Jeremy Thorpe, who has died at the age of 85, became the principal forgotten figure of modern British politics long ago.
Even classic tragedy on the Oscar Wilde scale eluded him. The grubby circumstances of the scandal arising from the shooting of a dog called Rinka on Exmoor brought his political career to an end. It was scarcely the stuff of which great human dramas are made. His fall, however, could hardly have been more total. Although acquitted of incitement and conspiracy to murder at the Old Bailey in June 1979, Thorpe by the time of his trial had already lost his seat in parliament and been forced to relinquish the leadership of the Liberal party.
Thereafter, it suited his colleagues and successors to airbrush his role out of the party’s history – a job they performed so successfully that the sole public re
minder of what had once been his national fame became his occasional and increasingly frail appearances at the grander sort of London memorial service.
For a politician whose stock-in-trade had always been a flair for exhibitionism and showmanship, it was a particularly cruel form of punishment. From his undergraduate years at Oxford – where he was president, successively, of the Liberal Club, the Law Society and the Union – the young Thorpe had contrived to make a legend out of his life. Ominously, however, some held reservations about him even at the outset. None of his university contemporaries denied his extrovert gifts – he was a fine speaker and a superb mimic – but they tended to regard him with a certain wariness. A faint whiff of sulphur, connected with ballot-rigging, clouded even his election to the presidency of the Oxford Union as long ago as 1951.
But if Thorpe wore his ambition a little too openly on his sleeve, it was still a quixotic decision on his part to resolve to make the Liberal party the vehicle of it, never wavering in his faith. The choice – made at a particularly bleak era for Liberal fortunes – reflected all the greater credit on him since he had all the credentials for a more orthodox form of political ascent. An Old Etonian with an illustrious family lineage in Conservative MPs, he would have had little difficulty in making his way in the Tory party.
The son of John Henry Thorpe and his wife, Ursula (nee Norton-Griffiths), Thorpe was born in Surrey into a political family. His father, a KC, was elected Tory MP for Rusholme in Manchester in 1919, and his maternal grandfather was Sir John “Empire Jack” Norton-Griffiths, another Tory MP. Another ancestor, Mr Speaker Thorpe, was beheaded by an irate mob in 1371.
Back from wartime evacuation in the US in 1943, the young Jeremy lived in some comfort in Egerton Gardens, Chelsea, London, against an agreeably rich and privileged background. At Eton his greatest interest lay in music, and he was a keen violinist. His political hero, whom he met as a small boy, was David Lloyd George, the last Liberal prime minister whose daughter, Megan, was his godmother. At home there were the first signs of his famous wit and gift for practical jokes; he recalled pretending with Megan to be ghosts, and so breaking up a particularly stuffy dinner party.
He left Trinity College, Oxford, with a third-class law degree, but his practice as a barrister never really blossomed. Beneath the foppish exterior, however – he always wore a waistcoat and a watch-chain – the spirit of a true radical was often trying to escape. Nor was he content simply with student politics. As an undergraduate and a young barrister, Thorpe organised trips by what were known as university commandos to the West Country, then possibly the sole potential growth area for the Liberal party.
His reward lay in being selected as the parliamentary candidate for the constituency of North Devon in 1952. He contested the seat for the first time in the 1955 general election, when he halved the majority of the sitting Conservative MP, though failed to win it. On the stump, Thorpe was a phenomenon, to the despair of his Tory and Labour opponents. Invariably sporting a brown derby hat (a habit borrowed from the 1920s American Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith), he ruthlessly exploited his gift for taking off voices, causing endless delight by replying to questions at public meetings in exactly the same Devon intonations as his interlocutor. He also developed a splendid line in mockery, relentlessly directed at the more feudal aspects of rural Conservatism.
Thorpe always had a radical cast of mind. He was, he insisted, deeply opposed to privilege and used to talk about his shock at seeing his mother call up a servant from the basement of their house to take a few lumps of coal from the scuttle to put on the fire. But he never allowed these feelings to interfere with his own enjoyment of a pleasant, well-to-do life, and he was generally happiest when defending the rights of those furthest away from Britain. He was a passionate believer in the right of African peoples to self-determination.
The doubts were about what was called his “style” – the hats, the elegant parties, the hobnobbing with royalty, the endless streams of anecdotes about his famous friends. Thorpe was never really interested in ideas and policies, though he was fascinated by people and the interplay of social life. He was, colleagues sometimes felt, far more interested in the past; more likely to consult the shades of Gladstone or Asquith than the present reality.
Four years after his unsuccessful assault on North Devon, he fought again and won, if by a hair’s breadth margin of 362 votes, quitting the bar the following year. His victory in 1959 meant that he was a member of the House of Commons by the time he was 30 – in a party which had hardly seen a young Liberal since he was born. Yet even he could barely have anticipated that he would become leader of the party – admittedly then consisting of only 12 MPs – at the age of 37. Jo Grimond’s abrupt retirement in January 1967, however, posed the party a problem. There was no obvious heir apparent and, after an agonising first ballot (in which Thorpe received six votes and his two opponents three each), he was chosen unanimously as Grimond’s successor.
It was not much of an inheritance. Harold Wilson’s landslide victory at the 1966 general election meant that any talk of a Lib-Lab pact was off the agenda, and all Thorpe could do was to hunker down and hope for better times.
He remained a continuous and dazzling comic turn. Wilson would invite him to dinners at No 10, purely in order to hear his devastating impersonations of Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. He had caused permanent damage to the latter’s reputation in responding to the dismissal of seven cabinet ministers in the 1962 Night of the Long Knives with an adaptation of the words of St John: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life.”
Thorpe’s idea of heaven was a reception or dinner, attended by the great and good, where his coruscating wit could be appreciated by the most powerful in the land, or, preferably, the most powerful in Europe or the world. One of his favourite tales was of how he had rung Lady Pamela Berry, pretending to be Macmillan. After talking to her for a while, he “called” Lord (Bob) Boothby and Michael Foot to the phone. Berry was delighted and thrilled by this phone call. Later Thorpe rang back in his real voice and told her the truth. He would tell this story with great pleasure, repeating the voices again for the benefit of each new set of listeners.
In 1968 he married the great love of his life, 29-year-old Caroline Allpass who worked at Sotheby’s. He proposed to her, with typical Thorpe bravura, on top of the Post Office tower. The next year they had a son, Rupert. But by 1970, better times certainly did not materialise at that year’s general election, when the anti-Wilson backlash, giving the Tories a comfortable overall majority, reduced the Liberals to a bare half-dozen MPs. And within four days of the poll, Thorpe suffered a devasting blow with the death of Caroline in a mysterious car crash.
It was, paradoxically, at this low moment of his personal and political fortunes that the new Liberal leader first began to capture public sympathy. His wife’s death shocked the country. The plight of a public man, still only 41, left with a son not yet two years old, touched a chord that went well beyond the narrow frontiers of party allegiance.
Thorpe’s performance at the time was a model of composure and courage, all the more impressive as he was by then under growing strain over rumours about his private life. For a while, he seemed to go to pieces, though he finally pulled himself together and in 1973 married Marion, Lady Harewood. The divorced wife of the Earl of Harewood, she was a concert pianist and friend of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, whose publisher her father Erwin Stein had been. The couple were brought together by the pianist Moura Lympany. This was a different kind of marriage; less passionate, but founded on a close even intense commonality of interest.
Whatever the truth of the former model Norman Scott’s accusations of a homosexual relationship with him, allegedly going back to 1961, the threat of blackmail had already surfaced and, foolishly, payments to stave off a public scandal had been made. It says much for Thorpe’s stamina and resilience that, even under this personal pressure, he was able to start rebuilding the Liberal party in the effective way that he did.
From 1972 onwards the Liberals notched up a succession of dramatic byelection victories, winning five seats within a single year – the penultimate one at Ripon, North Yorkshire, almost certainly owing something to Thorpe’s second marriage to Marion, a member by marriage of the local aristocracy. When he led his party into the general election of February 1974, prompted by the miners’ strike, Thorpe thus had some reason to feel optimistic. The result – a total of more than 6m Liberal votes (if yielding a mere 14 parliamentary seats) – probably exceeded his own expectations.
It was very much a personal triumph. The Liberal campaign throughout bore his own distinctive, showman’s hallmark – and it was only when the votes were safely in that Thorpe conceivably made a blunder. His eagerness to negotiate with Edward Heath over maintaining the then Conservative government in power dismayed his own party and he was soon forced to back down (thereby sacrificing the only chance he ever had of holding cabinet office). Perhaps, because memories of that incident lingered, the second election, in October 1974, proved an anti-climax for the Liberal party. Its aggregate poll went down by 700,000 and its representation in the Commons was also reduced, if only by a single seat.
After the October 1974 election, Thorpe became the third of the party leaders (following Heath and Wilson) to ride into the sunset, formally resigning the Liberal leadership in May 1976. His remaining three years in the Commons, until his defeat at North Devon in 1979, were poignant and painful ones, both for him and his colleagues. He had to live each day under the shadow of rumour and innuendo and eventually (though not until 1978), under the direct threat of criminal charges arising from allegations that he had sought to silence Scott: a gunman, Andrew Newton, was hired to meet Scott, but the only resulting casualty was Scott’s great dane. The last time he displayed his old zest and exuberance publicly was when, on hearing the news of his acquittal, he exultantly threw three cushions into the air and out of the dock at the Old Bailey on 22 June 1979.
Thorpe’s strengths were his vigour, his popularity with the public, his ability to convey important political opinions and facts in language to which the electorate could respond. His familiarity on the TV screen, his imposing presence in the TV studio, his ability to switch from being the masterful clown to the serious statesman, all helped to give the Liberal party – poised perpetually on the brink of extinction – a credibility that it would otherwise have lacked.
His main faults were vanity and arrogance. Thorpe never saw why he should make political friends, and never felt the need to build up the reserves of loyalty that any political leader needs. In the Liberal party he had no jobs, no patronage to offer, and he too often fell into the trap of being rude to those whose help he would later need. One MP who had pondered running for the party leadership recalled that Thorpe had threatened to destroy him – an absurd boast.
When, in 1976, he did need the support of his colleagues, he looked around and found none. He loved the excitement and the glitter of his post, but could never really accept the hours of drudgery and tedium that the job of Liberal leader involves. He could have been one of the greatest postwar politicians, and for his failure he must in the end have blamed only himself.
Marion died in March this year. He is survived by Rupert, a photographer.
David Steel writes: The true tragedy of Jeremy Thorpe’s life was that today nobody would care less if indeed he had had, as a young bachelor, a homosexual relationship with Norman Scott. We have many gay MPs and cabinet ministers, but of course we are talking of pre-1967 days when homosexual acts were still a criminal offence. Jeremy’s main fault was his unfortunate choice of friends – notably Peter Bessell MP, who jointly and foolishly entered into the long-running payoff drama with Scott which was his undoing.
It is indeed sad that this course of events came to dominate his life. I, for one, will always be grateful for his campaigning zest, especially during my byelection in 1965. His genuine sympathy for underprivileged people – whether in his beloved North Devon or in Africa – should not be obscured. His suggestion that the Ian Smith rebellion in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) should be brought to an end by cutting the railway line from South Africa was eminently sensible, but he was ridiculed by the Tories and their press allies as “bomber Thorpe”. People such as Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia regarded him as a true ally and friend.
The second tragedy to strike Jeremy was the death of his wife Caroline. John Pardoe and I were with him in his room in the Commons when the police officer came to tell him of the terrible accident. I had to go round to his flat to tell the nanny, who was busy feeding baby Rupert a boiled egg in his high chair. It was a scene I will never forget. Jeremy’s return to the Commons after that coincided with the death of the new chancellor, Iain Macleod. His gift for appropriate oratory showed through: “One of the supreme qualities of the House of Commons is that when misfortune strikes a colleague, the house, individually and collectively, reacts as a family, and its kindness, its understanding and its readiness to share in sorrows is something which is deeply comforting, and for which I myself have cause to be moved and grateful. It is my fervent hope that Eve Macleod will be similarly sustained and helped by the feelings of the House as she faces the agony of separation.”
The truth about what happened after Jeremy’s acquittal is complicated. Some members of the party’s executive committee were keen to pursue him for the return of at least £10,000 which the trial had revealed he had taken from a generous election donation in order to pay for dealing with Scott.
I told them we had had quite enough devastatingly bad publicity: party members had stopped canvassing because of ribaldry on the doorsteps. Agreement was reached not to pursue this, provided that I, in turn, promised that Thorpe would play no further part in the public life of the party.
The third tragedy to hit him was the onset of Parkinson’s disease, which limited his physical enjoyment of life in his last years. Jeremy was always fun to be with and his mind remained as sharp as ever, though it became difficult to hear what he was saying. Throughout the years he was fortunate to enjoy the love and devotion of his second wife, Marion.
• John Jeremy Thorpe, politician, born 29 April 1929; died 4 December 2014
• Anthony Howard died in 2010
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