Former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe dies

jeremy thorpe_2The party website records the passing of former Liberal Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe, who died today aged 85:

Mr Thorpe died today (4 December) at his home in London. He had battled with Parkinson’s Disease for more than 35 years. He was elected as Liberal MP for North Devon in the 1959 General Election and held the seat for 20 years. Following the retirement of Jo Grimond, he was elected as leader of the Liberal Party in 1967. He was a fervent supporter of Britain’s membership of the the EU and played a leading role in the 1975 referendum. Mr Thorpe was defeated at the 1979 General Election and remained a committed Liberal, as the the President of the North Devon Liberal Democrats at the time of his death. He is survived by his son Rupert.

Paying tribute to Jeremy Thorpe Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said:

“Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership and resolve were the driving force that continued the Liberal revival that began under Jo Grimond. Jeremy oversaw some of the party’s most famous by-election victories and his involvement with the anti-apartheid movement and the campaign for Britain’s membership of the common market were ahead of his time. My thoughts are with Jeremy’s family and friends as they try and come to terms with their loss.”

Sir Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon said:

“Jeremy Thorpe was a colossal figure in the revival of the Liberal cause in post-war Britain and today’s Lib Dem politicians continue to feast on his legacy. His charisma, energy and innovative campaigning lit up his generation of British politics. He was the first to embrace fully 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. He would have shone in whatever walk of life he chose, but it was to the lasting benefit of Liberalism that he rejected the Conservatism of his ancestors and devoted himself to progressive causes at home and abroad. In North Devon he was a greatly loved champion of the community and is remembered with huge affection to this day. He was a towering force in shaping the political landscape of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”

Lord Steel of Aikwood, who succeeded Jeremy Thorpe as Liberal leader said:

“The Liberal Party will always be grateful for Jeremy Thorpe’s remarkable campaigning zest, as indeed I was during my by-election. It paid rich dividends in the uplift the Party secured in the 1974 election. He had a genuine sympathy for the underprivileged – whether in his beloved North Devon where his first campaign was for “mains, drains and a little bit of light” or in Africa where he was a resolute fighter against apartheid and became a respected friend of people like President Kaunda of Zambia.”

Here’s a round-up of some of the coverage:

Daily Telegraph:

Thorpe, at his very best on the stump, had no rival as a vote-gatherer. He could put any argument with skill and panache; his astonishing memory for faces persuaded voters that they were intimate friends; his brilliant gifts as a mimic kept the audience in stitches; his resourceful mind afforded quips and stunts for every occasion. … In the House of Commons he made an immediate impression … the young MP knew how to draw blood, as with his jibe after Harold Macmillan sacked several of his Cabinet in 1962: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his own life.”

The Independent:

He defended the principle of collective security and of loyal membership of the Atlantic alliance. He insisted on the need for Great Britain to join the European Community. He pleaded for co-partnership in industry. He spoke out boldly for constitutional reform. He defied unpopularity over the death penalty. He denounced dictatorship. He rejected racism when Enoch Powell was winning the plaudits of more than the mob.

In short, Thorpe stood up for Liberal values and did not conform to the modish infantilisms of the day. Not that he was insensitive to new problems or to the re-emergence of old ones. He was one of the first politicians to speak often about environmental problems, deploring the demolition of good buildings and warning against pollution. He went to Northern Ireland on several occasions, the first leader of a British political party to do so since the Stormont statelet was set up in 1921.

The Times:

Thorpe reached his political apogee at the next election in February 1974. If 14 seats was a disappointing reward for an immense Liberal effort, well over six million votes, which was more than the Liberal Democrats achieved even in 1997, it seemed to carry with it the promise of an electoral breakthrough. Thorpe’s own constituency returned him with a massive majority of 11,000. It didn’t happen in the second of the two general elections in 1974, but the Liberal party still remained a force with its 13 seats and five million votes.

The Guardian:

After the October 1974 election, Thorpe became the third of the party leaders (following Heath and Wilson) to ride into the sunset, formally resigning the Liberal leadership in May 1976. His remaining three years in the Commons, until his defeat at North Devon in 1979, were poignant and painful ones, both for him and his colleagues. He had to live each day under the shadow of rumour and innuendo, and eventually (though not until 1978) under the direct threat of criminal charges arising from allegations that he had sought to silence Scott: a gunman, Andrew Newton, was hired to meet Scott in 1975, but the only resulting casualty was Scott’s great dane. The last time he displayed his old zest and exuberance publicly was when, on hearing the news of his acquittal, he exultantly threw three cushions into the air and out of the dock at the Old Bailey on 22 June 1979.

Lib Dem blogger Jonathan Fryer – In Memoriam Jeremy Thorpe

… Jeremy was bisexual, but too traditional to admit that publicly, and the lies he told to some of his parliamentary colleagues to cover up his true nature made him persona non grata with some in the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats who never forgave him, though others of us remained faithful friends. … The last time I saw [Thorpe and his wife, Marion] together was at Jeremy’s 80th birthday celebrations at the National Liberal Club, when they were both in wheelchairs, and one had to get very close to Jeremy to hear what he was saying. But his brain remained razor sharp till the end.

BBC Online:

His later years saw the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. But he kept in close touch with the Westminster he loved, despite painful memories. He became the President of the North Devon Liberal Association, later Liberal Democrat Association, and received a standing ovation when he appeared at the 1997 Liberal Democrat conference. In an interview in 2009 the ailing former politician reflected on the events that had brought him down “If it happened now,” he said, ” I think the public would be kinder.”

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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31 Comments

  • Rip I did not belong to your party however I grieve your passing Pat

  • David Evans 5th Dec '14 - 1:22am

    A great leader of his time, who inspired massive growth in the party, in membership, councillors and gave a reason for people to vote Liberal across the whole country for the first time in a generation. In Feb 1974 he more than doubled our number of MPs and didn’t squander our independence by sensibly refusing to enter coalition with the unpopular Conservative Edward Heath. He then successfully fought a second General Election in October 74 where he only lost one seat, despite a massive squeeze by Lab and Con as well as a significant Scot Nat surge. As a result there were sound foundations for future leaders to take things forward again in the 1980s.

  • A Con-Lib coalition in Feb 1974 was a complete non-starter.

  • “…sensibly refusing to enter coalition…” I don’t wish to denigrate Jeremy, but let’s not airbrush history. His first impulse was to take the Liberals into coalition with the Tories – remember that Labour had promised a referendum on continued British membership of the EEC and that both he and Heath were ardent Europeans. There was a massive hostile response to the idea of coalition from the party’s activists and he rapidly backed away from talks with Heath.

  • tonyhill is quite correct in his recollection of February 1974. There was a massive hostile response to the idea of coalition from the party’s activists and Thorpe backed away from talks with Heath. I remember my own outrage at the very suggestion that we should prop up the failed Heath government which had clearly been shown the exit by the voters.

    1973 had been an Annus Mirabilis for the Liberal Party, winning parliamentary by-elections throughout the country. In many ways it was the polar opposite of 2014 for the Liberal Democrats. Thorpe was at his best, the showman leaping out of helicopters and over police barriers, giving off a sense of enthusiasm for the battle and providing an inspiring alternative for the voters.

    Thorpe was fortunate in as much as he inherited enormous goodwill and the party inherited the intellectual capital of the Grimond era. Thorpe had his moments of shining brilliance but there was also another side and I am not talking about his infamous court case and all that went with it. There were for example his dealings with a Canadian “businessman” which resulted in priceless assets from the National Liberal Club being sold off or otherwise disposed of.

    It is traditional to say nice things about people when they have died. Lots of people will say nice things about Jeremy Thorpe but like tonyhill I think we should not airbrush out the inconvenient facts.

  • Regarding “airbrushing of history”, it seems some people regard staying out of power as the main objective of the party. While Thorpe kept the Liberals out of government, he also left them fundamentally irrelevant to UK national politics.

    Critics of Nick Clegg and the Coalition with the Tories should remember the experience under the Liberals’ subsequent leader, David Steel, under the Lib-Lab pact. The party dropped from 18.3% of the vote to 13.8% and lost 2 of its 13 MPs.

    Anyone who thinks that cosying up with Labour or simply going for a confidence and supply agreement with the Tories would have been an easier option in 2010 should take one look at history. Teaming up with *either* party is toxic for the Lib Dems and we just have to accept this. Pretending it could somehow have been done without substantial damage to our popularity, given the atrocious state of the public finances in 2010 and the need for cuts to sort this out, is simply unrealistic.

  • Alex Macfie 5th Dec '14 - 9:16am

    In what reality is a minority coalition that relies on the support of the Ulster Unionists a workable proposition?

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Dec '14 - 9:54am

    RC

    Critics of Nick Clegg and the Coalition with the Tories should remember the experience under the Liberals’ subsequent leader, David Steel, under the Lib-Lab pact. The party dropped from 18.3% of the vote to 13.8% and lost 2 of its 13 MPs.

    This certainly can’t be put down to the Lib-Lab pact. The Liberal Party’s share dropped quite a bit between the February 1974 and the October 1974 general elections – a fact which is very much on my mind when I argue against the idea that if we had refused to join the Coalition and instead let a minority Conservative government get formed, somehow we could have improved our share of the vote in the inevitable general election that would take place a short time later. But after that, it dropped much more in the opinion polls – there were some very poor by-election results for the Liberal Party after 1974 and before the formation of the Lib-Lab pact.

    After Thorpe’s resignation over the Norman Scott issue, the party was subjected to the most horrendous attacks because homosexuality was involved. It was routine, if you were out canvassing wearing a Liberal rosette, and a bunch of Labour activists came across you for them to howl out homophobic abuse at you. In the university where I was a student at the time, and a member of the Liberal Club, the Labour Club put out a mock version of the Liberal newsletter we used to produce full of homophobic jokes. All of this was airbrushed out of history following the 1981 Bermondsey by-election.

    The 13.8% vote and loss of just 2 of the 13 seats was seen as a surprisingly good result for the Liberals in 1979. It left the expectation that they would start do well winning over votes in Conservative seats as they had in the previous Conservative government, and also the Edge Hill by-election demonstrated how they were beginning to make inroads in places which were supposedly safe Labour, but where Labour had become lazy and complacent.

  • I agree with RC that we should take a look at history.
    I also agree with him when he says – “..Teaming up with *either* party is toxic for the Lib Dems ….”
    However, taking a look at history indicates that there are degrees of toxicity. David Steel as leader of the Liberal Party managed to ride out the scandal that arose from Jeremy Thorpe’s court case as well as reaching a deal with the Callaghan minority Labour Government (The Lib-Lab Pact) and still manage an OK result in the 1979 General Election, having won the Edge Hill by-election a few weeks before. How different from the abysmal failure of the existing leader of the Liberal Democrats who manages to turn everything toxic, even a trip to Penzance.

    Taking a look at history also shows that a Conservative Government dependent on Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland (with or without some so-called Liberal Democrats on board for the ride) will be a disaster for the UK.
    If such a stunt is tried in May, our party should be 100% against.
    Liberal Democrats in the future should learn from the history of Thorpe, Steel and the more recent less successful leadership. Grabbing a brief period in coalition at the expense of destroying your party for a decade or more is not an example of statesmanship or good politics. I will leave it to others to decide for themselves what it is an example of.

  • nvelope2003 5th Dec '14 - 10:21am

    In what reality is a minority coalition that relies on the support of the Ulster Unionists a workable proposition?

    Well if the Ulster Unionists can form a coalition Government with the SDLP and especially Sinn Fein then an agreement with them at Westminster would be relatively easy. Mr Callaghan relied on them for support in the late 1970s. Most government legislation is routine and there are always deals which can be done. Mr Callaghan gave Northern Ireland 6 more seats in the UK House of Commons which meant their representation more accurately reflected their proportion of the UK population. Their representation had previously been reduced because they had a devolved parliament of their own from 1922 until 1972 which had been abolished by Edward Heath.

    Ulster Unionists are not monsters. They represent the views of a section of the population of Northern Ireland as do the Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein.

  • David Evans 5th Dec '14 - 10:42am

    RC, I think you deliberately set up a straw man when you say “some people regard staying out of power as the main objective of the party.” I know of no active Lib Dems who think like that, but many who wish our leaders’ main objective was to promote Liberal Democracy while in power (a difficult but vital job) and not simply to do whatever it takes to remain in power with the Tories (which is easy until they dump you). Now when it comes to ‘airbrushing from history,’ Nick’s total failure to mention the Euro election results in any of his speeches in Glasgow stands out as does his going AWOL whenever there is bad news to explain.

    However this is a thread about the sad death of a successful Liberal leader, so I won’t go any further with that, but simply point out that Jeremy took us from 11.2% to 18.3% via 8.5% in 1970, at a time when MPs, even the leader, had very few staff to shore up the activist base in local constituencies. That was done by inspiring people to help and support our vision and values by leading from the front and being seen by activists and the public, and that has to be the prime objective of any Liberal leader.

  • This from Tim Stanley in The Telegraph

    Remember him also by the way that he ended his life. It is said that he spent his last few decades quietly working hard for locals in Devon. Perhaps this indicates that he came to accept the hand that he had dealt himself, which makes him very different to modern politicians who never seem to know when the game is up.

  • Charles Rothwell 5th Dec '14 - 12:22pm

    Must be rated as one of the key Liberal leaders of the last century. After seeing Britain implode under Heath, my support/vote (and, in due time, party membership) switched to the Liberals largely due to Thorpe and other leading Liberals of the period (Steel, Pardoe etc.) Obviously, a man with huge flaws but when you think of what he stood for so fervently (anti-apatheid policies, internationalism, joint determination of industrial policy etc. etc.), added to the fact that he deliberately chose to join/lead the Liberals (whereas he would have been virtually certain to have attained (very) high office with either of the major parties), my admiration for him after all this time is only enhanced.

  • nvelope2003
    “Ulster Unionists are not monsters.”
    The Ulster Unionist Party have no MPs at Westminster. As regards the Democratic Unionists Party that maybe a differrent story.They are gearing up in the hope of exerting influence after the next general election and if they can it won’t be pretty.

  • David Allen 5th Dec '14 - 1:20pm

    “Critics of Nick Clegg and the Coalition with the Tories should remember the experience under the Liberals’ subsequent leader, David Steel, under the Lib-Lab pact. The party dropped from 18.3% of the vote to 13.8% and lost 2 of its 13 MPs.”

    Yes – a minor hiccup beside Clegg’s “achievement”, a drop from 23% to well below 10%!

  • David Allen
    Had there been an election in 1978, it could have been a different story. I remember Jim Callaghan saying “There will be no election”. The Liberals were the main beneficiaries of this delay. Labour might even had won an election held in that year..

  • David Allen 5th Dec '14 - 1:36pm

    (From Philip Young) “1974 talks with Heath: There was a Sunday lunch that weekend with Lord Byers where JT was told to forget it.”

    It’s fascinating to see when history repeats itself, and when it doesn’t. A generation ago, we also had a leader from upper-class Tory antecedents who broke away to become a Liberal. That leader stayed true to his liberal principles but was brought down by his private life. The opposite is the case now.

    There is one other difference. No doubt the Party gave Thorpe a clear message about coalition with the Tories. But he listened. He had not surrounded himself with an army of well-funded right-wing think tanks, careerists longing for prestigious government jobs, and spinners ready to promote coalition with the Tories. Things were different then.

  • David Allen 5th Dec '14 - 1:41pm

    Manfarang,

    So to clarify, the Liberals lost popularity after 1974 due to the Thorpe scandal. I don’t have poll figures to hand, but, do they indicate that the Liberal ratings rose back upwards during the Lib-Lab pact in 1978-79?

  • Malcolm Todd 5th Dec '14 - 1:58pm

    David Allen
    The Lib-Lab pact was 1977-78 (I think it may have been the ending of the Pact by the Liberals in October 1978 that led to speculation about an early election).
    According to Mark Pack’s excellent opinion polls database, the Liberals’ poll ratings did indeed increase over the 1978-9 winter (from about 6% on average to around 8% at the start of the election campaign in April, and an impressive 13% by the end of the campaign) – but that was all after the Pact had ended, I’m afraid.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Dec '14 - 2:33pm

    Manfarang

    As regards the Democratic Unionists Party that maybe a different story.They are gearing up in the hope of exerting influence after the next general election and if they can it won’t be pretty.

    The DUP results from about round 3 of an extremist group breaking off from mainstream Ulster Unionism claiming that it was not extreme enough, and then pushing out what was the mainstream party. SF is the same on the other side. Of course, having eliminated what was the opposition to the opposition on their respective sides, and dug the hatred and division further in their home patch, they now preside over just what it was they rejected and pushed out the moderates for accepting a generation previously.

    They are in a very different position to the Liberal Democrats regarding coalition. They have a very strong and concentrated voter base, which is mostly so obsessed with local issues that it can barely consider the wider picture. DUP voters are not going to say “Wah, my party has abandoned its principles and formed a coalition with the Labervatives, so I’m running off to vote SF” are they? Because they are concentrated in a small place with its own devolved structures, it’s very easy to throw something at them to keep them happy without that having a big impact on anyone else in the UK.

    The idea that junior coalition partners can be “kingmakers” and have an influence on coalitions beyond their size stems from what parties like this can do. The same doesn’t apply to the Liberal Democrats because their vote is the opposite in almost all respects.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Dec '14 - 2:35pm

    David Allen

    So to clarify, the Liberals lost popularity after 1974 due to the Thorpe scandal.

    No. The Thorpe scandal broke out in 1976. The Liberal support in the polls had already dropped way down from what it was in 1974 by then.

  • Alex Sabine 5th Dec '14 - 4:02pm

    David – I’m not sure that Thorpe’s eventual decision to snub Heath and reject coalition (possibly under pressure from his fellow Liberal MPs) was motivated by an unwillingness to sully Liberal principles by going into office with the Tories.

    Given the economic and industrial policies Ted Heath’s Conservative government was pursuing by 1973-74 – a reckless expansion of the money supply, fuelling runaway inflation; a public spending splurge that would make Gordon Brown blush; state control of prices, wages and dividends and the effective suspension of market forces in the private sector; a three-day working week; an Industry Act that Tony Benn said did the ‘spadework for socialism’ – it is hard to imagine that forming a coalition with Heath would have represented selling out to the Right for the sake of office.

    The real problem was that neither the Liberals under Thorpe, nor either of the two larger parties, had any idea how to fix an economy that was in February 1974 heading towards industrial anarchy and financial bankruptcy.

    The OPEC crisis and ensuing global recession had mercilessly exposed the weaknesses of the British economy, accelerating the relative decline that had been evident throughout the postwar period and taking us to the edge of the precipice. Following the inconclusive February 1974 election result, debate centred on the mounting industrial strife and whether the UK could borrow enough from foreign creditors to stay afloat, given the huge twin budget and balance-of-payments deficits and the lack of international confidence in sterling.

    As it turned out, Denis Healey decided to go for broke with a reflationary orgy and spent most of the rest of his Chancellorship trying to put the genie back in the bottle, while presiding over a fall in living standards and leaving structural reform to his successors. His reward for belated virtue was to be accused of betrayal by the Labour Party conference and the party’s ejection from office in 1979.

    Thorpe was undeniably a charismatic, colourful, energetic figure who fired up party activists and Young Liberals. He took full advantage of the highly charged and uniquely chaotic circumstances of February 1974 to garner six million votes. Unfortunately his gift for campaigning was not matched by a convincing diagnosis and prescription for the ‘British disease’. Instead he fell back on fine-sounding cliches about ‘co-partnership’, moderation and the ‘middle way’.

    Ironically his predecessor Jo Grimond had developed a much clearer and more incisive analysis of the UK predicament, observing in 1978: “It is not capitalism that is in crisis. It is Socialism that is in collapse. The faith has vanished. The principles are shattered. It won’t do for Liberals merely to say they will put on the brakes. Even if you slow down the Gadarene swine, they will go over the precipice eventually.”

    Grimond felt the idea that salvation lay in a prices-and-incomes policy, a cornerstone of Liberal economic policy and the proposal for partnership in industry under both Thorpe and David Steel, was a delusion. As he said in 1981: “Weshould not delude ourselves into thinking that an incomes policy is other than a serious infringement of freedom… Nor have the Liberals explained how it is to be worked, and even if they had, it is certainly not a permanent answer to our economic troubles… At present, the Liberal-Social Democratic Alliance occasionally looks too much like a half-way house on the old road to state socialism. It will spend more than the Tories but rather less than Labour… Such compromises may win votes, but they will not improve the country.”

    Appropriately, given his theatrical talents, Thorpe’s best-remembered quote was not about policy or ideology but his brilliantly wounding jibe after Harold Macmillan had sacked several members of his Cabinet in the ‘night of the long knives’ in 1962: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his own life.” It is hard to imagine such a witty barb coming from the mouths of Messrs Cameron, Miliband, Clegg or Farage…

    I hink the Telegraph obituary hits the nail on the head: “His critics acknowledged that he loved the game of politics – indeed he took a fiendish delight in its Machiavellian plots and manoeuvres – but they wondered if he knew why he was playing it. Thorpe’s Liberalism was essentially romantic and emotional. He reacted strongly against bone-headed Establishment snobbery, arrogant management or racial injustice, but showed scant interest in formulating any coherent political philosophy.”

  • This makes very interesting reading
    http://blogs.channel4.com/michael-crick-on-politics/thorpe-dilemma-liberal-democrats/4629

    Liberal Democrats would be wise not to whitewash Thorpe’s reputation in their eulologies.

  • g
    Some more interesting reading-
    “Today, many openly gay MPs coexist across the political spectrum. It’s no longer an issue. If a modern-day Jeremy Thorpe met his Norman Scott, their gay relationship would not be illegal, nor considered defective”.

  • g
    Thank you for the link to Ch4 News. I saw the broadcast version and if I recall correctly this bit was not included —
    “..Indeed with the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, marrying Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Lord Snowdon) in 1960, Thorpe was due to be best man. 
    But the police then explored rumours about Thorpe’s homosexuality, and the idea was dropped. ”

    Does anyone know if there is any evidence of this or is it /was it gossip?
    Certainly the reported statements from Norman Scott in the last couple of days stretch credibility a bit.

  • nvelope2003 6th Dec '14 - 2:26pm

    Manfarang: Democratic Unionists are still Ulster Unionists even if they are not members of the Ulster Unionist Party. Members of a party which believes in proportional representation should be careful about criticising other small parties whose views they may consider not to their liking. The DU represent a section of the people as do the Liberal Democrats. We have to get on with other people, not demonise them as certain sections of the press seem to enjoy doing to the Liberal Democrats.

  • Manfarang/JohnTilley

    I don’t think the problem identified in that story is Thorpe’s sexuality.

  • g
    Let’s ask Lord Goodman.
    Did you ever meet him ?

  • nvelope2003
    PR-STV is used in local, Assembly and European Elections in NI.
    As regards the Westminster election,voters are facing a clear choice,
    with the opportunity to step forward for peace, social inclusion and prosperity,
    or retreat along sectarian lines where paramilitaries can still influence political
    parties. Alliance is the only party clearly dedicated to working for everyone.

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