Languidly elegant, immaculately dressed and with an apparently unshakable confidence, Jeremy Thorpe was both a sharp and popular politician and a man with a scandalous secret.
He was an important figure in the slow revival of the Liberal party after its near-death experience in 1945. His passionate advocacy for human rights, and vehement opposition to apartheid in South Africa, drew a new generation of support to the party.
Thorpe was first elected to his Devon constituency in 1959, aged just 30, against a strong Conservative tide. By 1967 he had been elected party leader. He seemed to be the face of a new kind of establishment. His very traditional background – he was an Old Etonian – was softened by a serious and genuine concern for liberal causes.
It was a period of political uncertainty. Harold Wilson was prime minister but his government was struggling against economic downturn and industrial unrest. Sterling had been devalued. Unemployment was growing. The Conservatives lurched to the right and back towards the centre under Edward Heath, while the Liberals picked up byelection victory after byelection victory.
In early 1974 Edward Heath, facing a miners’ strike and with Britain on a three-day week to conserve fuel, went to the country under the slogan “Who rules Britain?”
Thorpe had led the Liberals to their strongest showing for 50 years. They had won 20% of the vote but just 14 seats, yet they held the balance of power. Heath hung on in No 10, hoping to win Liberal support.
Thorpe held out for electoral reform. Heath refused and Labour took power as a minority government later sustained by a pact with the Liberals.
But by then Thorpe had been forced to resign. There had been scandal around his name for a while. A former male model, Norman Scott, had claimed, in a court case involving a minor benefit dispute, that he had been Thorpe’s lover. Some thought the allegations were an attempt by the South African intelligence agency to defame Thorpe; homosexuality was anyway no longer illegal.
Then a second figure, Andrew Newton, came out of prison, where he had served time for shooting Scott’s dog, and claimed that he had in fact been contracted by “a leading Liberal” to shoot Scott himself. Thorpe had to stand down as party leader, making way for David Steel.
In 1979, having stood and been defeated in his Devon constituency, Thorpe faced trial and, in what was seen as an astonishing decision, the judge believed his case over that of his accusers.
To many, it was the ultimate establishment cover-up. The comedian Peter Cook mocked the judge’s summing up the jury: “You will now retire to consider your verdict of not guilty.”
Thorpe, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, lived in seclusion. His was hardly the first scandal to rock Westminster. Washington had its own constitutional crisis over Watergate.
That, together with the Thorpe affair, marked the beginning of a much more sceptical approach to Westminster and the conduct of MPs. But it belonged much more to the past than the future. It was a story that had its roots in the days when homosexuality was illegal, and many establishment figures lived a semi-secret double life where other figures in authority looked the other way without considering the victims of their actions.
As Westminster begins to face up to growing evidence that at the same time (but with no connection to Thorpe) there was an extensive paedophile ring that included MPs and Whitehall officials, the circumstances of the Thorpe scandal may seem much more relevant than they have in the 35 years since he retired from public life.
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