Lord Martin Thomas writes….Jeremy and me

We are going to hear a lot of adverse things about Jeremy in the next few weeks. But I doubt even Hugh Grant can portray the style of Jeremy as he really was. He was a terrific campaigner. It was typical of him to swish in on a helicopter to support me in West Flintshire in 1970, to make a speech on the stump and to swish out again, leaving the gathering gasping for breath and hugely impressed.

He had one amazing political attribute – an abiding memory of your name and always, one additional attribute about you: for me it was Welsh cheese. On a later trip, he came to Rhyl and in its best hotel in town, I presented him with a piece of our native produce. But he did not delay: he was out of the door quickly to dash up and down the main street. He shook the hand of every voter who could not escape. Unfortunately, we left the cheese temporarily in the hotel fridge and forgot about it for ever. Whenever I met him thereafter he would always greet me with ‘Martin, where’s my cheese?’ Thus my reputation in the eyes of the Leader was as the man who’d lost his cheese. Shortly before his death when I had not seen him for thirty years, I met him on the terrace of the National Liberal Club. He was shaking and not well. I said tentatively, ‘You won’t remember me’. He replied, ‘Martin, where’s my cheese?’

His other attribute was a nose for conspiracy. It was October 1972 and I went to Murrayfield to watch the match to celebrate the centenary of the Scottish Rugby Union – Scotland/England –v- Wales/Ireland. The Scottish crowd’s conduct drew letters to the Times and I concluded my own contribution as follows: “Would the thieving Scottish bastard who swiped my red rosette at the end of the game kindly return it before the All Blacks match in Cardiff on December 2nd?”

The following February, a piece appeared in the News of the World to the effect that Emlyn Hooson, Liberal MP for Montgomeryshire, was plotting to supplant Thorpe as Leader. A day later, the Daily Record, a sister paper, phoned Jeremy’s office to get my phone number. Their purpose, quite unknown to him or his staff, was to enquire whether having regard to my expressed disenchantment five months earlier, I was going to Murrayfield the following Saturday to watch Wales –v- Scotland. Jeremy assumed that I, as the then Chairman of the Welsh Liberals, was organising Emlyn’s alleged coup. But if there was a plot, Emlyn never told me.

As it happened, the Liberal Party Executive was meeting in the Scottish Liberal Club the same day as the match. I could kill two birds with one stone. When I turned up in the morning in Princes Street after a long drive from North Wales, I was met with a furious Leader, with full blast accusations of treachery and deceit. It was a good start to the day: Wales lost 10 -9.

So Jeremy never quite grew beyond the mind-set of Oxford Union politics, with its climate of back-stabbing and dirty tricks. He had successfully beaten our own Dick Taverne and William Rees-Mogg, Jacob’s father, for the Presidency. He could charm the birds from the trees and the votes from the pockets of the punters.

I was myself at the Old Bailey in another court when he was tried and popped into Court Number One when I could. My friend, Gareth Williams, later Lord Williams of Mostyn and Attorney General in Blair’s government, was defending one of the Swansea alleged co-conspirators and George Carman, another antagonist, defended Jeremy. At the time, rightly or wrongly, there was a general view that Norman Scott was a bit of a fantasist who was prone to exaggeration. He was living in North Wales initially and had approached Emlyn Hooson first with his complaints. But poor Rinka had indeed been shot…..

I’m waiting to see what the script writers make of Mr Justice Cantley. If he is portrayed as an upper class pillar of the Establishment, nothing would be further from the truth. Joe Cantley was a grammar school boy who after Manchester University, gained the top honours in his Bar finals with the Certificate of Honour. He was a fair minded man. I appeared many times before him in the Chester Assizes and indeed, he supported my application for Silk in 1979. He was off the Bench very down to earth, full of stories and easy to get on with. He was not in the least naïve. The common view is that as the judge, he stepped too far down from the Bench into the arena – but an Old Bailey jury is pretty resilient and if they were not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt by the evidence in court that Jeremy was guilty of conspiracy to murder, let the verdict stand. He was ruined anyway.

We have not seen his like as a political campaigner since.

* Martin Thomas is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and the party's Shadow Attorney General

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32 Comments

  • adrian sanders 20th May '18 - 9:20am

    On the Saturday evening after I was elected by just 12 votes in 1997 the phone rang. I answered it and Jeremy’s voice came on to congratulate me for winning one of the last seats in the county he thought would fall to the Liberal cause. He rang again after I held it with a larger majority in 2001. One of the key characters in the Thorpe case was Peter Bessell who stood unsuccessfully in the constituency at the General Election in 1955 and the by-election in the same year. He came third behind Labour in both.

  • For those that haven’t seen it there is a good piece on the BBC News website by Shaun Ley, the BBC presenter and reporter who lived in his constituency as a child (as well as countless documentaries on youtube!!) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-44122176

  • Richard Underhill 20th May '18 - 12:14pm

    Maybe Eastbourne owes him a favour, campaigning from a hovercraft.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 20th May '18 - 1:52pm

    Could a good dedicated member f our party without bias explain, was Thorpe guilty, not interested in the verdict, in the facts!

    I shall watch the series.

  • Lord Martin aptly writes of Jeremy Thorpe’s innate talent on the stump.

    I remember well the sense of injustice I felt as a student observing the 1974 election, when Jeremy Thorpe was highlighting that the Liberal Party had won only 14 seats with six million votes, 20% of the turnout.

    The contentious negotiations around a coalition in 1974 appear to have failed over the issue of a solid commitment to change in the voting system
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-26381917.

    The minority Labour government that followed from 1974 to 1979 paved the way for the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979 and all that followed over the subsequent decades as a consequence.

  • Well that’s something I won’t be watching on TV anytime soon.
    I did meet Jeremy Thorpe once at a Liberal constituency office once. I got the measure of the man. Of course the massive press coverage of the law case against him was very much aimed at reducing Liberal support.

  • Simon McGrath 20th May '18 - 3:05pm

    @manfarang – you are of course correct. had it not been for the press wanting to reduce our support there would have been very little coverage of a party Leader being on trial for the attempted murder of his former lover.

  • Jeremy Thorpe lived in an era where gay men were criminalised for their actions. For right or wrong this pushed some to extreme responses. Just look at the tragedy of Alan Turing. Glad we live in better times.

  • Tony Greaves 20th May '18 - 3:46pm

    Jeremy Thorpe did one useful thing for the party that he did so much to harm. He lived much longer than anyone expected. As a result it’s all past history. What’s next on the TV – a scandal about Lloyd George’s personal life? Or a piece about Gladstone going out to rescue fallen women???

  • OnceALibDem 20th May '18 - 4:27pm

    What you describe some who is intelligent and charming, but also prone to paranoia and angry outbursts, and who couldn’t really recognise what they were doing wrong. Wouldn’t you agree you’re describing a text book sociopath?

  • Tony,

    “What’s next on the TV – a scandal about Lloyd George’s personal life?” That would take more than three hour long episodes – it would have to be a full series to do it justice.

  • Gordon Lishman 20th May '18 - 9:06pm

    I never noticed the charm – perhaps I wasn’t worth the effort. He did once tell me the mnemonic he used to remember my name. When I first met him, I was smoking my pipe – an old meerschaum. He associated it with a Rembrandt painting of an old man with a meerschaum pipe and that triggered the link in his mind.

    I lost any respect I might have had when his office tried to buy and fix a YL election against Peter Hain so there was little respect to lose when he flagrantly put self before party at a later stage. I don’t know whether he would have backed me against Peter – I’d already told Peter that I thought he’d be better as YL Chair than me. All a very long time ago!

  • I met Jeremy Thorpe while canvassing in the 1974 election. He was a very positive and charismatic man. I know all of the published information from the time but I feel, very strongly ,that he was a victim of the age he lived in. In the world of today he could have been happy in both his private and personal life. His life did not fail because it deserved to fail.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st May '18 - 12:46pm

    Thanks to David Raw a response to my wonderings and thinking of you for the hip op.

  • No

  • Denis Loretto 21st May '18 - 1:58pm

    Just to say what a superb performance Hugh Grant is putting in. My direct experience of the remarkable Jeremy Thorpe is limited to being in the front row of a debate in the City of London about which was the most radical party of the day. I think it was in the early 1960s, before he was party leader, and not surprisingly he performed very well in the debate. I reckon Hugh Grant is capturing him perfectly.

  • Martin Thomas 21st May '18 - 2:43pm

    I agree, Denis. But as yet we have not seen that braying, slightly manic laugh or giggle that Jeremy employed and was part of his character. The plot appears to be based on Peter Bessell’s account. I can imagine prosecuting counsel’s feeling of foreboding at the Old Bailey as he put into the box a witness who came out of his hidey-hole in California only with the promise of immunity from arrest in this country for fraud, and indeed, was taking £50,000 from the Sunday Telegraph for his story, plus another £50,000 if Jeremy was convicted – the equivalent of nearly a million pounds in today’s money. ‘Gorgeous’ George Carman demolished him. More to come!

  • OnceALibDem 21st May '18 - 3:54pm

    Times have of course moved on. I’m sure the party now would not clear someone in an internal inquiry and laud them despite obvious failings because “He was a terrific campaigner”

  • Mike Falchikov 21st May '18 - 6:43pm

    Sunday’s opening episode (yes, great acting by Hugh Grant) brought back happy memories of the long hot summer of 1959 when I was part of a Liberal Students’ campaign in North Devon in the run-up to the autumn election when he won the seat from the Tories. We worked hard and it was enormous fun, not least because of Jeremy’s enthusiasm and generosity. He was great on the doorsteps and gave us all the confidence to canvass ourselves (though we couldn’t do the Devon accent he managed to put on so successfully). In retrospect, I can see portents of some of the darker side, such as his spending of £100 (1959 prices – “borrowed” from his agent) on a party for us, which led to some unorthodox driving and skinny-dipping on Braunton Beach, but for me he remains a charismatic figure and a genuine Liberal who led the
    party to its biggest national vote for about half a century in Feb. ’74. Sadly everything went downhill for him after that.

  • Kath Fifield-Rhodes 21st May '18 - 9:03pm

    I was Chairman of Devonport Liberals in the early/mid seventies. A hot house of Liberalism ( not ). Yet I have fond memories of Jeremy and his wife coming to Devonport to meet our ( very few) members. We went to lunch in a small hotel, in what was then a poor area of Plymouth, just the three of us. I will never forget his kindness and generosity of spirit. The wasn’t the slightest hint of patronage. I watched the first episode on Sunday with trepidation because these events came very soon after that lunch. My impression of the programme is that although Hugh Grant is amazing in his portrayal of Jeremy , the
    whole situation has been reduced to that of a comic cartoon.

  • Richard Underhill 22nd May '18 - 12:04pm

    JoeB 20th May ’18 – 2:20pm: Lots of things contributed to ” minority Labour government that followed from 1974 to 1979 paved the way for the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979″
    1) Granada TV had a northern regional franchise. What Granada thought was an expose was exactly what the Tory MPs selectorate liked.
    2) She has said that she would not have stood for the Tory leadership if Keith Joseph had wanted to stand, but he had doubts about how and/or whether the Conservative Party would accept him. (Disraeli had been able to take the parliamentary oath “on my honour as a Christian”)

  • Richard Underhill 22nd May '18 - 12:20pm

    JoeB 20th May ’18 – 5:06pm: ” TV – a scandal about Lloyd George’s personal life?”
    There is the book by the bilingual Ffion Hague, The Pain and the Privilege, The Women in Lloyd George’s Life, as heard on BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. ISBN 978-0-00-721949-0 Harper Press 2008.

  • Richard Underhill 22nd May '18 - 12:55pm

    The TV programme shows Thorpe’s ambition as wanting to be “Deputy Prime Minister, or Prime Minister” with Bessell doubting the “Deputy”.
    BBC journalist Michael Cole wrote in The Times of 21 May 2018, pages 2-3 that he was door-stepping Thorpe after the election of 28 February 1974 and was ‘conned’ as Thorpe avoided the crowd. In the process he casts doubt on the precise credibility of PM Edward Heath MP, whose memoirs say that Thorpe “turned up in Downing Street”. Why then was a BT engineer installing a scrambler device on the telephone lines in Devon, to enable conversations between the two party leaders to be confidential? Who would have had the authority to do that? Heath? or Thorpe?
    The context could have included the fact that Heath’s predecessor Sir Winston Churchill had offered a Cabinet post to a former Liberal Party leader after the 1951 general election and been refused so that the Liberal Party could retain its independence. Churchill would have known about ‘National Liberals’ (or various anagrams of that) who served in government in the 1930s and that the Labour and Liberal party leaders served under Churchill in the wartime coalition.

  • simon hebditch 22nd May '18 - 1:03pm

    It was all a long time ago. I was working for the Liberals in Parliament and was watching with horror the unfolding of what appeared to many to be a fantastical story. Just one observation at the moment – it was interesting that many who worked with or close to Jeremy at the time, within Westminster, believed the essence of the saga. Those outside what is now called the Westminster bubble couldn’t believe it was possible.

  • Ruth Coleman-Taylor 22nd May '18 - 2:07pm

    Jeremy Thorpe was a brilliant speaker, a wicked mimic and a lively raconteur and could be great fun. He was a man of considerable charm, selectively displayed. As Chair of the Young Liberals 1973/75, I saw quite a lot of Thorpe, e.g. when sharing platforms during the 2 General Elections in 1974. Sometimes I was treated to his signature greeting – a 10,000-watt smile, arms flung wide, an expression of delight on his face – but this could shrink to a mere nod if the YLs were out of favour with the leadership, as we often were.
    As Jeremy’s troubles grew, the YLs tried to be supportive, but this was not always appreciated, except by the Press, who saw opportunities to make trouble. A very positive YL press release, referring to peaceful, consensual sexual relationships was mangled by the Telegraph into celebration of ‘piecemeal sex’. (The reporter later claimed it had been read to him on a dodgy phone line).
    Years later, when Jeremy was old and ill, he attended a Western Counties conference. As he came in, the room fell silent and, quite quickly, people jumped to their feet. Everyone clapped for him. He was still held in great affection there.

  • Mick Taylor 25th May '18 - 6:23pm

    David Raw may be right about Colne Valley, but when I drove Thorpe’s landcover round Ripon in the 1973 by-election Thorpe’s charisma and his speeches in village hall after village hall drew over capacity audiences that then went on to elect David Austwick as their MP. Sadly he lasted only until the next election. Thorpe had many faults but his charisma and powerful speeches were not amongst them. I particularly remember him reporting an alleged remark of Clement Freud, when asked where the gold watch he was swinging came from. Thorpe said, in perfect mimicry of Freud ” I bought it from my grandfather (Sigmund) on his deathbed”.

  • Richard Underhill 28th May '18 - 12:34pm

    David Raw 23rd May ’18 – 9:17pm: I attended a dinner at the National Liberal Club in which a descendent (son?) of Clement Davies described a hard-working leader campaigning nationwide to demonstrate that the Liberal Party was different from either of the others.
    In hindsight, and with other sources, most of the policies implemented by the postwar Attlee government had been agreed in the later years of the wartime, three party, coalition government. The turning points had come in 1941 at Stalingrad and in Egypt.
    The Economist magazine described a Conservative-Labour consensus they called ‘Butskellism’ after Butler, who did not become PM, and Gaitskell, who did become Labour leader.

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