Book review: Michael Bloch’s “Jeremy Thorpe”

jeremy thorpe book coverThe publication of this book was reportedly delayed until after the death of its subject. Some might have expected, therefore, a ‘hatchet job’. (In fact, the delay was at the insistence of Jeremy Thorpe, who co-operated with the author to the extent of meeting him around twenty times to discuss his life). Instead, it seems a balanced, comprehensive, fair, even (in its concluding chapter) affectionate, portrait of its subject.

Nevertheless, the book pulls no punches in relating the events before, during and after the famous Old Bailey trial at which Thorpe and his fellow defendants were unanimously acquitted by a jury. It presents an apparently honest and complete account of Jeremy Thorpe, including some astute observations as to his character, such as his tendency towards fantasy and need for danger.

The Norman Scott thread and the trial for conspiracy to murder takes up about a fifth of the book. Bloch lays out, in sometimes mesmerizing detail, the labyrinthine unravelling of the story.

Essentially, it is clear from this biography that Norman Scott did not ruin Jeremy Thorpe’s political and public career. Jeremy Thorpe ruined his own career. Norman Scott had been going round, for years, telling anyone who would listen about his relationship with Jeremy Thorpe. Many newspapers, even Private Eye, had rejected the idea of publishing the story, which did not appear to set many people against him (Thorpe) in his North Devon constituency, where Scott was telling it to all and sundry in bars for years. As he was advised repeatedly and earnestly by many wise heads, most notably the highly respected lawyer Lord Goodman, all Thorpe had to do was ignore Norman Scott.

But for some strange reason, Jeremy Thorpe would not ignore the man. Michael Bloch comes as close as, I suspect, anyone ever will to identifying why that was. He points out that Thorpe very seriously thought he would be a Liberal prime minister. So perhaps he was especially motivated, however misguidedly, to remove any perceived threats to achieving that goal. We should also remind ourselves that homosexuality was a crime in this country until 1967, well after his relationship, whatever it entailed, with Scott.

But Bloch concludes that Jeremy Thorpe had no need to pay Scott money (through intermediaries) or involve Peter Bessell in his affairs, or do any of the other things which came under the spotlight of the trial (p339):

Had he not done any of these risky things, it is unlikely that Scott could have done him much harm. Jeremy turned the affair into a drama because, consciously or unconsciously, he wanted a drama. It was almost as if he had a psychological need to sustain a threat to his career, which provided him with a challenge and gave him a thrill of fear.

While having the Norman Scott affair hanging over him and while leading a well-documented gay sex life, Thorpe nevertheless consistently and publicly worked as a prominent figure in the campaign for the legalisation of private sexual acts between consenting adults of the same gender. The author notes that this was done at some personal risk.

The book highlights Jeremy Thorpe’s remarkable “common touch” – a facility to talk engagingly with people from all walks of life. Indeed, this skill appears to have been present at an early age. While at Oxford University and while a young lawyer at legal chambers in London, at times of idleness, he used to open windows onto the street and chat with passers-by.

Despite that, Jeremy Thorpe also had a rather snobbish regard towards rank and aristocracy. This sometimes verged on fantasy, such as with his long-standing wish to restore a supposedly connected, long dead Thorpe barony. Such attitudes appear to be in line with what the author describes as his “Edwardian” dress sense. Indeed, Jeremy Thorpe came under fire from those in his own party when he attended his first remembrance parade as party leader in morning suit and silk top hat, while the other party leaders were in lounge suits.

Nevertheless, he had an amazing range of friends and acquaintances. Megan Lloyd-George was a notable long-standing friend. He adored Lloyd George.

One of the most fascinating periods, related in the book, is when Jeremy Thorpe was President of the Oxford University Liberal Club and the Oxford Union. Clement Davies was party leader. At the 1951 election the party was reduced to six seats and 2.5% of the popular vote. The Liberal Party very nearly disappeared down the plughole of history. There was apparently a plan to wind up the party within six weeks if it became necessary. Clement Davies “saved the party” by refusing to join Churchill’s subsequent cabinet. The tales of Jeremy Thorpe’s chutzpah and escapades in supporting the party at such a time are an exhilarating read. There’s no question of his passionate and lifelong Liberalism.

The book is very faithful in chronicling Jeremy Thorpe’s various political interests, particularly his international campaigns. Indeed, after the narrow-plughole-avoidance of 1951, Jeremy Thorpe, with others, identified a number of policy areas which the party focussed on. Many of these, such as human rights and internationalism, continue to be a focus for the party to this day. It should also be noted that Jeremy Thorpe founded and sustained the Winnable Seats organisation within the party which, astonishingly, paid dividends for us, long after his leadership, when we won seats in 1997 on which he had started focussing central resources in the 60s and 70s.

Jeremy Thorpe was very lucky with women. Caroline and Marion were two superb, loyal wives. (Through his marriage to Marion he was fortunate to live for 41 years at a property in London which is now on the market for the breathtaking sum of £17 million. I kid you not.) His mother Ursula was an ever-supporting presence, if occasionally infuriating for him.

Jeremy Thorpe had two male friends who each, to different extents at different times, acted as his faithful “wing man”, in dealing with Norman Scott, albeit perhaps misguidedly: Peter Bessell and David Holmes. I think Jeremy Thorpe had much for which to be grateful to them. Their loyalty, if not their judgment, was unquestionable. However, I doubt whether either of them were on his Christmas card list after the 1970s.

As well as research into a wide range of documentary texts, Michael Bloch spoke to at least 358 friends, acquaintances, colleagues and professionals connected to Jeremy Thorpe in the course of writing the biography. Many of them are now long deceased.

In the preface and acknowledgements, Bloch quotes Baroness Seear, when he told her he was writing Jeremy Thorpe’s biography, as saying:

You’ll never get to the bottom of him.

Through painstaking, thorough research and extraordinary distillation, Michael Bloch has produced a masterpiece of biography. At the very least one can say that, if he has not solved, with this book, the enigma of Jeremy Thorpe, then he has come as close as anyone will ever come to solving it.

“Jeremy Thorpe” by Michael Bloch published by Little, Brown at £25.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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21 Comments

  • “……At the 1951 election the party was reduced to six seats and 2.5% of the popular vote. The Liberal Party very nearly disappeared down the plughole of history. ”

    Now that we are back at the plughole of history (although 2.5% would have been a lot better than the Rochester result) some people might be tempted to read this book instead of knocking on doors.

    I have not read the book but I did live through the 60s and 70s and some of the more fanciful claims in this review do not ring entirely true. I guess I will have to read the book to see if there can possibly be any substance to the suggestion that the 1997 General Election results in some constituencies were thanks to something someone had done before they had ceased to be party leader twenty years earlier.

  • I agree with John Tilley about target seats. It is certainly the case that the aftermath of the Thorpe case delayed Liberal Democrat recovery in pre-1979 West Country strongholds until the 1990s (North Devon not regained until 1992, North Cornwall not regained until 1997), and it does not seem in the least plausible that Liberal Democrat victories in 1997 in other seats were due to pre-1979 targeting.

  • I should have said “North Devon and North Cornwall not regained until 1992”, but that does not affect my main point, which was that Liberal Democrat successes in 1997 are most unlikely to have had any causal relationship with Liberal Party targeting in another political era.

  • I can’t speak for other constituencies and I only arrived in Newbury in 1985, but from all reports and evidence of motivated activists/councillors and efficient infrastructure such as delivery networks and the 200 club, the 1997 rewinning of Newbury constituency owed a little but significant amount to the spadework done in the 70s and 80s. Dane Clouston came within 1000 votes of winning the constituency in both 1974 elections – which was a breakthrough given the history of Tory representation here. And let’s not forget the only person who walked into number 10 with Thorpe in 1974 – Tony Richards – who was our PPC in the late 70s/early 80s. There were many activists who talked of him in reverential tones when I arrived here. So scoff as you may, but that is a little experience from the ground.

  • “the 1997 rewinning of Newbury constituency ”

    I know I was fairly drunk that night but I’m pretty certain we won it in 1993 🙂

    I remember a conversation with Tony Greaves shortly after 1997 when he was noting the correlation between seats we won/nearly won and 1970s areas of good performance. It’s not total though – there wasn’t much strong performance in Somerset in 74 for example.

  • Tony Greaves 31st Dec '14 - 5:55pm

    What we might distinguish between are the things that happened while JJT was leader, and the things that happened because JJT was leader. Disentangling them will never be a perfect art but I’ll read this book for further elucidation (and possibly disagreement).

    There is no doubt that building up support in a particular seat or group of seats is something that may take many years, even decades, and that getting into a serious challenge at a time of one party advance can help to win the seat even decades later – particularly in areas of fairly stable population – even when there has been a real dip in between. A good example is Chippenham, where the Liberal Party (Chris Layton) almost won a by-election in 1962 (yes I was there!)

    Active Councillors over the years can be a vital part of that process. The party is locally credible, and where it has been able to remain the main opposition (even if a long way behind) coming back to challenge is so much easier.

    Whether Thorpe’s “Winnable Seats Operation” – in the early 1960s does he say? – had much effect in the long run, rather than just listing the obvious at the time, is a different matter. Electioneering techniques in those days were a bit basic, and JJT’s grand schemes and plans over the years were often good on presentation and nothing much on delivery.

    Tony

  • Hywel:

    ““the 1997 rewinning of Newbury constituency ”

    I know I was fairly drunk that night but I’m pretty certain we won it in 1993 ”

    Do you know what, Hywel? I think I actually recall your elated figure staggering around the racecourse on that night in May 1993! Happy days!

    Perhaps my education is failing me, but I was taught that by putting “re” as a prefix before a verb, it means the act of doing the verb again. So by using that prefix I was intending to mean that we – the Liberal Democrats – won the seat again in 1997 – the original time being in 1993. Or did you think I was harking back to the year in the 1920s when the Liberal party held the seat for the only other time for a liberal party in the history of the constituency? And did you think I forgot the three times Paddy Ashdown stayed in my house and the tumultuous life changing events of 1993 which happened around me and with my full involvement (I was chair of the local party when the previous MP died, causing the by-election) in my home town? 🙂 Happy new year!

  • Thorpe is before I can remember. It does seem though that while he and the Liberal party had a tough time between ’67 and ’70 – he and the party had a successful time between ’70 and ’74 and he was perceived to have a dynamic leadership – improving (just) on the 1966 election result after the ’70 set-back. Obviously 1979 was a difficult election for the Liberals and the scandal surrounding Thorpe didn’t help. I can just remember it and it was very much presented as a contest between Labour and the Tories if obv. the Tories resurgent after the winter of discontent so a squeeze on the Liberals was probably likely even without the Thorpe affair. Even if did (ironically) lead on to the Alliance and thus the most successful Lib Dem period.
    I think it can be said that the ’70 and ’74 period and that he and the Liberals were successful led on to those areas that won in 1997 (and 1992) – for example (in 1987) Yeovil where effectively getting a second place in 1974 helped Paddy build it up to win it. Sutton and Cheam was won in the 1972 by-election and meant that we were in second place and got it back in 1997.
    There is a debate that is lost no doubt in history on how much focus there was by the national party and the leadership on winnable seats in themselves – as supposed to the “air war” – but it seems that you can at least credit Thorpe with fighting a good air war between 70 and 74. And there were obviously many, many other things such as the development of community politics and the work of ALC. It seems that if we win or we come a good second in a constituency – it can obviously lay down future success in a constituency – even if we can have years when we go back.
    And indeed it would have been arguable whether the Alliance would have happened if the Liberals had been a much smaller force in 1979 which they would have been without some gains in 1974.
    An interesting side issue is whether without the Liberals – or them doing as well as they did in Feb 1974 whether the Tories would have been the largest party in seats which would subsequently have meant arguably the Tories would have had a greater claim to be the Government (esp. as they just got the largest number of votes) and a very different history. The 8 direct gains in 74 by the Liberals were 3 from Labour and 5 from Conservatives – so would directly have meant that the gap of 4 between Labour and the Tories would not have closed. But there is talk of Liberals attracting disaffected Conservative votes more than Labour which might have helped some Labour gains.

  • Of interest the Economist obituary at http://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21635966-jeremy-thorpe-former-leader-britains-liberals-died-december-4th-aged-85-glamour says that: “Long before he became party leader in 1967, scattered signs implied a Liberal revival. A run of by-election victories—Torrington in 1958, his own in North Devon, Orpington in 1962—gave grounds for hope. In the mid-1960s he drew up a list of winnable seats, sending agents to them and setting up local associations to finance campaigns.”
    I don’t know their source for this or whether it is true (or how much).

  • Michael
    All that is outlined in detail in the book. It is a very absorbing read. I read in four days. I normally take a year to read some books.

  • And as an iBook at https://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/jeremy-thorpe/id950694968?mt=11 for those who prefer to minimise their use of Amazon!

  • SIMON BANKS 1st Jan '15 - 5:43pm

    I remember that Jeremy Thorpe’s agent during the period when Norman Scott was doing the rounds and getting little attention, told a gathering of Devon and Cornwall Liberals that she wanted all candidates’ “biological details”. Doubtless a Freudian slip.

    The conclusion about Thorpe’s downfall makes it sound eerily like Nixon’s: the toxic element for the leader was not the original act, but the cover-up ordered from the top.

    Many commenters on the affair have forgotten that the payments to the hitman were made from a fund whose existence was known and Thorpe deflected questions about how this money was being used by making it an issue of confidence, of whether we trusted him or not. I’m afraid I didn’t.

  • Tony Greaves 1st Jan '15 - 8:39pm

    “In the mid-1960s he drew up a list of winnable seats, sending agents to them and setting up local associations to finance campaigns.”

    There has been a lot of rewriting history by pro-JJT commentators since he died. However it is true that he followed the LlG pattern of setting up private funds, separate from those of the party, to do things he decided, and some of that money appears to have gone to a few favoured seats. I am not clear how much this overlapped with the Liberal Central Association, a body separate from party HQ (LPO – the Liberal Party Organisation) and controlled by certain MPs.

    The idea that JJT was primarily responsible for the by-election wins in 1972/3, which created a lot of the momentum for the increased vote in 1974 , is not wholly true and is a further example of rewriting history. But I’ll read the book before saying much more.

    Tony

  • In 1970 the Liberal Party amassed some 2m votes, 5-6m at the 2 1974 elections, still 4m voted in 1979, back to in 1983 (in the midst of Falklands jingoism), and then up to nearly 8m with the Alliance in 87. I think this has more
    to do with the delay in revival in the west country than the aftermath of the scandal. Especially when we recall Labour’s virtual absence there.

  • I had been going to write that none of the four seats we have held in Hampshire in recent years had ever had any money from Thorpe’s private funds, but then I remembered various “anonymous donations” in the 70s which I thought then and still think now were probably from our PPC, but perhaps not. I never thought that we could ever win Winchester anyway. Ludlow was one of the seats my academic research in the early 70s identified as being winnable, and I am still hoping to see us take Dorset West in my lifetime.

  • tonyhill — West Dorset ???

    How long are you planning to stay alive, tony ?

    🙂

  • Well, John Tilley and tonyhill, Dorset West was regarded as a target in 2005, the last time I fought the neighbouring seat. I must say I was always a little sceptical, as often with the then Campaigns Dept targeting decisions! This will come as no surprise to those who then (and almost certainly now) regard me as a heretic (I quote, by the way).

  • As I said Thorpe was before my time – my political memories certainly. A few things. Firstly I think that everyone in this thread and I am sure that Thorpe himself would say that any success that the Liberals had during his leadership was not down to him alone – and I made that point in my posting. Success always has many parents! Failure none! I think it fair to say that Thorpe’s leadership was a game of three halves (!) – 67-70, 70-74, 74 until his resignation.

    I am sure that no-one including Thorpe would say that the trial and scandal exactly helped the Liberals and I am sure had a greater effect on West Country seats inevitably than elsewhere. Both in that they were seats that we were looking to win as well as Thorpe representing a seat there. And the scandal was a big blot on his record. But history and the passage of time does allow us to look at things in the round – good and bad.

    Part of the frustration in politics – especially in First Past the Post politics (a bit like Russia/East Europe in the 70s and 80s!) is that things move exceedingly slowly – especially on the surface when a lot can be happening below the surface. And I think it is fair to say that a lot of the things that started in the late 60s and early 70s had to wait until the end of the Tory era in 1997 to come to fruition and that includes for example the work that Tony Hill and councillors and PPCs and agents and campaigners did in the Winchester and Eastleigh area starting in the 70s and leading to control of the councils and eventually winning the seat.

    The Yeovil result in 1983 (not 1987 as I previously wrote) arguably shows what was possible in West Country seats during the 80s. This was helped it seems by the sitting Tory MP standing down in 83. And an additional factor is that sometimes things have to wait until the long-standing MP stands down. And there were quite a number of long-standing Tory MPs in the West Country that finally stood down in 1997. Interestingly it seems that the 83 candidate in Yeovil for the Tories was David Martin who I think was the same David Martin who lost Portsmouth South to the Lib Dems in 97 and came third in Bristol West in 2005 (to a Lib Dem win) and third in Rugby and Kenilworth (to a Labour win).

    A bit like Gerry Malone – lost in the Glasgow Hillhead by-election to Roy Jenkins, lost Aberdeen South (to Labour) and lost to Lib Dems in Winchester in 1997. They both proved useful Tories for us!!.

    To be fair about West Dorset – it had a 2.5% Tory majority in 2001 so was in range for 2005.

  • Tsar Nicolas 4th Jan '15 - 9:13am

    I’m convinced that I should get a copy of this book, but probably down at “the Works” when it is remaindered.

    Also, why is iTunes somehow less immoral than Amazon? (John Kelly -1st January)

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