On a July Sunday in 1979, one of the most bizarre services ever to be held in an English parish church took place in the Somerset village of Bratton Fleming – a service of thanksgiving for the acquittal at the Old Bailey of Jeremy Thorpe on a charge of conspiracy to murder.
The service was attended by a number of the former Liberal leader’s few remaining friends, including his fellow MP Clement Freud. The chairman of the local Liberal party read the lesson (normally used at funerals) from Ecclesiastes – “Let us now praise famous men” – and the vicar gave thanks to God “for with God nothing is impossible”.
I had hoped to attend the service along with my friend Auberon Waugh, who later published a book on the Thorpe trial, but we never made it. We had to be content with a practical joke played on the vicar of Bratton Fleming by our Private Eye colleague Patrick Marnham.
Patrick rang the vicar, claiming to be the leader of a gay rights organisation in London who had always supported Thorpe during his long ordeal and who were keen to attend the service. The vicar did his best to dissuade him but Patrick was insistent. Of course, it was a hoax but the vicar must have been concerned as I heard afterwards that he had wired up the village hall to cope with a possible invasion of gay rights activists from London who might possibly lower the tone of his service.
It was Private Eye which had first reported the sensational news that the police were about to charge Thorpe with conspiracy to murder.
It was an unheard of thing to say about the leader of a political party in the UK. But I was confident in my reporter and long-time friend Paul Foot, who had followed the story from the beginning.
When his piece – entitled the Ditto Man, a reference to the fact that Thorpe had given the single-word reply of “Ditto” to police questions – was published, Thorpe issued a denial and announced that he was going to sue the Eye for criminal libel following the precedent set earlier by his friend and fellow old Etonian, Sir James Goldsmith, who was paying his legal fees.
I found myself answering queries from reporters gleefully suggesting that this time Private Eye had definitely gone too far and would pay the price. But the following week, an Inspector from Somerset and Avon police did his duty and the long arm of the law came finally to rest on Thorpe’s shoulder.
Many who followed the case accredited his brilliant QC George Carman for securing Thorpe’s acquittal. I always thought it had more to do with the fact that Thorpe was a barrister and that his father had been an eminent barrister before him.
So the judge, Mr Justice Cantley, leant heavily in Thorpe’s favour when he summed up. Thorpe, he may have thought, was plainly a bit of a bounder, but for all that he was “one of us” – a member of the great freemasonry of the Law.Reuse content