The Thorpe Affair – What if?

I am one of those with a fascination for history, who sometimes indulge in the practice of ‘What if?’. Some of you may know what I mean; but, if not, here are a few examples. Let’s start with 1066. What if King Harald had actually defeated Duke William of Normandy at the battle of Hastings? Scroll forward some eight hundred years and ask yourself what if President Abraham Lincoln had not attended Ford’s Theatre on that fateful night in April 1865? What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s driver hadn’t taken a detour in Sarajevo in June 1914 or what if Adolf Hitler hadn’t shortened his speech at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich in November 1939 and left early? And finally, more recently and perhaps nearer to home, what if Nick Clegg hadn’t accepted David Cameron’s ‘generous offer’ in May 2010? I’m sure you get the idea.

So, you might say, what has this got to do with Jeremy Thorpe and the Liberal Party? Well, what if, following a massive surge in support (around 20% of the popular vote) which, thanks to FPTP, resulted in only a derisory 14 MPs, he had managed to win over his colleagues and the party grassroots and accept the offer of Ted Heath to join a coalition government following the ‘Who governs Britain’ general election of February 1974?

The ‘baby boomers’ will surely remember the early 1970s, which started out with Heath’s surprise victory in the ‘70 General Election, when his government embarked upon a race for growth with the infamous ‘Barber Boom’, that, despite the inflation it eventually unleashed, especially in the housing market, appeared to many, even up to the summer of 1973, to be bearing fruit in economic terms, despite storm clouds on the horizon.

What really derailed the ‘project’, besides the Heath government’s inability to deal effectively with Trades Union militancy and ineffective management, was the OPEC oil embargo following the Yom Kippur War between the Arab states and Israel in October 1973 which saw oil prices quadruple in a matter of months, thus presenting unions such as the NUM with an open goal. Just to think that, only a few years earlier, the Economic Minister of the booming West German economy, Karl Schiller, had confidently claimed that “the future belongs to oil”.

I must admit that I was living and working abroad when these events took place; but I couldn’t help but notice the difference that the events of the Autumn and Winter of 1973/4 wrought on the British economy when stopping off in the UK in the Summer of ‘73 on my way from Canada to a new job in West Germany, when optimism still appeared to dominate and coming back for Christmas and later for job interviews in early ‘74 when the ‘Three Day’ week was in full swing. In West Germany at the time the only obvious manifestation of the ‘Ölkrise’ was the temporary imposition of speed limits on motorways and the banning of all but essential car journeys on Sundays.

The point I am attempting to make is that, had Thorpe and Heath got together, they might just have weathered the storm, especially as the Tories, albeit with four fewer MPs than Labour, had slightly outscored the latter in terms of the popular vote. Even if Thorpe may not have survived (for reasons outlined later) it is quite possible that Heath would have, and, if the economy continued to improve (with North Sea oil waiting to come on stream), inflation contained and more sensible voices in the TUC coming forward, we might just have avoided some of the disasters that eventually bedevilled the rest of the decade, including the visit from the IMF and the ‘Winter of Discontent’, which culminated in the election of Margaret Thatcher as PM and the abandonment of the last vestiges of ‘Butskellism’, which had been a feature of the post war consensus. Instead of the North Sea Oil ‘bonanza’ being used to finance unemployment it might have actually been used to drag the bulk of British industry from the 19th into the latter quarter of the 20th century and beyond.

Of course, such an ‘alliance’ would have been fraught with dangers, the most obvious being Thorpe’s private life; but, even if he had had to fall on his sword, the Parliamentary Liberal Party at the time had such talented members as Emlyn Hooson, David Steel, John Pardoe, and recently elected Alan Beith, to name just four, to pick up the reins, with later stars such as David Penhaligon, Paddy Ashdown and Ming Campbell waiting in the wings. But, of course, the risk that the Liberals would have been ‘rewarded’ by the great British electorate for their willingness to put national interest first, like their successors, the Lib Dems, were a generation or so later cannot be ruled out.

All that is possible. Who knows? With the experience gained in government back then, the Liberals may have become like Germany’s FDP, a coalition partner to parties of the right and left, over many revolutions of the political cycle, bringing a bit of common sense to politics. Perhaps, perish the thought, there would have been no need to ‘invent’ the SDP!

A LDV contributor recently accused me of wanting to have “20/20 hindsight”. Very well,  I’ll plead guilty to that one. What if I hadn’t used a few idle moments to write this article? But it’s worth a thought, isn’t it? There might just be a lesson to be learned here.

May your days be merry and bright and may all your Brexits be soft!

* John Marriott is a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Lincolnshire.

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17 Comments

  • The other factors would have remained. IMO it would have simply reduced the Liberal vote, pretty much like the last coalition, and boosted the Labour vote, possibly swinging the Common market referendum the other way, thus the SDP possibly wouldn’t have happened. But really you can’t know. Apart from anything else Reagan would still have still gained power in America and his voodoo economics would still have grabbed centre stage to become the new orthodoxy. The 70s were shaped by events outside of government control or individual competence.

  • In 1970 the Liberal Party still had members that remembered the splits of the 1930s.

  • Chris Rennard 17th Jun '18 - 1:26pm

    Edward Heath’s unwillingness to support a PR system even though his party had polled more votes in the Feb 74 election, whilst winning fewer seats than Labour, effectively meant that he would never be PM again as Wilson cleverly used the benefits of incumbency to win a narrow majority in October. Even talking to Heath was hugely controversial and I well remember the rancour and division within the party of doing so. But if PR had been secured, and a sensible programme for government agreed, it might have been worth it even with 14 MPs including those mentioned and the likes of Jo Grimond, Richard Wainwright and others. The division would however have been bloody.

    The price of the eventual Lib Lab Pact without even gaining PR for the European elections was also very high and only a period of clear independence and the winning of the Edge Hill by-election enabled us to survive the traumas of the 70s and prepare for the high hopes of the 80s.

    The lessons of 74 (and 77) were the need for a PR system to make coalition viable for a ‘junior partner’ and to fairly sustain a political system with more than two parties.

  • From repeated attempts at coalition with the Tories, including the most recent one, we know exactly what the results for the Liberals would have been: extinction. Every Liberal (or Lib Dem) coalition with the Conservative Party since 1918 has resulted in huge advantages for the Tories and disaster for the Liberals.
    The wretched story of the FDP and its ultimate fate as the politically negligible and ultimately discarded prop to the CDU points in exactly the same direction.

  • And Healey and Pardoe couldn’t stand each other.

  • John Marriott 17th Jun '18 - 3:01pm

    @David-1
    Your interpretation of recent German political history is very different from mine. The Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP) produced some outstanding and revered politicians, including the first Federal President, Theodor Heuss, Walter Scheel and, of course, Hans Dietrich Genscher. Not only did the FDP work in coalition with the CDU/CSU (get the name right, please – it was,after all, a coalition in itself) but also shared power with the SPD on several occasions. Hardly a ‘wretched story’ I would content. Very few other truly ‘Liberal’ parties (in the European sense) could claim that success rate. As for being ‘discarded’ as you out it by the CDU, didn’t the latter try to offer the former a deal recently, which IT rejected?

  • The CSU is nominally independent, but is in practice simply the Bavarian branch of the CDU. The FDP never succeeded in expanding its appeal to place it in a position to become the dominant partner in a coalition government, much less a ruling party; they supinely accepted playing second fiddle for decades, and in 2013 the German voters finally gave them precisely zero seats in the Bundestag. They now have a few seats, but are still out of government.
    They have also long since abandoned any distinctively _liberal_ political orientation.

    This is not a good model for the Liberal Democrats, though it is a frighteningly plausible future for the party.

  • Tony Dawson 17th Jun '18 - 6:54pm

    @David-1 “This is not a good model for the Liberal Democrats, though it is a frighteningly plausible future for the party.”

    Frighteningly plausible, indeed. A considerable amount of criticism of certain actors in the Party during the Coalition years was that these politicians had behaved with an apparent disregard to any serious consideration of the effects of their actions (and inactions) on the electoral future of the Party and the ability of the electorate to identify it’s characteristics different from those of the ‘main partner’.

    I heard it said several times that those ‘at the top’ behaved in a way that they could possibly have got away with under a proportional representation system but which was potentially lethal under FPTP. The fate of the FDP (notwithstanding the good which they did sometimes in German and European government) is a testament to the fact that such arguably negligent or reckless inattention can have severe consequences even with proportional representation. 🙁

  • John Marriott 17th Jun '18 - 8:27pm

    @David-1
    “The CSU….is in practice simply the Bavarian branch of the CDU.” Yes and no. I seem to remember that Franz Josef Strauß once threatened to put up CDU candidates in Bavaria over some political spat he had had (and he had quite a few in his life). Under the German version of PR it is very difficult for a ‘Liberal’ party to expand support. As you say, there have been times when it has failed to gain the 5% of the popular vote necessary to be represented in the provincial Landtage and Bundestag.

    However, what my article was about was to speculate what might have happened if events back in early 1974 had turned out differently. Whatever you might think of the German FDP you really cannot ignore the influence it had over successive coalition governments, particularly in the years of the economic miracle (Wirtschaftswunder, which is frankly more than can be said since WW2 about either the British Liberal Party, the SDP/Liberal Alliance or the Lib Dems. Sorry if you find this hard to stomach; but it might just be that a party that espouses the concept of European style liberalism will always struggle to gain traction in a modern pluralist society.

  • Hibernian Liberal 17th Jun '18 - 8:54pm

    @Tony Dawson – ‘The fate of the FDP’, which won 10.7% in the Federal Elections last year is one many Liberal Democrats might envy. If I lived in the UK, rather than the Republic of Ireland, I’d certainly be a Lib Dem member, so I wish the Lib Dems the best.
    @David1 – ‘They…..are still out of government’ – only because they refused Chancellor Merkel’s offer and essentially ended the ‘Jamaica’ coalition talks, which the Greens may well have refused anyway. It is likely that they might well be in a CDU/CSU/FDP minority government, which the Greens and SPD might not bring down in order to prevent Alternative fur Deutschland being the Official Bundestag Opposition, which it is now.
    To go back to Mr Marriott’s scenario, Michael Bloch suggests the security services would have vetoed Jeremy Thorpe becoming Home Secretary but he could’ve lived with that. I think the SDP would still have been formed as Labour’s divisions were too profound. It would depend on who had served in cabinet or Minister of State as to whether the 1980’s had Liberal former minister MPs (the Thorpe scandal sunk John Pardoe too) but would likely have made the Alliance more credible. I don’t know how the Liberals would’ve fared in an alternative 1978/79 general election but the Conservatives would never have conceded PR and referenda only began in UK because Labour was split over EEC membership. It’s probable that a Heath coalition wouldn’t have harmed the Liberals as much as 2010-15 but the party would have lost votes on Feb 1974 even under most benign of circumstances.

  • What Thorpe didn’t do, and what Clegg didn’t do, was to demand the right terms – much more favourable terms – and force the Tories to choose between acceptance and walking away. Admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, we know that coalition is fraught with danger for the smaller partner. It follows that the right terms have to be much more generous to the smaller partner than the terms which Thorpe rejected, and than the terms which Clegg accepted.

    No doubt if Clegg had said “No tuition fees, or no deal!”, Cameron would have attempted to paint him as irresponsibly risking the nation’s finances, at a time of global instability, by refusing to make a coalition deal. But what if Clegg had retorted that it was the Tories who were refusing to make a reasonable agreement, and that Cameron was risking the nation’s finances for the sake of his dogmatic insistence that students must be charged tuition fees?

    I can’t help feeling that Lib Dem / Alliance leaders (Jenkins and Owen excepted) just haven’t intuitively felt themselves capable of competing in political status with the likes of Heath, Wilson, and Cameron. They have too readily accepted junior status. Doing so has been disastrous.

  • David Allen. “competing in political status”. I don’t think David Steel ever knowing underestimated his own abilities.

  • Teresa Wilson 18th Jun '18 - 7:58pm

    Speaking as an historian, I find these alternative scenarios fascinating but somewhat in the realms of science fiction. We do not know.

    What perhaps we can say with some confidence is that not future coalition should be entered into – with the exception of joining a National Government in a period of grave national crisis – unless we have receive a firm undertaking to introduce proportional representation during the next parliamentary session.

    And given recent events, it should be in writing.

  • John Marriott 18th Jun '18 - 9:47pm

    @Teresa Wilson
    You know, I tend to agree with you. It’s PR or nothing. However, that’s no guarantee that Lib Dem electoral fortunes would change massively; but at least they would get the proportion of seats to which their votes entitled them.

  • The “what if” stuffs are quite fun, especially when it comes to history.

    What if Asquith crashed his head on a rock and died in early 1916? The Asquith-Lloyd George split would have faded away and the Liberals could have been saved. Lloyd George, a man of action unlike “Mr. Wait and see” Asquith, would have pushed the party towards a radical course and would have given the party much needed dynamism.

    A Lincoln surviving case a thing I always like. It would have led to a much better American society. Lincoln wouldn’t have torpedoed Reconstruction from the beginning like the Southern Democrat Andrew Johnson. He would have tried to build and maintain his legacy and he had sufficient political skills to do so.

    But a what if McKinley surviving assassination would have been a dreadful scenario for American common men.

    Personally I dislike the FDP path regarding policy platform because it would give us a “party of the rich” stereotype. However, I agree with “PR or nothing”.
    If you read Hofstede’s cultural values and why his model failed in Germany, you will understand why FDP cannot become a major party. German people value law and order and social cohesion rather than Anglo-Saxon individualism. The CDU, like Zentrum in the past, appeals to a much wider classes of people, as it essentially speaks to all Catholics of all classes.

  • John Littler 23rd Jun '18 - 12:29pm

    Most people can only remember 1-2 or maybe three big policy aspects off a period of government and most will remember the negative ones a lot more strongly.

    Cameron was clever in getting Clegg to accept the reversal of the government loan for the industrial machinery agreed in Sheffield, close to his constituency and in upping the student fees by a factor of 3 . The former made it more difficult for Clegg to get re-elected and the latter made it difficult for the party nationally. Cameron knew these would play incredibly badly and has managed to build one small Tory majority on the back of ex LibDem seats.

    If there is another coalition (before fascism or the end of civilisation arrives), the smaller party either has to be incredibly risk adverse and not start making difficult decisions. Perhaps by taking over whole departments would work better than having junior ministers continually thwarted. Also, the representations should be close to the percentage of the vote and not the number of MP’s.

    PR or nothing would be preferable to sharing blames for difficult decisions and being roped into general rightwingery.

    Clegg could have driven a harder bargain with Cameron.

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