The Stamp of One Defect

David Edgar

  • Jeremy Thorpe by Michael Bloch
    Little, Brown, 606 pp, £25.00, December 2014, ISBN 978 0 316 85685 0
  • Closet Queens: Some 20th-Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch
    Little, Brown, 320 pp, £25.00, May 2015, ISBN 978 1 4087 0412 7

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.

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