within his own Party he was often thought to be a lightweight; but that never struck me as wholly fair. He had a consistent record on Europe and a notably courageous one on immigration and race. He had a strong allegiance to the Commonwealth – the best parts of this book are the sections dealing with Africa and Rhodesia – and though his stand on the latter at the time of UDI – he suggested the bombing of key Rhodesian railway lines – got him into hot water with the kith-and-kin brigade, his proposal was probably a good deal more sensible than Harold Wilson’s advance and vacuous pledge never to use force at all.
Thorpe himself enjoyed extraordinarily good relations with the Labour Prime Minister, who even tried clumsily to ride to his rescue with allegations of a South African ‘plot’ when the Scott affair finally surfaced early in 1976. Certainly, Wilson displayed a good deal more sympathy for him than did some of his colleagues in the Parliamentary Liberal Party, who seemed quite content to leave him twisting in the wind.
To be fair, they may have had some excuse for doing so. The subplot of the Scott affair, which is never even touched on in this slim, inconsequential volume, concerned what was known at the time as ‘the money tree’. Thorpe had always been a very successful fundraiser – he was treasurer of the Party before he became its leader – and the suspicion gradually grew that a contribution of £20,000 from ‘Union Jack’ Hayward in the Bahamas had somehow been diverted via a Channel Islands bank account and had never reached the Party coffers at all. The allegation, of which the prosecution should probably have made more at the trial, was that the money had gone, first to paying off Norman Scott and, when that failed to buy his silence, to funding someone to kill him. It was certainly a mysterious, murky story in which a businessman friend of Thorpe’s called Nadir Dinshaw eventually emerged as the innocent dupe. (The best discussion of the whole imbroglio is, surprisingly, to be found in a recent book by Trevor Beeson, a former Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, entitled Window on Westminster.) Thorpe does himself few favours by ignoring the episode as if it had never occurred. Again, one phrase sticks in the memory. On being warned by Dinshaw that he would have to tell the truth to the police, Thorpe, according to Dinshaw, replied: ‘In that case it will be curtains for me and you will be asked to move on.’ There is something sufficiently chilling about that threat to have the total ring of authenticity.
The wonder is that Thorpe still managed to conduct himself with all the brio and aplomb that he showed throughout the two general election campaigns of 1974. Given the constant fear he must have been under – the whispering had already started on the doorsteps of North Devon – his was a truly bravura performance which, if Ted Heath had got his way, could conceivably have ended up with his being appointed to some job in a coalition government (though, if this account is to be believed, not apparently to the Home Office, where he would have been responsible for the Metropolitan Police).
As we all now know, things were destined to end very differently – with a Privy Counsellor standing in the dock at the Old Bailey along with the best man at his first wedding and two other alleged co-conspirators whom he claims never even to have met before the case started. When the ‘Not Guilty’ verdict was finally announced after the jury had been out for two days – Thorpe had to spend the intervening night in custody in the prison hospital at Brixton – the old campaigner could not resist one final theatrical gesture. He threw the three cushions he had used throughout the trial to support his spine up into the air and out of the dock – for all the world as if he was back holding his final election rally in the Pannier Market at Barnstaple.
It was to be his last hurrah. In 1982 a public protest from the former editor of the Observer David Astor, prevented Thorpe from taking over as director of the British section of Amnesty, a post to which he had been nominated by that body’s executive committee. His life since then has largely been lived under the shadow of Parkinson’s disease but in 1987 he was offered, and eagerly accepted, the honorary presidency of the North Devon Liberal Democrat Association: a consolation for a political life so want only thrown away that no one should begrudge him.