Had things been different, last year’s obituaries might have read like this. Although known for his charm, wit and talent as mimic and raconteur, Jeremy Thorpe will be chiefly remembered as the deviser of much of the programme of modern British liberalism, and the architect of one of its great periods of electoral success. The grandson and son of undistinguished Conservative MPs, Thorpe was educated at Eton and Oxford, where he defeated Dick Taverne (later a Labour MP) and William Rees-Mogg (later the editor of the Times) for the Union presidency. Like one of his successors as Liberal leader, Charles Kennedy, he became an MP at a young age and came to public notice through his entertaining performances on radio (particularly in Any Questions?) and television. By the time of his election to the Liberal Party leadership in 1967, succeeding Jo Grimond, Thorpe had established a platform that would define liberalism and indeed much of the progressive agenda for the rest of the century and beyond. It was characterised by internationalism and anti-colonialism (particularly in Africa), a benign attitude to immigration and hostility to racism, and a commitment to Europe, House of Lords reform and devolution for Scotland and Wales. As leader he would advocate such unthinkable proposals as fixed-term parliaments, earnings-related pensions, tax credits and a minimum wage.
Through Winnable Seats, a group he set up within the party in 1959 to target possible Liberal gains, Thorpe brought about a succession of spectacular local and by-election victories in the early 1970s, and took his party’s general election tally from six MPs in 1970 to 14 in February 1974, tripling its popular vote. Although tempted by the prospect of coalition with Edward Heath’s Conservatives (Labour had emerged as the largest party, but without an overall majority), Thorpe was persuaded by his parliamentary party not to do a deal without a guarantee of electoral reform. He left his successors good cause to credit him with laying the foundations of the party’s increasing influence and even greater electoral success. Most of the 46 seats the Liberal Democrats won in 1997 were on Thorpe’s list of targets.
Thorpe’s maternal grandfather was an imperial adventurer nicknamed Empire Jack who, like Thorpe’s sister, eventually committed suicide; his paternal grandfather was an archdeacon. In May 1968, Thorpe married Caroline Allpass, who died in a car crash 11 days after the 1970 general election. His second wife, Marion Stein, was a refugee from prewar Vienna who had been married to the earl of Harewood, and remained with Thorpe until her death eight months before his. Scraping a third at Oxford, Thorpe could be and was criticised as an intellectual lightweight overfond of aristocratic titles and the ceremonial and sartorial trappings that went with them (Margaret Thatcher once berated him for his trademark Homburg). His most famous bon mot was that, in sacking a third of his cabinet on the Night of the Long Knives, Harold Macmillan demonstrated the truth that ‘greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life.’ But the transformation of the programme and fortunes of his party remain his principal legacies.
Of course, the obituaries didn’t read quite like that. On the day after Thorpe’s death on 4 December 2014, the BBC journalist Tom Mangold presented a half-hour radio documentary about the other side of Thorpe’s life, his affair with a stable groom called Norman Scott in the early 1960s, when homosexuality was still illegal, which eventually led Thorpe to the dock of the Old Bailey, charged with conspiracy to murder. For Mangold, the important thing about Thorpe’s story was not that an unjust law laid a gay politician open to blackmail and even to the temptation to dispose of the blackmailer, but what he saw as an establishment cover-up, which kept Thorpe out of trouble for years.
Published, at Thorpe’s request, after his death, Michael Bloch’s eminently readable biography covers both the scandal and the remarkable political career. Indeed, the structure of Bloch’s book dramatises the way the two strands of the story must have felt to its subject: at first, personal and political events alternate sedately, treated in discrete chapters. As the book goes on, however, the consequences of Thorpe’s affair elbow their way into the public story. Unlike the relatively straightforward political narrative (Thorpe resigned as leader in 1976, thus missing the backroom negotiations which set up the 1977-79 Lib-Lab pact), the Norman Scott story was torturous, involving purloined and later leaked letters – the most famous containing Thorpe’s assurance that ‘Bunnies can (and will) go to France,’ Bunnies being his pet name for Scott – as well as bizarre accusations (Scott repeatedly claimed that Thorpe had stolen his national insurance card) and repeated efforts by the Liberal parliamentary party to get to the bottom of Scott’s increasingly shrill allegations. As Mangold reports, there was a police file on Thorpe’s alleged homosexual behaviour, but it ended up in the assistant commissioner’s safe (to protect it from the eyes of ‘all and sundry’); there is no doubt that successive home secretaries, including Labour’s Frank Soskice and the Conservatives’ Reginald Maudling, also sought to prevent the story coming out or – as Scott became more vocal – being given credence.
Bloch also charts the conversations – going back to 1968 – which Thorpe and his friends had about getting rid of Scott, including Thorpe’s reported remark that ‘it’s no worse than shooting a sick dog.’ Bloch questions the seriousness of this and subsequent conversations, but he describes how – eventually – a Manchester banker called David Holmes, who’d been best man at Thorpe’s first wedding as well as the Liberal Party’s deputy treasurer, met a South Wales carpet merchant who suggested approaching a Swansea gambling-machine manufacturer who might be able to put them in touch with someone to ‘deal with’ Scott (whether to kill him or, as Holmes claimed, just to put on the frighteners). This turned out to be Andrew ‘Gino’ Newton, an airline pilot, who met Scott, gained his confidence, and then, in October 1975, drove him and his great Dane, Rinka, across Exmoor, where he used a pretext to get Scott and Rinka out of the car, then shot the dog and – as was successfully claimed in court – tried and failed to shoot Scott himself. Holmes offered Newton £5000 for his silence but his trial and two years’ imprisonment for attempted murder led to more press investigations and to the exposure of the original affair, as well as to Thorpe’s attempt to cover it up, his conveniently timed passing of £10,000 to Holmes supposedly for election expenses, and the plot to get rid of Scott. Despite support from the militant Young Liberals (whose former chairman, Peter Hain, insisted that ‘we are with you in resisting the politics of smear and innuendo’), Thorpe resigned as Liberal leader in 1976, soon after Newton’s conviction. He lost his seat in the 1979 general election and was put on trial (along with his alleged co-conspirators, including Holmes) later that year. The judge’s notoriously partial summing-up (on Scott: ‘He is a crook. He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite. But of course, he could still be telling the truth’) contributed to Thorpe’s acquittal on all counts. But his career was over. Never offered a peerage, he witnessed the great Liberal revival of the early 1980s from the sidelines. In 1985, he revealed he had Parkinson’s disease. Very unusually, he survived for thirty years, but his political life had ended at fifty.
In his introduction, Bloch summarises the various interpretations of Thorpe’s rise and fall: the ‘Lost Leader, potentially the outstanding statesman of the age’, against ‘the most devious and amoral person who ever existed’; ‘a man of great gifts whose life was tragically ruined by fatal flaws’, or ‘a shallow and unattractive character partly redeemed by some charming qualities’. The prosecutor in Thorpe’s trial, Peter Taylor, described his life as ‘a tragedy of truly Greek or Shakespearean proportions – the slow but inevitable destruction of a man by the stamp of one defect’. Clearly, the plot to kill (or even scare) Scott was criminal and wrong, but his involvement in that conspiracy wasn’t the ‘defect’ the prosecutor was citing.
For Bloch, Thorpe’s sexuality defines his personality. ‘From his earliest years’, he writes, Thorpe ‘displayed a love of fantasy and intrigue, dissimulation and exhibitionism, play-acting and risk-taking – all characteristics associated with a homosexual double life’. The danger of stereotyping is exacerbated by Bloch’s language: his use of the term ‘homosexual’ is (just about) justified by the then currency of the term, but can the same be said of his references to ‘queer sets’, ‘homosexual coteries’, ‘rampant if furtive sexual activity’, ‘risky habits’, ‘escapades’, ‘secret and guilty pleasures’ and ‘clandestine proclivities’?
The problem with this approach is shown sharply in a kind of companion volume Bloch published earlier this year, about supposedly gay British politicians from the late 19th century to the present day. Provocatively entitled Closet Queens, this book too is dotted with ‘homosexual urges’, ‘inclinations’, ‘proclivities’ and ‘tastes’. In it, Bloch presents the thesis implied in the Thorpe biography, arguing that the skills of the ‘clandestine homosexual’ are ‘not dissimilar’ to those of the successful politician; in Thorpe’s case, ‘quick wits and sharp antennae’, ‘acting ability’, ‘a talent for intrigue and subterfuge’ and ‘a capacity for taking calculated risks’. Peter Mandelson is described as showing traits ‘which had been typical of closet queens of the past’, including ‘a flair for manipulation and intrigue; an addiction to risk; a streak of ruthlessness deriving from consciousness of his own vulnerability’. An ever-lengthening list of supposed gay markers – including dominant mothers and a public school education – are cited as compelling circumstantial evidence: Sir Samuel Hoare had ‘prissy mannerisms’ and was ‘fastidious’ (and thus ‘indubitably homosexual in outlook’); Lord Rosebery was ‘petulant, coquettish and intensely narcissistic’, ‘behaved like a man who possessed a guilty secret’ and holidayed in Naples; there was ‘something inescapably homosexual’ about Henry ‘Chips’ Channon’s ‘love of lords, his passion for lavish décor’ and ‘his fascination with the Nazis’. Part of the evidence for Roy Jenkins’s repressed urges (though ‘there can be no doubt’ of his ‘keen and exclusive interest in women’) is that he was part of a secret canasta school at Westminster. In the case of Winston Churchill, evidence for repressed homosexuality includes narcissism, exhibitionism, self-consciousness about ‘his short and hairless body’ and a passion for silk underwear. Oh, and he got on with Noël Coward.
In his foreword, Matthew Parris insists that ‘Bloch is very, very careful to distinguish between rumour, report and incontrovertible fact,’ which is true to the extent that, when Bloch has no evidence to back up his assertions, he usually admits it. While he welcomes legal and social liberalisation, he nonetheless suggests that, ‘by making it difficult to utter any criticism of homosexuality and homosexuals’, the campaign for gay equality might have ‘compromised the right to free expression’; he adds that even if ‘few would advocate a return to the old days,’ the need to keep one’s sexuality secret ‘tended to foster qualities which may be missed in future’. Obviously, the one conclusion he can’t come to is that it couldn’t matter less.
If Thorpe had a defect as a politician, it was his attraction to power and privilege; after his first post-election meeting with Heath in February 1974, he spent the evening phoning friends to tell them he was bearing them in mind for peerages. One of the bitterest ironies of the 2015 election results for the Liberal Democrats is that, by taking the course their predecessors rejected in 1974, they reversed the upswing in the popular vote Thorpe achieved (1970-74: 2.1 million to 6 million; 2010-15: 6.8 million to 2.4 million). In his resignation speech on 8 May, Nick Clegg said that liberal politics was losing out across Europe to a politics of identity, nationalism, grievance and fear. It’s doubtful whether the policies Bloch identifies as Thorpe’s – including progressive reform of the sort responsible for the decriminalisation of homosexuality – will prove attractive to a Labour Party terrified of Ukip’s threat to its core vote, and still attracted to the Blue Labour strategy of combining economic interventionism with social conservatism (the strategy both Ukip and the Front National have used with great success). A decade or so ago, another flawed leader of British liberalism built a political platform that combined liberalism on social issues (and a brave anti-war stance) with a traditional, interventionist and egalitarian economic agenda, and used it to win the Liberals’ largest ever tally of seats. When Clegg proposed picking up the poisoned chalice that Thorpe had (eventually) refused, the only vote against was Charles Kennedy’s.