Monday Book: Still covering up after all these years

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The Independent Culture
JEREMY THORPE was a charismatic but always somehow suspect politician. In the sequence of Liberal leaders who have brought the party back from the brink of extinction to a position in national affairs not seen since the days of Lloyd George, he played as big a part as any, coming very close to a historic breakthrough by winning nearly 20 per cent of the poll (but only 14 MPs) in February 1974. He was charming, witty, polished, a superb communicator who embraced all the right progressive causes; but it would be difficult to pretend that either his opponents, or even his colleagues, ever took him altogether seriously.

For a Liberal leader, aspiring to the mantle of Gladstone, he lacked moral weight. He conveyed neither the imaginative idealism of Jo Grimond, nor the son-of-the-manse self-righteousness of David Steel, or the soldierly priggishness of Paddy Ashdown. With his Edwardian three-piece suits and watch-chain, or his natty brown trilby, he was too much of a dandy. He always seemed to be acting a part. And, of course, we now know that throughout his period of greatest success he was skating on very thin ice, trying desperately to cover up the Norman Scott allegations.

Thorpe kept going with astonishing bravura. I can still see him, at one of the 1974 elections, arriving late at a meeting, running up the aisle, throwing off his jacket and leaping on to the stage. He had extraordinary panache. Yet no one was surprised when skeletons emerged from the cupboard.

It is odd that Thorpe should have seemed so rootless, since he was born to politics. Both his father and maternal grandfather were Tory MPs; and he had gilt-edged Liberal connections. His mother was an old friend of Megan Lloyd George, and the Thorpes used to holiday with the Lloyd George family in North Wales. It was the Welsh wizard who inspired young Jeremy to become a Liberal - a quixotic choice in 1948, but one which, he must have calculated, offered a better chance of making some eclat than was likely as a Tory. At Oxford, he became president of the Liberal Club, president of the Union (beating William Rees-Mogg and Dick Taverne), and, after a brief foray at the Bar, he won North Devon in 1959. Eight years later, he was leader.

The rest might have been history. But 20 years of Parkinson's Disease has taken its toll. Regrettably, In My Own Time is not a proper memoir, but an "anthology" - a scrapbook of anecdotes, dealing only perfunctorily with his life in politics under a number of headings. The most substantial section is on Rhodesia, where Thorpe gained some notoriety in 1966 by proposing the bombing of railway lines (he prints the whole speech) and undertook a certain amount of unofficial diplomacy, including an aborted plan to spring Joshua Nkomo from jail and set him up as a government in exile. He takes credit for the Liberals' role in securing Britain's accession to the European Community, but has nothing new to say beyond the usual story of George Brown being drunk.

His one tantalising glimpse of power came after the February 1974 election, when Ted Heath called him to Downing Street to explore the possibility of a coalition that might keep Heath in office. Thorpe contradicts Heath's account that he asked for the Home Office, and denies he ever imagined that the Liberals could have joined a Heath-led coalition without a commitment to proportional representation (which was not on offer). In fact, he gave his colleagues at the time the clear impression that he would have jumped at the chance if only the parliamentary arithmetic had been more promising. A betrayal that might have left him the prisoner of a Tory Cabinet like Ramsay Macdonald in 1931 was probably only averted because the figures did not add up.

Given that there are no political revelations in this book, the only other thing the potential reader will want to know is what Thorpe has to say about the Scott affair. The answer is virtually nothing. He simply dismisses Norman Scott's story as a fantasy, maliciously hawked by Peter Bessell, and deals only with the perversion of justice committed by The Sunday Telegraph, paying Bessell more for his story if it led to a conviction than if it did not. Of the famously affectionate letters he wrote to Scott ("Bunnies can and will go to France... I miss you"), let alone the shooting of the unfortunate dog, Rinka, he offers no explanation. He did not give evidence at his trial, and he has not given it now.

Very wise, no doubt, but one cannot really be all that surprised that no mainstream publisher was interested in this work. For anyone who remembers Thorpe in his flamboyant prime, this is a sad, but also sadly unilluminating, book.

The first volume of the reviewer's life of Margaret Thatcher will be published early next year