Jeremy Thorpe death: A charismatic leader brought low by a scandal that titillated the nation

Witty and flamboyant in his Edwardian suits, under him the Liberals’ fortunes revived

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The Independent Online

One of the most brilliant men of his generation has died aged 85, a sad and forgotten figure brought down by the biggest political scandal of the 1970s.

During the early part of Jeremy Thorpe’s political life, homosexual acts between men were illegal, and even when they ceased to be, they were not publicly tolerated. Had public attitudes to homosexuality been what they are now, Thorpe’s reputation need not have been destroyed by the story of the violent death of a pet dog on Exmoor.

Instead, he could have been remembered as the most successful post-war leader of the Liberal Party. Yesterday, however, people were surprised not so much by the news that he was dead, but by the discovery he was still alive in 2014.

Thorpe took over the Liberal leadership three years before the 1970 general election, in which his party fared disastrously, and was reduced to a rump of just six MPs. Yet he managed to pull off the trick of projecting himself as the leader of a major party, on a par with Edward Heath and Harold Wilson.

 

Intellectually, he was their equal, while socially he was a cut above them. They were former grammar school boys. He was an Old Etonian. He was a witty and well-informed barrister and a natural exhibitionist, who liked to dress in Edwardian suits, silk waistcoats and trilby hats. His leadership saw the first signs of a Liberal revival. The party won five by-elections, then in 1974 they won 14 seats and more than 19 per cent of the vote. After the results were announced, Thorpe conducted a triumphant torchlight procession around Barnstaple, in North Devon, the constituency he had represented since 1959, oblivious to the fact Edward Heath was trying to contact him to offer a coalition deal.

Heath was prepared to give Thorpe a major cabinet job, probably the Home Office, and held out the possibility of reforming the voting system to introduce proportional representation. Thorpe would have loved to accept, but his party activists would not allow it.

We can only guess how the scandal that destroyed Thorpe would have played out, had he been Home Secretary when the allegations first surfaced.

The story that was heard in court, and which titillated the nation, has to be treated cautiously, because it relies on the word of a former model, Norman Scott, who was a liar and fantasist. He was 20 years old in 1961 when he met Thorpe. They struck up a curious friendship in which Thorpe seemed to adopt the role of an affectionate guardian to the maladjusted young man. He gave Scott the nickname “Bunnies”. In 1962, he wrote him a letter that included the promise “Bunnies can (+ will) go to France”.

Jeremy-Thorpe.jpg
Former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe who has died after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease (PA)

When Thorpe ended this friendship, Scott behaved like a jilted lover. He told the police he had had an illegal homosexual relationship with Thorpe. He repeated the claim to a journalist who sold the story to the Daily Mirror, which locked it away, thinking it too hot to publish.

In 1975, Scott was living near Dartmoor, when he was met by a former airline pilot named Andrew Newton, who took him and his Great Dane, Rinka, for a drive to a secluded spot. There Newton produced a gun, shot Rinka dead, pointed the weapon at Scott and told him he would be next.

In March 1976, Newton was sentenced to two years in prison. In court, he maintained that he was being blackmailed by Scott, without implicating Thorpe, but with allegations swirling, and the “Bunnies” letter made public, Thorpe took the bitter decision in May to resign the party leadership. The scandal then went quiet until Newton emerged from prison, in 1977, and went to the newspapers claiming he had been hired to kill Scott. Thorpe lost his seat in the 1979 general election. Five days later, he went on trial, charged with conspiracy to murder.

He was acquitted, partly because it emerged that two of the prosecution witness, Newton and Peter Bessell, an ex-Liberal MP, stood to gain handsomely by selling their stories if they could secure a conviction. But what people remembered was the graphic description Scott gave in court of being seduced and buggered by Thorpe, which was so detailed it rang true, though Thorpe repeatedly denied that they had ever had a homosexual relationship.

Whatever the truth, Thorpe was finished as a politician, and spent the next 35 years in obscurity, his fate all the more pathetic for the onset of Parkinson’s disease in the 1990s.

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