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Lewis Chester, Magnus Linklater & David May
Jeremy Thorpe: A Secret Life
André Deutsch, London, 1979
(hardback price: 7.95; 384 pages)
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Simon Freeman & Barrie Penrose
Rinkagate: The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Thorpe
Bloomsbury, London, 1996
(hardback price: 16.99; 408 pages)

How well known is Jeremy Thorpe these days? Apart from the fact that he was involved in some sort of court case that ended his career, does anyone remember anything much about him? Does anyone under the age of forty even know the name? Possibly not. There was a time when he seemed like a fairly major player in British politics, even negotiating with Ted Heath over the possibility of a coalition government in 1974, but as his principal contribution was himself, there's little trace left of his time as leader of the Liberal Party.

The fact that he was Liberal leader at all was itself a bit odd. As an ambitious, dandified, flamboyant Old Etonian media-tart and former President of the Oxford Union, the last place you'd expect to have found him was in the earnest but moribund rump of Britain's third party in the 1950s. But there he was - presumably out of some kind of commitment, though no one was ever very clear what he thought Liberalism was - and in 1967, at the age of just 37, he took over from Jo Grimmond as Leader, a post he held for nearly a decade until he was forced to resign when his personal life became public.

The main feature of that personal life was simply that Thorpe was gay and liked a bit of a cruise on occasion. And that was it. Not very shocking really, is it? I'm sure we all know at least one senior member of the current government with the same tastes. Except that at the time when Thorpe became an MP, even when he became party leader, the practice of homosexuality was illegal. So he never came out. It was considered that were his proclivities to be widely known, it would ruin his reputation. And so, it was alleged, when a former lover, Norman Scott, seemed to be posing a potential threat by revealing their relationship publicly, Thorpe and those around him planned to murder Scott to silence him. In the event Scott wasn't killed, though his Great Dane named Rinka was shot dead. And Thorpe and three other men found themselves in the dock at the Old Bailey charged with conspiracy to murder.

All four were, of course, acquitted and left the court with not a stain on their character. Except that Thorpe's reputation was indeed utterly destroyed. He had already had to resign as Liberal Leader and was subsequently deselected as parliamentary candidate. He entered, as Freeman and Penrose put it, 'a living death' in which few wished to know or be associated with him. He had survived the trial, many people believed, largely because he was so respectable a figure that the ranks of society closed around him in his hour of need. But when that hour was passed, he found himself shunned. Again in the words of Freeman and Penrose: 'the Establishment, which had ensured that he was not sent to prison, dispatched him into exile.' (Rinkagate p.368)

The most celebrated part of that closing of ranks was the summing up by the judge in the case, Mr Justice Cantley, which was a masterpiece of class prejudice. He could apparently see no reason why a man of Thorpe's standing should have been charged with anything, when those ranged against him were such low-life vermin. Here he is on the character of Norman Scott (the man, remember, whose life was allegedly threatened by the accused): 'He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite. But, of course, he could still be telling the truth. It is a question of belief.' (Secret Life p.359) Or, as Peter Cook famously satirized it, he was:

a scrounger, parasite, pervert, a worm, a self-confessed player of the pink oboe, a man or woman who by his or her own admission chews pillows. It would be hard to imagine, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, a more discredited and embittered man, a more unreliable witness upon whose testimony to convict a man who you may rightly think should have become Prime Minister of his country or President of the world. (Peter Cook, Tragically I Was An Only Twin, Century, London, 2002, p.275)

I remember when Jeremy Thorpe was one of the wittiest, most colourful characters in British politics. The fact that he was destroyed at the age of just fifty because Britain wasn't capable of accepting a gay man in public life is really shameful. As it happens, the Liberal Party and its successors benefited enormously from his departure, since it enabled David Steele to rebuild the party with at least something of a political agenda: Thorpe had always had a social agenda, but ideology and even ideas weren't his strong suit. But that wasn't what precipitated his fall: it was that his fondness for having sex with men put him in a position where he was vulnerable to blackmail. Which is crap.

Of these two books, the one by the Sunday Times team of Chester, Linklater and May was largely written before the end of the trial. And then hastily re-written and hacked to pieces by lawyers when the Not Guilty verdicts came in. Consequently it does tend to pull its punches in a way that the much later Rinkagate doesn't. Both are well-researched works, but the complexities of the case (which included Thorpe persuading Harold Wilson that the whole thing was a plot by the South African security services) and the sheer detail involved, may exhaust all but the most committed reader.

The Goodies
l-r: Messrs Chester, May & Linklater.
My copy, incidentally, is signed by David May

More Scandals from the Seventies...



non fiction