Spirit of England - Jeremy Thorpe - 'the worst Prime Minister we never had'

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2014

John Jeremy Thorpe, PC (29 April 1929 – 4 December 2014) was a British politician who served as leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976, and as Member of Parliament for North Devon from 1959 to 1979.
His political career collapsed when an acquaintance, Norman Scott, claimed to have had a homosexual affair with him in the early 1960s, when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain.
In 1976, the scandal, not surprisingly, forced him to resign as Liberal leader.
Of course, Thorpe denied any affair with Scott.
Subsequently, Thorpe was charged with conspiring to murder Scott.
He was, much to most people's surprise, acquitted in 1979, shortly after losing his parliamentary seat in the general election.

Early Life

Thorpe was born in Surrey, England, the son of John Henry Thorpe, a maternal grandson of Sir John Norton-Griffiths (both Conservative MPs), and a descendant of Thomas Thorpe, Speaker of the House of Commons from 1452 to 1453.
He was therefore a member of the minor aristocracy and the 'establishment', and remained as such until his eventual disgrace, brought upon by his trial (even although he was aquitted).
Thorpe was educated at Hazelwood School in Limpsfield, Surrey, Eton and Trinity College, Oxford, where he read Law.
He was politically and socially active at Oxford, and was president of the Liberal Club and the Law Society before becoming, inevitably, president of the Oxford Union in 1951.
He was called to the bar in 1954, whilst working as a TV interviewer.

Member of Parliament

Thorpe was selected as Liberal candidate for Conservative-held North Devon in 1952. In the 1955 general election he halved the Conservative majority.
In the 1959 election, he won narrowly.
He remained MP for North Devon for the next 20 years, until defeated by a Conservative in the 1979 election.

Liberal Party Leader

In 1965, he became Liberal Party Treasurer and, following Jo Grimond's resignation as leader in 1967, he won the resulting party leadership election with the support of 6 of the 12 Liberal MPs.
Thorpe's style, in contrast to Grimond's intellectualism, was considered by some to be youthful and dynamic, although he was sometimes ridiculed as being too gimmicky, as when, for example, he called for Rhodesia to be bombed, after the country's Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965.
He was a staunch defender of human rights as exemplified by his prominent role in the Anti-Apartheid Movement.
He was also a key figure in the campaign for Britain to join the Common Market.
A ccolorful character, to put it mildly, Thorpe was renowned for his assortment of Edwardian suits, silk waistcoats and trilby hats, and was noted as a raconteur and impressionist.
It should not, of course, come as a surprise to anyone that he was bi-sexual, as all the appropriate signs were present.
His leadership of the party was not immediately successful.
The 1970 general election was calamitous for the Liberals; they fell from 13 seats to 6 (winning three, including Thorpe's, by tiny majorities).
Between 1972 and 1974, Thorpe led the Liberals to an impressive string of by-election victories, at Rochdale, Sutton and Cheam, Ripon, the Isle of Ely and Berwick - the so-called Liberal revival.
In the February 1974 general election, the Liberals gained 19.3% of the vote.
During the campaign, some opinion polls at times placed the party as high as 30%.
This was a great improvement over the 8.5% the Liberals attracted in the 1966 General Election before Thorpe's election as leader.
The February 1974 election resulted in a "hung parliament", with no party having a majority.
The Conservatives won 297 seats, Labour 301 (despite having fewer votes than the Conservatives), the Liberals 14, and the remaining 22 went to minor parties.
Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath proposed a coalition government with the Liberals, and Thorpe as offered the post of Home Secretary.
Thorpe asked for significant commitments toward electoral reform, but Heath could not give them.
As a Conservative-Liberal coalition would still have been seven seats short of a majority, its survival would have depended on the attitudes of the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and the Northern Irish parties.
The Liberal Party, and many who had voted for it, were not enthusiastic about keeping Heath in office and Thorpe declined the offer, fearing a coalition with the Conservatives would split his party.
On 4 March the talks to form a coalition collapsed, paving the way for Harold Wilson and Labour to return to power as a minority government, after four years in opposition.

Personal Life

Thorpe married interior decorator Caroline Allpass (1938–70), daughter of Warwick Allpass and Marcell William, in May 1968.
Their son Rupert was born in 1969.
Caroline Thorpe was killed in a car crash in June 1970.
Thorpe then married Marion Stein in 1973.
A distinguished concert pianist, she had previously married the 7th Earl of Harewood, a first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, and was much more of his class.
She died in March 2014.

Relationship with Norman Scott

Rumours about Thorpe's sexuality dogged both his university and his political career, and this was at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain.
In 1961, Norman Scott (b. 12 February 1940), a former model, met Thorpe.
Scott was working as a stable lad.
Scott subsequently claimed that he and Thorpe had a sexual relationship between 1961 and 1963.
Scott's airing of these claims led to an inquiry in the Liberal Party in 1971 which, without going very deeply into the matter, exonerated Thorpe. 
Scott continued, however, to make the allegations.
Attempts were then made to contain or silence him, but to no avail, until the fallout following the shooting of Scott's dog Rinka, by a hired gunman, brought the matter into the open.
After further newspaper revelations, Thorpe was forced to resign the Liberal leadership, which did not end public or police interest in the affair.
Inquiries led to Thorpe, and three others, being charged with conspiracy to murder Scott.
During the investigation, an antique firearms collector, Dennis Meighan, admitted to providing the gun used to shoot the dog, and confessed he had been hired by a representative of a person called "a Mr Big in the Liberal Party" to kill Scott for £13,500.
Meighan has claimed that his 1975 oral confession had been significantly abridged by the authorities when it was offered to him in written form: "I read the statement, which did me no end of favors, but it did Jeremy Thorpe no end of favors as well, because it left him completely out of it.
So I thought, 'Well, I've got to sign this'.
It just virtually left everything out that was incriminating, but at the same time everything I said about the Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe, etcetera, was left out as well."
The trial was scheduled for a week before the general election of 1979, but Thorpe obtained a fortnight's delay to fight the election, in which he lost his seat.
One of the chief prosecution witnesses was former Liberal MP and failed businessman Peter Bessell, who claimed to have been present while the murder plot was discussed in the Liberal Party.
One alleged plan had been to shoot Scott in Cornwall, and dispose of the body down a disused tin mine shaft.
Thorpe did not give evidence.
His counsel, led by George Carman QC, argued that, although Thorpe and Scott had been friends, there had been no sexual relationship (?).
Carman claimed that Scott had sought to blackmail Thorpe and that, although Thorpe and his friends had discussed "frightening" Scott into silence, they had never conspired to kill him.
Mr Justice Cantley's summing-up was widely criticized for an alleged pro-establishment bias, and it made headlines when he had the temerity to describe Scott as "a crook, an accomplished liar ... a fraud".
The four defendants were all acquitted on 22 June 1979.
Dennis Meighan was never called to give evidence, and remained silent until 2014, when he acknowledged his involvement and commented:
"It was a cover-up, no question, but it suited me fine".
If Thorpe had been a 'normal' person - and he was far from that - he would have ended up in prison - for a long time.
He was, however, one of the 'privileged few', part of the 'establishment'.
Unlike Scott, who had drawn a 'short straw' in life, Thorpe had been born with the proverbial 'silver spoon', and was 'fire-proof', and untouchable.
That he was bi-sexual is almost certainly true, and it seems not only credible, but also very likely that he had a 'full-blown' homosexual affair with Scott.
It is also almost certain that he was frantic to get Scott to 'shut up', and he had the money, influence and inviolability to accomplish that.
Scott, it would appear, was very lucky to get away with his life.
And would we have wanted a man of such low and despicable morality to have been Prime Minister ?
Judge for yourself.

Later Life and Death

Not long after the trial, Thorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and retired from public life.
For many years, the disease was at an advanced stage.
He attended the funeral of Roy Jenkins in 2003.
In 1999, Thorpe published his memoirs, 'In My Own Time', describing key episodes in his political life. 
He did not shed any light on the Norman Scott affair, and never made any public statements regarding his sexual orientation - but then he didn't really have to.
On 4 December 2014, Thorpe died at his home in London of Parkinson's disease, aged 85.

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