Jeremy Thorpe

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The Right Honourable
Jeremy Thorpe
1965 Jeremy Thorpe.jpg
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
Surrey, England
Died 4 December 2014(2014-12-04) (aged 85)
London, England
Political party (1) Liberal Party
(2) Liberal Democrats
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, 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 an affair with him in the early 1960s, when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. In 1976, the scandal forced him to resign as Liberal leader. He denied any affair with Scott, whom he was charged with conspiring to murder. He was acquitted in 1979, shortly after losing his parliamentary seat in the general election.

Early life[edit]

Thorpe was born in Surrey, England, the son of John Henry Thorpe, and a maternal grandson of Sir John Norton-Griffiths (both Conservative MPs). He claimed to be a descendant of Thomas Thorpe, Speaker of the House of Commons from 1452 to 1453, although the connection was never confirmed, bearing in mind that 'Thorpe' is not an uncommon surname and his identifiable relatives came from a different part of the country.

Thorpe began his education at Hazelwood School in Limpsfield, Surrey. During the war years of 1940-43, he was sent to live with his aunt in America, where he attended the Rectory School in Pomfret, Connecticut.[1] Upon his return to England, he went to 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 president of the Oxford Union in 1951. His contemporaries at the Oxford Union included William Rees-Mogg, Bryan Magee and Patrick Mayhew.

He was called to the bar in 1954, whilst working as a TV interviewer. Attending to his legal career while dividing his time with his television appearances and his duties as an MP proved too much of a struggle and he resigned from his chambers in 1959.

Member of Parliament[edit]

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[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 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 colourful character, Thorpe was renowned for his assortment of Edwardian suits, silk waistcoats and trilby hats, and was noted as a raconteur and impressionist.

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. 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 was 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.[2] 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[edit]

From the time he came down from Oxford and moved to London, Thorpe pursued an active and promiscuous homosexual life, which he managed to keep secret from the majority of his social contacts.[3] Homosexuality was illegal at this time and regarded as shockingly immoral by many.

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.[4]

Thorpe 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. She died in March 2014.[5] Following Thorpe's death, his son Rupert referred to him as "a devoted husband to my two mothers, Caroline, who died tragically in 1970, and Marion who passed away in March and had raised me and stood by him through everything."[6]

Relationship with Norman Scott[edit]

Main article: Thorpe affair

Rumours about Thorpe's sexuality dogged his political career when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. In 1961, Norman Scott (b. 12 February 1940),[7] a former model, met Thorpe while working as a stable lad. He 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 exonerated Thorpe. Scott continued to make the allegations. Attempts were 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. Enquiries 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"[8] to kill Scott for £13,500.[9] 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 favours, but it did Jeremy Thorpe no end of favours 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."[8]

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.[10] 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 criticised for an alleged pro-establishment bias,[11] 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. 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".[9]

Later life and death[edit]

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. In 1997 he visited the Liberal Democrat party conference, where he was given a standing ovation, and 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.

On 4 December 2014, Thorpe died at his home in London of Parkinson's disease, aged 85.[12][1][13]

David Steel, who succeeded him as party leader, said: "He had a genuine sympathy for the underprivileged – whether in his beloved North Devon where his first campaign was for 'mains, drains and a little bit of light' or in Africa, where he was a resolute fighter against apartheid and became a respected friend of people like President Kaunda of Zambia."[1]

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 1902301218)
  • 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.
  • Michael Bloch, Jeremy Thorpe (Littlebrown, 2014)


  1. ^ a b c "Jeremy Thorpe - obituary". Daily Telegraph. 4 December 2014. Retrieved 4 December 2014. 
  2. ^ 28 February 1974, Politics 97, BBC
  3. ^ Jeremy Thorpe, Michael Bloch (Littlebrown, 2014)
  4. ^ Current biography yearbook. H.W. Wilson Company. 1975. p. 412. Retrieved 31 January 2011. 
  5. ^ John Amis (2014-03-07). "Marion Thorpe obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-01-18. 
  6. ^ "Disgraced Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe dies age 85", Channel 4 News. Accessed 4 December 2014
  7. ^ Freeman and Penrose, p. 37.
  8. ^ a b Rosenbaum, Martin. "Jeremy Thorpe: Was there an establishment cover-up?". BBC News: UK Politics. The BBC. Retrieved 8 December 2014. 
  9. ^ a b Gallagher, Ian (6 December 2014). "I was offered £13k to kill Jeremy Thorpe's stable boy love... says firearms collector who supplied gun that killed Norman Scott's dog". Daily Mail (Associated Newspapers Ltd). Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday & Metro Media Group. Retrieved 8 December 2014. 
  10. ^ Courtiour, Roger; Penrose, Barrie (1978). The Pencourt file. San Francisco: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-013343-0. 
  11. ^ Dominic Carman, No Ordinary Man: A Life of George Carman, Hodder & Stoughton (2002)
  12. ^ "Obituary: Jeremy Thorpe: From glamour to disgrace". The Economist. 2014-12-13. Retrieved 2014-12-17. 
  13. ^ "Former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe dies". ITV News. 4 December 2014. 

External links[edit]

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