Jeremy Thorpe

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The Right Honourable
Jeremy Thorpe
Leader of the Liberal Party
In office
18 January 1967 – 10 May 1976
Preceded by Jo Grimond
Succeeded by Jo Grimond
Member of Parliament
for North Devon
In office
8 October 1959 – 3 May 1979
Preceded by James Louis Lindsay
Succeeded by Antony Speller
Personal details
Born John Jeremy Thorpe
(1929-04-29) 29 April 1929 (age 85)
London, England
Political party Liberal
Spouse(s) Caroline Allpass
(m. 1968–1970, her death)
Marion Stein
(m. 1973–2014, her death)
Relations John Henry Thorpe (father)
John Norton-Griffiths (maternal grandfather)
Children Rupert Thorpe
Alma mater Eton College
Trinity College, Oxford
Occupation Politician

John Jeremy Thorpe (born 29 April 1929) is a British former politician who was leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976 and Member of Parliament (MP) for North Devon from 1959 to 1979.

His political career was severely damaged when an acquaintance, Norman Scott, claimed to have had a love affair with Thorpe in the early 1960s, at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. The scandal forced Thorpe to resign as Liberal Party leader in 1976. He denied the claims of a homosexual affair and was charged with conspiring to murder Scott, though he was acquitted of these charges in 1979, shortly after losing his seat in the general election.

Early life[edit]

Thorpe is 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.

Thorpe was educated at Hazelwood independent school in Limpsfield, Surrey, at Eton College and Trinity College, Oxford, where he read Law. He was politically and socially very active at Oxford, becoming president of the Liberal Club and the Law Society and finally becoming president of the Oxford Union in 1951.

He was called to the bar in 1954, whilst working as a TV interviewer.

Member of Parliament[edit]

Thorpe was adopted as Liberal candidate for North Devon (then Conservative-held) 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[edit]

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 youthful and dynamic, and was sometimes ridiculed as too gimmicky, as when, for example, he called for Rhodesia to be bombed after it declared itself independent in 1965. He was, however, 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 colourful character, Thorpe was renowned for his assortment of Edwardian suits, silk waistcoats and trilby hats, as well as being a noted raconteur and impressionist.

His party leadership 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). But 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. In the February 1974 general election, the Liberals gained 19.3% of the vote. During the campaign, some opinion polls at times even placed the party as high as 30%. This was a great improvement over the 8.5% the Liberals got 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, with Thorpe being offered the post of Home Secretary. Thorpe asked for significant commitments toward electoral reform, but Heath could not give them. Also, the Conservative-Liberal coalition would still be seven seats short of a majority, its survival would have depended on the attitude 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.[1] 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.

Relationship with Norman Scott[edit]

Main article: Thorpe affair

Rumours about Thorpe's sexuality dogged his political career. Norman Scott, a former model, met Thorpe in 1961 while working as a stable lad. He later claimed that he and Thorpe had had a sexual relationship between 1961 and 1963, when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. Scott's airing of these claims led to an inquiry within the Liberal Party in 1971, which exonerated Thorpe. Scott, however, continued to make the allegations. Various attempts were made to contain or silence him, but to no avail, until the fallout following the shooting of his dog 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. These enquiries led to Thorpe and three others being charged with conspiracy to murder Scott.

The trial was scheduled to take place 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 within the Liberal Party. One alleged plan had been to shoot Scott in Cornwall and dispose of the body down a disused tin mine shaft.[2] Thorpe did not testify in the case. 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 criticised for an alleged pro-establishment bias,[3] and it made headlines when he described Scott as "a crook, an accomplished liar ... a fraud". The four defendants were all acquitted on 22 June 1979.

Later life[edit]

Not long after the end of the trial Thorpe was found to have Parkinson's disease and retired from public life. For many years, the disease has been at an advanced stage. However, in 1997 he visited the Liberal Democrat party conference and was given a standing ovation by party members, and he attended the funeral of Roy Jenkins in 2003.

In 1999 Thorpe published his memoirs, entitled In My Own Time, in which he described key episodes in his political life. He did not, however, shed any further light on the Norman Scott affair. Thorpe has never made any public statements regarding his sexual orientation.

Personal life[edit]

Thorpe was married to interior decorator Caroline Allpass (1938–1970), the 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.[4]

Thorpe married Marion Stein in 1973. She was a distinguished concert pianist, and was previously married to the 7th Earl of Harewood, a first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II. She died in March 2014.[5]

Further reading[edit]

  • Peter Bessell, Cover-Up: The Jeremy Thorpe Affair (Simons Books, 1980) - privately printed and limited to 2,000 copies
  • Lewis Chester, Magnus Linklater and David May, Jeremy Thorpe: A Secret Life (Fontana, 1979) - mostly written before the trial on the assumption of a guilty verdict, and hastily rewritten under the supervision of libel lawyers
  • Roger Courtier and Barrie Penrose, The Pencourt Files (HarperCollins, 1978)
  • Simon Freeman and Barrie Penrose, Rinkagate: The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Thorpe (Bloomsbury, 1996) - probably the most comprehensive accumulation of sources
  • Matthew Parris, Great Parliamentary Scandals (Robson Books, 1995)
  • Jeremy Thorpe, In My Own Time (Politico's, 1999, ISBN 90230 121 8)
  • Auberon Waugh, The Last Word: An Eye-witness Account of the Thorpe Trial (Michael Joseph, 1980)
  • Julian Glover, entry in The Dictionary of Liberal Biography (Politico's, 1998)
  • Dominic Carman, No Ordinary Man: A Life of George Carman (Hodder & Stoughton, 2002) - includes analysis of trial and aftermath.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ 28 February 1974, Politics 97, BBC
  2. ^ Courtiour, Roger; Penrose, Barrie (1978). The Pencourt file. San Francisco: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-013343-0. 
  3. ^ Dominic Carman, No Ordinary Man: A Life of George Carman, Hodder & Stoughton (2002)
  4. ^ "Current biography yearbook". H.W. Wilson Company. 1975. p. 412. Retrieved 31 January 2011. 
  5. ^ Norman Lebrecht "Sombre news: Marion Thorpe has died", Slipped Disc (Arts Journal), 6 March 2014

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
James Lindsay
Member of Parliament for North Devon
19591979
Succeeded by
Antony Speller
Party political offices
Preceded by
Jo Grimond
Leader of the British Liberal Party
1967–1976
Succeeded by
Jo Grimond