Although a huge scandal at the time, the story of the of the 1970s UK Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe has been largely forgotten today. It was a tumultuous tale of power, corruption, and sex.
Jeremy Thorpe was accused of nothing less than taking out a hit on his former homosexual lover. Although he was acquitted of all charges, the scandal ended his career in politics and his life as a public figure.
Today many may be forgiven for not having heard of this politician. Here is how Jeremy Thorpe went from hotshot leader to disgraced politician on trial.
Jeremy’s Childhood and Family
He was elected as a conservative MP for Manchester Rusholme between the years 1919 and 1923. Jeremy’s mother, Ursula Norton-Griffiths, was the daughter of another conservative MP known as “Empire Jack”.
The Thorpe family was very proud and claimed to be related to famous Thorpes from British history such as Robert Thorpe, Lord Chancellor in 1372 under Edward III, and Thomas Thorpe who was Speaker of the House of Commons in 1453-54. Whether these figures from history shared more than a common name with Jeremy is less clear.
Jeremy was his parent’s third child. He had two older sisters. Unsurprisingly, his background was a rather protected and privileged one. Jeremey was left under the care of many nannies and nursemaids until he attended school in 1935.
In his childhood, he was described as a proficient violinist who would perform at many school concerts. Although his father did not stay in parliament for that long, John did maintain his political contacts meaning that from a very young age, Jeremy was exposed to leading politicians.
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One such political family was the Lloyd George family. David Lloyd George, known as the “Welsh Wizard” and Liberal prime minister from 1916 to 1922, would visit regularly and became Jeremy’s role model and political hero.
In the 1950s Jeremy Thorpe was accepted as a potential Liberal parliamentary candidate, though he still had to decide on what constituency he would like to take. The general elections of 1950 and 1951 saw the Liberal party at one of its weakest moments, with its MPs falling to 9, and then 6.
Thorpe, however, was determined to stay with the party and was praised for his dedication and commitment to Liberalism. Initially, Thorpe was offered the opportunity of succeeding to the Party Leader’s seat in Montgomeryshire when his predecessor, Clement Davies, retired.
However, there was little prospect of that happening and so Thorpe turned to Devon and Cornwall. He chose to fight for North Devon but failed to win in 1951. In 1955, Thorpe fought an aggressive campaign that, whilst it did not win him the seat, saw him push the Liberals back to second in the constituency.
Thus, Jeremy had to look for paid work. He turned to law. However, he found this difficult and so found a supplementary form of income in television journalism. He traveled across the world covering stories such as Ghana’s independence in 1957 and a plot to assassinate the king of Jordan King Hussein in 1958.
This work, along with his tireless campaigning in North Devon, saw Jeremy garner a celebrity status with people celebrating his colorful approach to campaigning. It would not be long until he saw his efforts rewarded.
In October 1959, Thorpe won his seat in North Devon and took no time to get started in his role as MP. He was active in promoting local issues such as the need for a new general hospital and better commuter links to Exeter.
He championed freedom from colonial rule and was an opponent of oppressive regimes in South Africa. Thorpe became known for his sense of wit and verve. This success led him to be seen as the natural successor for the party leader. When the party leader Grimond did resign in 1967, Thorpe was a shoe-in.
Party Leader, and Scandal
Jeremy Thorpe was seen as a younger and more energetic brand of politician. Though he faced troubles with losing the majority and a far-left liberal group forming within his party, Thorpe was described as a master campaigner and a leading progressive in England.
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He helped to found Amnesty International and helped to advocate for many struggling minorities. However, it was at his height when the scandal would strike.
It has been suspected that from as early as the 1950s, Thorpe had been leading a secret homosexual life. This was at a time when homosexuality was criminalized in the UK and would end his political career.
It has been reported that Thorpe’s activities were a thinly guarded secret across London. He enjoyed the attention apparently boasting of all of the men he had seduced.
In 1976, the headlines of British papers would bring accusations of Thorpe’s sexuality to the front page. Norman Scott, sometimes referred to as Norman Josiffe, claimed that he and Thorpe had had a brief fling in the 1960s.
Scott claimed that Thorpe had treated him terribly which is why he had gone public with the affair. Before this had happened, it was revealed that Thorpe’s friend Peter Bessel had given Scott £2,500 to hush up the secret. These funds had come directly from the Liberal party.
The scandal became too big for Thorpe to handle, and it has been claimed that David Holmes, treasurer of the Liberal party hired Andrew Newton to “take out” Norman Scott. In 1975, Newton ambushed Scott but lost his nerve, deciding in a panicked moment to kill his dog instead.
Thorpe denied that any of this was to do with him. He released letters showing that Scott and he did know each other but were just friends. This incensed the public.
It all came to a head in a trial in 1977 but Thorpe had a very sympathetic judge who claimed that all of the people claiming against Jeremy sought to gain by selling their stories to an eager press. Thorpe and his co-defendants were found not guilty.
However, this ended his career in politics, and he retired to a simple but sad life afflicted by Parkinson’s before dying in 2014.
Top Image: Jeremy Thorpe was accused of hiring a hitman to kill his homosexual lover. Source: Alexkoral / Adobe Stock.
By Kurt Readman