A historian of the Liberal Party writes about its lost leader

John Vincent on the strange case of Jeremy Thorpe

In one sense, as the advertising claims, this is ‘the only book to tell the full story of the Jeremy Thorpe affair’, for there is no other book that tells that story. Written by three journalists from the Sunday Times, it presents the existing state of knowledge, but tidied up and reduced to order, and with some ‘investigative’ embellishments probably added. Originality is neither claimed nor indicated, but except where inhibited by the lawyers’ red pencil this is a balanced and useful account of the successive phases of ‘the Thorpe affair’. It is not a biography of Mr Thorpe, let alone a political biography, but only an account of a particular chapter in his life, linked to an account of a trial and its background. If it is a biography of anyone, it is of Bessell and of Scott, who come alive on the page in a way that Mr Thorpe does not.

If Mr Thorpe has had a secret life, it was presumably a social and political one, and it is not to be found here. His dazzling success in Society, and the difficulties he met in leading the Liberal Party, are dealt with accurately but cursorily, and without any hint of access to private information. This is a pity. The last five Liberal leaders (Sinclair, Clement Davies, Grimond, Thorpe and Steel) remain unsung. We know next to nothing of what a Liberal leader does, and we know no more from the Thorpe case. There are some sections of the Sunday Times book which are miniature essays on aspects of Mr Thorpe’s ordinary career. A chapter on him as an undergraduate politician is strangely censorious, but slight. His involvement with Caplan’s unsuccessful London and County Securities is discussed. A rather demanding analysis of Bessell’s transatlantic property deals suggests that Bessell attempted to make use of Mr Thorpe for his own purposes. There is an obvious error of perspective here. Because much evidence has since come to light about the Thorpe-Bessell relationship, and Bessell has since come to grief, this friendship has come to look more important than it was at the time, simply because the other close associates through whom Thorpe ran the Liberal Party remain almost unmentioned.

Another financial chapter guides us through the funding of the Liberal Party in Mr Thorpe’s time. This is excellent explanatory journalism. Whatever Mr Gladstone might have thought, Mr Thorpe’s methods worked. He, and he alone, kept funds coming in. As leader of a party which could not hope for office, he needed financial control where other party leaders would use patronage to support their position. The moral, not explicitly drawn, is that Mr Thorpe had the defects of his qualities. He was an unorthodox administrator and intuitive businessman for the same reason that he won six million votes. But all these incidental issues, the material of an ordinary newspaper profile, form quite a small part of the book, the rest being devoted to the case.

Here sins of commission are few. Comment and speculation are kept to a minimum. The authors have no pet theory, and do not speak as advocates. They print some significant letters. They arrange their material in chronological order, and the course of events is easy to follow. The same could not be said of Penrose and Courtiour’s The Pencourt File (1978) or Peter Chippindale and David Leigh’s The Thorpe Committal (1979), the latter being straightforward court reporting of the Minehead committal proceedings. The authors do not waste much time on the South African connection, though it seems clear that in 1974-5 Scott was in touch, however innocently, with people with South African associations. In fact, Harold Wilson, like Lloyd George, has been caught out telling the truth, even if the truth was rather irrelevant. The final pages give a version of what the jury thought, said and voted. The authors know next to nothing of Newton, the man who did the shooting. But then nobody knows.

Sins of omission are another matter. The prosecution case is given rather briefly towards the end of the book (pages 305 to 329). Where the Crown version of events appears not to have been accepted by the jury, or even where it was hotly denied, it plays little part in the account offered in the first three hundred pages of what really happened. What one has, therefore, is a narrative built round the prosecution version rather than the defence version, since there never was a defence version, but with those parts removed to which the defence took exception. What is surprising is that such a hazardous and indirect method of establishing a narrative comes off at all: in fact, in point of coherence and readability, it comes off rather well. But there is no doubt that the Sunday Times version acquits the defendants not only from the Crown’s charges, but also from the Crown’s version of the facts, which is rather a different matter. One consequence for the seeker after truth is that he still needs to have the report of the Minehead proceedings beside him for reading in parallel.

To those who absorbed the original prosecution case into the structure of their thinking, the Sunday Times version can only look, initially and very wrongly, like a pro-Thorpe whitewash. A willingness to begin again, to unlearn what has been said, and to attempt to build up a neutral and historically-minded account from what now can be accounted sound evidence, is not the easiest of mental exercises. Parts of Fleet Street, indeed, have really, in reviewing this book, been baying for some sort of expurgatory witch-burning with which to drown the sorrows of acquittal. Whatever surrogate issue they select, be it security, homosexuality or money, the same issues of evidence and narrative – in other words, of finding out the truth rather than accepting the Crown version in its untested form – will confront them. Wherever the truth may lie, it patently is less likely to lie in a version which reached the general public before it had been challenged and tested. The adversarial system does not reach truth, but it takes steps away from error.

The logical weakness of the prosecution case stands out. The question was whether the shooting incident of October 1975 was the conclusion of a conspiracy to murder. The only witness who could claim that he had conspired with anyone was Newton. He could claim contact only with Deakin and Holmes. Newton’s evidence was in conflict with his testimony at his Exeter trial, and was, the defence claimed, given under inducements. There was no other direct evidence from the period prior to the shooting incident that murder was intended. Moreover, the chronology is curious. Newton alleged that he was first approached in February 1975. Yet it was not till October 1975, after a meeting with Scott at which the latter talked freely and showed his letters, that he obtained a gun (page 224). Newton is not reported by either book as having given evidence that anyone told him to do this. His evidence as reported by Leigh and Chippindale contains no reference to his receiving instructions to do what he actually did in the shooting incident. Newton did not provide hard evidence linking Mr Thorpe with the alleged conspiracy to murder.

The Crown case against Le Mesurier was chiefly that he had acted as paymaster in 1977 to a conspiracy which was abandoned in 1975. Newton is reported (page 345) as agreeing that, as far as he was concerned, there was no mention of Le Mesurier’s name until about fourteen months after the killing of Scott’s dog. His counsel asked whether he ‘was going to be engaged in a scheme to kill someone whom he does not know, and has never met’? Neither Deakin nor Le Mesurier knew Mr Thorpe or had Liberal political commitments, and no motive was suggested by the Crown for their alleged actions, apart from their business links with Holmes.

Bessell’s evidence was therefore crucial, if Mr Thorpe were to be linked to the case at all. Where his testimony could be corroborated, it was innocuous. His letters showed him looking after Scott between 1965 and about 1971 in a quite benign way. Between 1971 and the shooting in 1975, Bessell virtually lost touch with the question. Bessell’s uncorroborated or contested evidence related either to the period after the conspiracy was over, or to the period 1968-69. Bessell’s evidence only bore on the question of conspiracy to murder in that it was suggested that things allegedly said by Thorpe in 1968-69 in one context could be taken as evidence of conspiracy to murder in 1974-75. Bessell’s evidence was also the only support for the incitement charge brought against Mr Thorpe. Quite apart from specific difficulties about Bessell’s evidence, the general question was whether Bessell’s recollections of 1968-69 were sufficient to show Mr Thorpe’s involvement in the events of 1975.

Scott’s evidence was compared by the defence (from the point of view of relevance) to Gilbert’s ‘the flowers that bloom in the spring’. It showed that from time to time Scott had made allegations against Mr Thorpe, and that despite alleged discrepancies of fact, these had been consistent in theme between 1962 and 1979. His allegations had failed to find an audience in the period between 1962 and 1975, even when he made them in court before the press in 1972. Scott’s evidence of his relationship with Liberals between 1965 and 1975 did not show the latter in an unfavourable, let alone an illegal light. By 1975, moreover, there was ample evidence that Mr Thorpe was well able to ride out any pressure from Scott. The most one can say is that Scott’s evidence suggested a possible, though not a likely, motive, for conspiracy. Whether there was a conspiracy or not, and whether it was a conspiracy to murder, is something on which his evidence throws no light.

This leaves the question of motive. It is hard to think of a reason for anybody wanting Scott murdered. In charging Mr Thorpe, a barrister, with conspiracy to murder, on evidence that the judge described as ‘almost entirely circumstantial’ (page 363), it was obviously important for the prosecution to suggest a motive. Mr Justice Cantley made an important point (page 361) when he asked the jury if a conspiracy to frighten Scott would have been sufficient to silence him. ‘Would he be expected to keep quiet if thoroughly frightened?’ One might also ask whether murder would be likely to keep Scott’s allegations out of sight. Scott dead would have led to exactly that exposure to the public gaze which it had proved possible to avoid for 13 years with Scott alive. It was well-known that the police and press had heard of Scott’s allegations. Scott’s death from a bullet would have lent more weight to his case, and attracted more publicity, than anything else could have done. Frightening and murder were both highly likely to be counterproductive. Any shrewd man could see this. The defendants were all in different ways shrewd men. Why then did Rinka die?