Monday, 8 December 2014

Towards a balanced view of Jeremy Thorpe

Tom Mangold was able to recycle shelved material from an investigation of thirty-five years ago with the death of Jeremy Thorpe. BBC Radio had clearly anticipated one or more guilty verdicts in the 1979 trial for the attempted murder of Norman Scott and commissioned research from Mangold who obtained interviews with a number of senior policemen and an alleged criminal intermediary. After the "not guilty" verdicts, presumably fear of civil court action deterred the corporation from using the recordings. No such danger now, with the passing of the last of the politicians involved. The theme of the rehashed programme was the alleged conspiracy by the Establishment to cover up Thorpe's bisexuality.

Flicking back through the Radio Times archive of "Any Questions?" broadcasts (I was searching for the programme in which Thorpe revealed his mastery of the Welsh language) I was struck by the number of regular panellists who were also closeted (necessarily because of the law) at that time. Carwyn James, the inspirational RU coach, who was later to take his own life in consequence of a same-sex affair, was a frequent guest when the programme came from Wales. Robert Boothby came within a whisker of having his sexuality revealed when a photograph of him posed with the gangster Kray twins and a rent-boy came into the possession of the Daily Mirror; the story was killed by the paper's proprietor, Cecil King. Tom Driberg seemed to lead a charmed life; his wikipedia entry suggests why his flamboyance did not lead to prosecution. There were others who had had same-sex relationships in their younger days. All would no doubt have been aware of the zeal with which the police pursued "indecent behaviour" prosecutions, even when the victims of blackmail - as Thorpe was effectively at the hands of Norman Scott - were the source.

If there was a cover-up, as Mangold posits, then it would be interesting to know why it came to an end. Peter Oborne made a suggestion, based on the memoirs of Joe Haines, Harold Wilson's press secretary, in the Spectator a dozen years ago that Thorpe was singled out for Labour political reasons. Jack Straw's response to quizzing (by Eddie Mair last Friday)  about his part in instigating the trial in which Scott was able to make his privileged accusations from the dock was rather disingenuous. Certainly, in the light of the other cases quoted above, Thorpe could have considered himself unlucky.

Back then, I was not so exercised about the sexual aspects nor about the purported murder plot, which seemed bizarre at the time. My doubt about Thorpe had arisen earlier from his directorship of the London and County Securities fringe bank, one of those swept away in a property crash which should have been a warning to the Thatcher and the Blair-Brown governments. It suggested that his judgement in financial matters was not as strong as it should have been.

If it had not been for the archaic law against physical relationships between men, Thorpe's impact on politics would almost certainly have been even greater and enduring. As Richard Moore's obituary in the Indy reminds us, Thorpe had a hard act to follow in the form of Jo Grimond, but kept the Liberal flame alive by refusing to trim and became arguably as inspirational.

[Grimond] had built up a deserved reputation as an able publicist for, and as sometimes the originator of, new ideas. He had been eloquent and was respected beyond the boundaries of the Party.

He had left the leadership at a time when the follies of the 1960s were beginning to capture Liberal hearts and minds, especially the Young Liberals, who were then taken seriously by party assemblies and the media. Indeed, for several years the Liberal Party was in danger of becoming a wing of the Peace Movement; of believing that socialism, at least in its foreign forms, was the wave of the future; of hating the US and swallowing the unilateralist nostrum.

Thorpe held off these follies by concentrating on established policies. 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.

I am not as convinced as Mr Moore of the logic of the so-called independent nuclear deterrent, but otherwise I would like to see a restatement from the current leadership of the political values which Jeremy Thorpe stood for and which have not been repudiated either by the Liberal or Liberal Democrat parties.

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