Jeremy Thorpe, who has died aged 85, was tagged in the BBC radio reports of his death as “the Liberal leader tried for conspiracy to murder at the Old Bailey”. Old friends and current Liberal Democrat parliamentarians stepped forward to defend his record, and isolate the notorious Norman Scott affair as an uncharacteristic episode in Thorpe’s life.
In fact, the 1979 trial, three years after his leadership of the Liberal party ended, revealed a side of Thorpe’s existence of which his colleagues had been aware for some time. This was a side that ran in parallel with the charisma from which the Liberals so richly benefited.
Today, the main significance of Thorpe’s political life is its proofs of the persistence of post-war Liberalism – and of the willingness of at least some in the Liberal party to jettison a popular leader who had, in several ways, outstayed his welcome.
Thorpe was first elected to parliament in 1959, and made an early splash by saying of Macmillan’s “Night of the Long Knives” cabinet cull in 1962 that “greater love hath no man than that he lay down his friends for his life”.
It says everything about the state of the Liberal party at the time he became leader in 1967 that its 12 MPs’ votes were cast into a champagne cooler doubling as a ballot box, and that at the first election to which Thorpe led the party in 1970 it won only six seats – three of them by a total of less than 1,800 votes.
Yet within little more than 12 months during the next parliament, the Liberals under Thorpe had won five by-elections, going on to take 14 seats and six million votes at the February 1974 general election.
Campaigning by hovercraft and helicopter, with flamboyant dress and dapper wit (he once impersonated an absent fellow panel member on a radio discussion programme without anyone outside the studio noticing the difference), and armed with a prescient “special seats” targeting strategy, Thorpe broke the stranglehold of the two main parties by denying them both a parliamentary majority.
Yet his weaknesses were well known to those who worked with him.
The net closes
Since 1966, Liberal MPs had been aware of Norman Scott’s claims about his affair with Thorpe; in 1971, they ran an inquiry into them, and required Thorpe to promise that any further revelations would prompt his resignation. He was also accused of mishandling funds as party Treasurer, of making party policy on the hoof, and of sacking staff from party headquarters on a whim.
Long before Norman Scott appeared in court to make his claims of persecution at Thorpe’s hands, leading figures had talked of the party becoming a “circus” and fretted that Thorpe worked only with a closed coterie of friends. Their misgivings added to old resentments that Thorpe had been handed the leadership by the sudden resignation of his predecessor and fellow Old Etonian Jo Grimond, who wanted Thorpe for his successor.
So by the time Richard Wainwright MP made a surprise broadcast questioning Thorpe’s credibility in May 1976, he knew that his doubts were shared by many colleagues inside Parliament and beyond – and Thorpe resigned within two days.
Having dispensed with their leader and chosen a successor after an acrimonious contest, the Liberals proved that while their success was partly Thorpe’s, they also had a surprising resilience independent of his trailblazing.
After their time spent propping up an unpopular Labour government, the Liberals lost only three of their MPs in 1979 – two of them being Thorpe and his constituency neighbour and supporter John Pardoe. And before long, the party was enjoying another, greater revival in alliance with the Social Democrats.
Thorpe’s life sends varied but not conflicting messages: the press and the public will be reminded by all of this that the travails of the Mitchells, Millers and Huhnes of our times are small beer compared to the lurid allegations Thorpe was forced to deal with.
The political parties, too, should reflect on Thorpe’s legacy. The Liberal Democrats can take heart that however hard things seem now, less than half a century ago they were a rump of six MPs who were raised to national status by Thorpe in only four short years. The Tories should remember that the self-confidence of a charismatic Old Etonian leader sometimes comes at a price only visible years after his rise to power.
And even UKIP should take note that the big personalities attracted to lead single-figure groups of MPs may be giants, but that their Lilliputian parties find it hard to control.
Matthew Cole received funding from Scurrah Wainwright Trust 2007-11