Tribute to Jeremy Thorpe

NPG x167152; Jeremy Thorpe by Walter Bird, Copyright National POrtrait Gallery, London some rights reservedJeremy Thorpe’s funeral was held last Wednesday at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. It was attended by around 400 people including all five leaders of the Liberal party and the Liberal Democrats who succeeded Jeremy Thorpe: David Steel, Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy, Ming Campbell and Nick Clegg. There was a gathering afterwards at the National Liberal Club. The following tribute was delivered at the funeral by Nick Harvey MP, and is reproduced here at his suggestion.

It is a great honour to be asked to say a few words today about the political life and times of Jeremy Thorpe, though I do so with considerable humility as many present here witnessed and lived the Thorpe era first hand, whereas I was still at school at the time.

To describe Jeremy’s footsteps as giant ones in which to follow in North Devon would be a huge understatement. He was talent-spotted by the local party when the Liberal conference was held in Ilfracombe and then adopted as the Parliamentary candidate in 1952, at the age of just 23.

From all the accounts I’ve heard, and indeed the very folklore of North Devon, one can imagine the impact of the young Jeremy’s arrival: the recent Oxford graduate and aspiring young barrister, charismatic, dashing, hugely energetic and blessed with all the campaigning attributes of the ideal candidate. He had a style all of his own: brown Trilby hat, waistcoat and gold watch-chain, and driving around in a legendary big black Humber (still in a barn not far from Barnstaple).

With his powers of mimicry he could respond to hecklers in brilliant imitations of their own voices. He could mock people and win their vote. He would ring the Bonham-Carters and other political families brilliantly impersonating their relatives and causing absolute mischief. His astonishing memory for faces and names enabled him to boom loud greetings to people in the streets and markets, to their lasting delight and the envy of their friends.

An entire generation of ladies took him to their hearts; he was mothered to distraction and I have come across several men now in their late forties and early fifties named Jeremy in his honour.

The indomitable Lilian Prowse served as his agent for over 25 years building up the Liberal organisation from the grass roots. In the early years she often had her four children in tow and so a dynasty was born: three have served on the local council and Malcolm – the youngest – became the longest serving council leader in the country. Two of the family are here today.

Between them they revived the historic Liberal tradition. When Jeremy captured the seat in 1959, it was one of just three in the country secured against Conservative opposition.

With wit, zeal and sheer panache, the new MP was the personification of hope when it was needed most. If Jo Grimond gave re-birth to the party’s intellectual self-confidence and defined the Liberal creed for a new era, Jeremy – succeeding him in 1967 – gave re-birth to its campaigning self-confidence, turning it into a truly national force once again.

He was the first politician fully to embrace the television age, the first to hit the campaign trail in a helicopter and both the first – and rather memorably the last – to deploy a hovercraft.

Campaigning through the summer of 1974 he came up with the wheeze of pulling up at beaches on a hovercraft and addressing startled holiday-makers with a loud hailer from the deck. But it all ended in disaster when, at one stop, he’d just reached that point in his speech where he lauded this fine British invention, when he realised that his feet were getting rather wet. The hovercraft was sinking beneath him.

Some writers, summing up Jeremy’s contribution to politics, have focused solely on his great theatrical gifts. He certainly made light of the bear-pit which the House of Commons chamber can be when you speak for a party with few members sitting in it. His memorable barb after Macmillan’s ‘night of the long knives’: “Greater love has no many than this: that he should lay down his friends for his life” was one of Parliament’s best ever.

But nobody should overlook his fierce and unwavering commitment to Liberal principles. As the son and grand-son of leading Conservative MPs, and the product of Eton and Oxford, the Conservative career ladder beckoned.

But Jeremy was no Conservative. He wore it as a badge of honour that he was banned from Franco’s Spain; his suggestion to bomb Ian Smith’s railway supply lines in renegade Rhodesia caused great controversy; he was an impassioned anti-Apartheid campaigner before it became fashionable. He was a trenchant pro-European and campaigned alongside Ted Heath and Roy Jenkins in the 1975 referendum. That trio packed 4,000 into Barnstaple’s pannier market for a momentous rally.

He was a champion of the poor and disadvantaged at home and abroad. He befriended President Kenneth Kaunda and many other African leaders. Even in his later years he was writing to international leaders urging them to adopt post-Apartheid South African townships and help them rebuild and develop. It is good to see diplomatic representatives from African nations here today.

The high point of Jeremy’s leadership was the February 1974 election. As the wheels began to come off Ted Heath’s Government, the Liberals scored several epic by-election wins including Berwick – still represented 41 years later by the victor, Alan Beith. When the Government fell and the election was triggered, Jeremy himself was largely confined to North Devon to defend a wafer-thin 362 majority.

Into his packed itinerary of village meetings were scheduled quick dashes back to Barnstaple Liberal Club, where he ran up the stairs to broadcast live to the nation from a makeshift DIY studio. (The cabling was still there when I arrived many years later.) The election was a personal triumph – with over 6 million votes it was the best result since 1929, and in North Devon his majority was a stunning 11,082. But the corrupting effect of the voting system meant he had only 14 Liberal MPs and a coalition with the Tories was neither arithmetically nor politically feasible.

In any case, Jeremy had a closer rapport with Harold Wilson than with Ted Heath. It was rumoured that Wilson invited Jeremy to dinners with foreign heads of state to entertain them with his impersonations of Heath, Eden and Macmillan; and that the Liberals got an occasional peerage in return as his ‘performance fee’.

After the drama of his downfall, it was inevitable that he had to vacate the political stage and give the party a chance to recover. He bore the cruel punishment of Parkinson’s Disease for some 35 years with characteristic courage, stoicism and indomitable spirit, but in the end it robbed him of his most precious asset – his voice. He was magnificently and loyally supported through thick and thin by his wonderful wife Marion, who died just this March, and by his dear son Rupert – with whom he shared the awful tragedy of Caroline’s death in 1970.

Despite his condition, Jeremy never lost his razor sharp mind, his amazing memory, his passion for politics or his sense of mischief. As President of the North Devon Liberals since 1987, he was a great support to me as a young candidate winning back the seat, and was a source of advice, encouragement, one-liners, fund-raising drives – not to mention a few mad-cap ideas.

His devotion to the Liberal cause sustained to his last breath. But it was his unending sadness, and that of many friends, that – despite time being the great healer – the party never quite found it in its heart to forgive or re-embrace its prodigal son, preferring to airbrush him out of its history. But it would have meant a great deal to him that all his successors as leader are here today, and that his contribution to the Liberal revival had been acknowledged. He will be fondly remembered and greatly missed.

Photo by Walter Bird, taken on December 16th 1965 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Some rights reserved.

* Sir Nick Harvey was the Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon from 1992 until 2015 and Minister of State for the Armed Forces from 2010 to 2012

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5 Comments

  • A truly inspiring tribute to a truly inspiring leader.

  • Thank you Nick for this tribute and in particular for getting it put here on LDV for the rest of us to read. In our London centric society, it is not easy for so many of us to attend or even get near to events that take place there. I am of that generation that joined the party when Jeremy was leader. I first heard him speak in Manchester, and became aware of how the media the next day distorted what he had said. So all the more reason for items like this in LDV that give us a true picture of a public speech.

  • Peter Chegwyn 20th Dec '14 - 1:13pm

    Totally agree with David and Nigel. A wonderful tribute by Nick.

    There was another very moving tribute given at the funeral by Steve Atack which can be read here:

    http://libdemchild.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/the-eulogy-given-at-jeremy-thorpes.html

  • Tony Greaves 20th Dec '14 - 7:17pm

    All the stuff about North Devon is very true. He was the dream candidate and local MP and truly inspirational. I decided to join the Liberal Party after attending a meeting of the Oxford University Liberal Club addressed by Thorpe in October 1960.

    But I fear that in relation to his leadership of the party nationally, history is being at least partly rewritten. But this is not the time to tell too many tales.

    Tony

  • Thanks for putting it on LDV.
    I had a chatty account from Fran Oborski who went.
    And somewhere I read a Thorpe/Wilson anecdote which brought Jeremy vividly to life and threw light on the different Leaders relationships.

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