Jeremy Thorpe RIP
A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday December 10 2014.
The news of former UK Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe’s death surprised me. My first reaction was, echoing Dorothy Parker’s question on hearing of the demise of President Calvin Coolidge: “How could they tell?” I was surprised that Thorpe had not died long ago. There have not been many sightings of him over the past several decades but when I last saw a picture of him, he was decidedly cadaverous.
I have often noted a quality of masochistic auto-schadenfreude in some Sri Lankans. They boast about how awful things are in their own country and marvel at how wonderful things are in the motherland of their former oppressors. They will concede that there is corruption and other wrongdoing in the UK but delude themselves that wrongdoers are always brought to justice and often the culprit does the honourable thing by resigning.
The case of Jeremy Thorpe is instructive. Obituaries describe him as charismatic and witty. His jibe after Harold Macmillan sacked several of his Cabinet in 1962: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his own life.” Of Edward Heath, he said “a plum pudding around whom no one knew how to light the brandy”.
Way back in 1979, I was on secondment from the big city of Manchester to the small town of Ashton-under-Lyne. The town was decidedly working class but also conservative. I could not get my usual liberal-left Guardian and had to settle for the Tory Telegraph. This proved to be a blessing in disguise because the Torygraph had a well-deserved reputation for providing detailed reports on salacious court cases. This was the go-to paper for sexual scandal, far superior to the late and unlamented News of the World.
In 1979, Thorpe was on trial for conspiracy to murder Norman Joliffe (otherwise known as Norman Scott). Scott had become a persistent nuisance to Thorpe with his claim that he had had a homosexual affair with the Liberal Party leader at a time when homosexual acts were illegal.
In late 1960 or early 1961, Thorpe first met Scott at Kingham Stables at Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, where the younger man was working for Thorpe’s friend Norman Vater. Thorpe told Scott if he ever needed help, should call him at the House of Commons. Soon after meeting Thorpe, Scott fell out with Vater and lost his job and national insurance card. On 8 November 1961, Scott went to the House of Commons to see Thorpe. Thorpe promised he would help to get him a replacement NI card. Scott claimed that a homosexual liaison with Thorpe began that same evening, at Thorpe’s mother’s home, and continued for several years.
Thorpe helped Scott in many ways, but Scott was resentful and claimed that Thorpe held on to the new NI card. Thorpe denied this and the missing card became a major grievance for Scott. In December 1962, Scott told a friend of his plan to shoot Thorpe and commit suicide. The friend alerted the police, to whom Scott gave a detailed statement about his affair with Thorpe. The police took no action but a report was added to Thorpe’s MI5 file.
In mid-March 1965, Scott wrote a long letter to Thorpe’s mother informing her of the homosexual affair. He accused Thorpe of callousness and disloyalty. Ursula Thorpe gave the letter to her son, who drafted a statement rejecting the “damaging and groundless accusations” and accusing Scott of attempting to blackmail him. Thorpe turned to Liberal MP Peter Bessell for advice. Bessell flew to Dublin in April 1965 and after that for two years Scott stayed quiet in Ireland. In July 1967, Scott returned to England. Bessell began paying Scott a “retainer” of between £5 and £10 a week and gave him £75, on the understanding there would be no further demands for a year.
Thorpe was now leader of the Liberal Party but was not an immediate success. Some of his aides, doubtful about his sexual orientation, were disturbed by his comments about his marriage to Caroline Allpass: “worth five points in the polls”.
Scott’s reappearance in November 1968 disturbed Thorpe and, early in December 1968, he summoned Bessell to his office in the House of Commons. Thorpe said: “We’ve got to get rid of him”, and later: “It is no worse than shooting a sick dog”. Thorpe argued that disposal of Scott’s body down a mine was feasible. He suggested his friend David Holmes, a party assistant treasurer and best man at Thorpe’s wedding, as an appropriate assassin.
In May 1969, Scott married. Later, when his wife could not claim maternity benefits, Scott again threatened to talk to newspapers. Bessell managed to get him an emergency NI card and Scott went quiet for a while. In 1970, Scott’s marriage collapsed; he blamed Thorpe, and again threatened exposure. Bessell kept Thorpe’s name out of the divorce proceedings, and Thorpe anonymously paid the legal costs.
In May 1971, Scott told his story to senior Liberals, who, although unconvinced, felt the matter warranted further investigation. A confidential party inquiry dismissed Scott’s allegations.
Thorpe’s first wife had been killed in a car crash in 1970 and in 1973, he married Marion, Countess of Harewood, whose former husband was the Queen’s cousin. In the February 1974 general election, the Liberals won over six million votes (19.3% of votes cast), but won only 14 seats.
In January 1974, Scott told his story to Tim Keigwin, Thorpe’s Conservative opponent in North Devon, but his leadership told him to keep quiet. In January 1974, Holmes paid £2,500 for documents Scott had passed to his doctor. Builders renovating a London office formerly used by Bessell found a further cache of papers in November 1974, which they took to the Sunday Mirror who passed the papers to Thorpe and suppressed the story.
Newton lured Scott to Porlock Moor, shot Scott’s dog, Rinka, and turned the gun on Scott, saying, “It’s your turn now”. The gun jammed several times and Newton drove away. At the trial that convicted Newton of firearms offences, Scott made his claims about Thorpe public.
In Private Eye on 12 December 1975, Auberon Waugh wrote: “My only hope is that sorrow over his friend’s dog will not cause Mr Thorpe’s premature retirement from public life”. In the 1979 election, Waugh ran against Thorpe on the Dog Lovers’ Party ticket. Waugh published his own account of the trial The Last Word: An Eye-Witness Account of the Thorpe Trial. Most newspapers knew what was going on but covered it up. Nevertheless, as with the current situation relating to a former cabinet minister and rumours of paedophilia, journalists were firing warning shots.
Barry Penrose and Roger Courtiour, collectively known as “Pencourt”, had originally been hired by former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson after his retirement, to investigate his theory that Thorpe was a target of South African intelligence agencies. Barry Penrose returned to the story, this time in association with Simon Freeman and wrote a book, which gripped my attention when I read it at the time. (Bloomsbury Publishing brought out a new edition, 17 July 1997 Rinkagate: The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Thorpe). They believe that Thorpe probably formed the outline of a plan to silence Scott early in 1974.Holmes later said that Thorpe was insistent that Scott be killed. Through a series of intermediaries Holmes was put in touch, in February 1975, with Andrew Newton, an airline pilot, who said he was willing to dispose of Scott for an appropriate fee—between £5,000 and £10,000 was suggested. Newton always insisted that the size of his fee showed that his job was to kill, not frighten Scott.
In January 1976, Scott appeared before magistrates on a social security fraud charge, and spoke in court about a sexual relationship with Thorpe. This claim, made in court and therefore protected from the libel laws, was widely reported. On 10 May 1976, Thorpe resigned as Liberal leader.
Newton, released from prison in October 1977, sold his story to the London Evening News. He said that he had been paid £5,000 to kill Scott. A lengthy police enquiry followed, at the end of which Thorpe, and three others were charged with conspiracy to murder. Thorpe was additionally charged with incitement to murder.
Reporting restrictions were lifted, which meant that newspapers were free to print anything said in court without fear of the libel laws. Thorpe had hoped for an in camera hearing which would avoid unfortunate newspaper headlines. Scott gave clinical details of his alleged seduction by Thorpe in November 1961 and on other occasions.
Comic genius Peter Cook mocked the judge’s summing up for the jury: “You will now retire to consider your verdict of not guilty.” The real judge himself said of Scott: “He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite.”
Despite the acquittal, the broader public perception was strong that Thorpe had not behaved well, nor had he adequately explained himself. He continued to be an embarrassment to the Liberal Party which blocked a return to active politics. In 1982, Amnesty International appointed him director of its British section, but after protests from the organisation’s staff, he withdrew. Not long afterwards, Thorpe first showed signs of the Parkinson’s disease that led to his almost complete withdrawal into private life in the mid-1980s.
The son of Thorpe’s defending counsel George Carman, who won the acquittal ,told The Times: “The best deal done by Carman QC was persuading Taylor QC [counsel for the prosecution] not to use any of the abundant evidence of Thorpe’s promiscuous homosexuality.”
The papers, Waugh asserts, knew a great deal about the whole affair for years, but, mostly out of cowardice and obsequiousness, declined to write about it. Many journalists knew that the scandal was potentially much bigger than just a case of a gay party leader. There have long been allegations on the internet that Jeremy Thorpe had a taste for young street boys and runaway teenagers were often brought to him. Thorpe certainly covered up the sordid activities of Cyril Smith the paedophile Liberal MP for Rochdale. There is a suggestion that Thorpe was acquitted because he threatened to expose the perversions of others in high places. Rumours of paedophile rings in government and parliament have persisted for decades and continue today.
The case of Jeremy Thorpe is instructive. Obituaries look hard for the good in him, describing him as charismatic and witty. He spoke out against apartheid and the racist Ian Smith regime in Rhodesia. He made a show of detesting inequality, but did not formulate a practical plan to improve matters. He was involved in a company that was charging 280 per cent interest on second mortgages, and when, at the end of 1973, the company collapsed there was revealed a tangled web of fraud. Rumours of ballot-rigging, clouded Thorpe’s election to the presidency of the Oxford Union as long ago as 1951.
He reacted strongly against Establishment snobbery but did not hesitate to use his connections to protect himself. An Old Etonian and Oxford graduate from a long line of Conservative MPs, he could have been a Tory. Labour politicians as well as Conservative and Liberal protected him. There has been some comment in the blogosphere along the lines of: “Thorpe was a victim of homophobia”. He was not on trial for Homosexuality. Bisexuality or paedophilia. He was on trial for incitement to murder and conspiracy to murder. He used his establishment connections to get away with it.
Auberon Waugh, when writing his book, had to be careful about the libel laws. Even if he knew Thorpe was guilty, a jury had acquitted him. He explains that his book “may be read, if people choose, as a gesture of atonement for ever having entertained the silly idea that a Privy Councillor, an MP, an Old Etonian, a barrister, a friend of prime ministers, archbishops and high officials, a former client of Lord Goodman, could ever be found guilty of conspiring to murder a homosexual male model of lower-middle class background and doubtful record.”
This is England, after all!