In His Own Time: The Trials Of Jeremy Thorpe

With his arm raised in victory, on 22nd June 1979, Jeremy Thorpe, the former leader of the Liberal Party and Member of Parliament for North Devon, triumphantly exited the Old Bailey with his wife Marion. Both his personal and political life had been intensely scrutinised over the preceding years, resulting in an uncertain parliamentary future for Thorpe. However, as a consequence of the trial it was now glaringly obvious that, as MI5 once reported, Thorpe’s ‘dreams of restoring the Liberals to their former glory and boasts of one day becoming Prime Minister,’ lay in tatters. Only weeks before, Thorpe had lost the seat he had held for two decades.

Born on 29th April 1929, John Jeremy Thorpe seemed destined to enter politics as both his father and grandfather had been Conservative MPs. After being sent to school in Connecticut during the Second World War, Thorpe went to Eton after his return to England before going up to Trinity College, Oxford to read Law. At Oxford, he fostered his interest in politics, and became the president of both the Liberal Club and the Law Society. In 1951, he also became president of the Oxford Union.

In 1952 Thorpe was selected as the prospective Liberal candidate for North Devon, which was then a safe Tory constituency. Though his attempt to become an MP was unsuccessful in the 1955 General Election, Thorpe was finally voted in by a narrow majority in 1959. By 1965, Thorpe had become the Liberal Party Treasurer and after the resignation of Jo Grimond in 1967, he was elected the party’s leader.

A highly charismatic and flamboyant figure, Thorpe was popular with the media and the general public alike; yet his party’s policies proved to be unappealing. In spite of Thorpe’s championing of human rights causes both at home and abroad, the Liberals lost 7 of their 13 seats in 1970. Nevertheless, the party regained 5 seats during a series of by-elections between 1972 and 1974.

In February 1974 however, a general election resulted in a hung parliament. The Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath was unable to form a coalition with the Liberals, who had won 14 seats overall, chiefly as a result of Thorpe’s unwillingness to enter such a deal. Consequently, the former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson returned to power. A second general election in October that year saw Wilson gain a clear majority, and privately, the amenability of the relations between the two men has often been seen as the cause of Thorpe’s mercurial ability to avoid disgrace after what took place as the decade wore on.

From the outset, Thorpe had been dogged by rumours about his sexuality at a time when homosexual acts between men remained a criminal offence in Britain. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised male sexual relations, but old prejudices lingered. In 1968, Thorpe had married Caroline Allpass and a son, Rupert, was born to the couple a year later. Heartbreakingly, Caroline Thorpe died in a car crash in 1970. Three years after the loss of his first wife, Thorpe remarried. Thorpe’s new wife, Marion (née Stein), was the Austrian ex-wife of George Lascelles, the 7th Earl of Harewood and also the Queen’s cousin. As his wife, and the mother of the Earl’s three sons, Stein had been granted the title Countess of Harewood until the couple divorced in 1967.

A young male model, Norman Josiffe, who later adopted the surname Scott, had befriended Thorpe in 1961. Though Thorpe would later admit to same-sex dalliances in his early life, he always denied that he had ever had a physical relationship with Scott. Scott on the other hand, had begun to claim that he was engaged in a sexual affair with Thorpe by 1962 and in 1965 he even wrote to Thorpe’s mother, providing an intimate account of his involvement with her son, and blaming Thorpe for awakening within him the ‘vice that lies latent in every man.’ These allegations prompted Thorpe to confide in his fellow Liberal MP, Peter Bessell. Scott continued to make his sensational claims about the nature of his relationship with Thorpe and was seemingly out for revenge against the politician, after his wife left him, taking their son with her in 1969.

A party inquiry conducted in 1971 absolved Thorpe of any alleged misconduct, and since that date speculation over his sexuality has primarily consisted of supposition, rumour, allegation and gossip. And yet the confidential records of the interrogations lodged at the House of Lords Library, which detail the extent to which the Security Service was clearly alarmed by Thorpe’s conduct during the middle of the Cold War, certainly belie the fragile persona afforded him by the obituaries that have followed his death.

By 1974, with his party’s fortunes having revived, Scott was starting to become a disconcerting problem for Thorpe. It was later claimed that early that year, Thorpe had begun to conspire to have Scott murdered. On 23rd October 1975, Scott was given a lift by a man he knew as Peter Keene to a family birthday party in Exmoor. In fact, Keene’s real name was Andrew Newton and he had approached Scott using a pseudonym, warning him that his life was potentially in danger. Scott had insisted on taking his dog, a Great Dane named Rinka, in the car with him. For reasons that have never been disclosed, the car was stopped and both men and Rinka got out. An intelligence officer who was trailing the pair then witnessed the following events:

‘Dog sprang out of car probably thinking going out for run. Scott grabbed her leash and tried to control dog. Newton takes out gun and shoots dog in the head. Scott then sees dog down shouts to Newton ‘You shot my fucking dog. You can’t involve Rinka in this. You shot – you shot my dog fuck you.’ Scott tries to give dog mouth to mouth resuscitation. Newton puts gun to the back of Scott’s head shouts ‘Fuck you, you Bastard!’ I then turned on car headlights which Newton saw as I was about 20/30 yards away. Scott is bent over body of dog crying. Newton gets into car drives away. I follow, leaving Scott over body of dog. Cars behind.’

Scott was taken to a hospital in Minehead after a driver stopped to help him. He was uninjured, but in shock, and told doctors that Thorpe had tried to have him shot; Scott’s claim was immediately disregarded. The press managed to break the story nonetheless, and after letters between the two men in which Thorpe affectionately referred to Scott as ‘Bunnies’ were published, as well as the revelation of further lurid details, such as the accusation that during their first night together, Thorpe, aided by a jar of Vaseline, had given Scott good reason to ‘bite the pillow,’ pressure mounted on Thorpe to quit as party leader, which he did on 10th May 1976.

Eighteen months later, Newton, who had received a prison sentence for shooting Rinka, was released. Newton spoke out, stating that he had received payment to kill Scott but had bottled out at the last minute. A police investigation ensued and Thorpe, along with three associate, Holmes, Deakin and Le Mesurier were charged with conspiracy to commit murder. The trial commenced on 8th May 1979 and was hailed by the British media as the ‘trial of the century.’ The presiding judge Mr Justice Cantley told the jury, ‘This is a bizarre and surprising case and the four accused are men of hitherto unblemished reputation.’ 

He added, ‘Mr Thorpe, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, in case you have forgotten, is a national figure with a very distinguished public record.’ Bessell and Newton were deemed unreliable witnesses and Scott was dismissed at the judge’s summation with the words, ‘He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a parasite.’ On 22nd June 1979, a verdict of ‘Not Guilty,’ was recorded. And while the men walked free, the events of the trial would famously leave the leading satirist of the day, Peter Cook, in little doubt that Judge Cantley’s instructions had deliberately tipped the trial in their favour.

Above: Peter Cook’s sketch following Thorpe’s acquittal, at the Amnesty International “Secret Policeman’s Ball” (1979)

Though Thorpe’s name had been cleared, his dreams of returning to the bosom of his party were to be permanently dashed. In 1981, Thorpe attempted to resurrect his shattered career by applying for the position of race relations adviser to the BBC, but was unsuccessful. Amnesty International made him a director in 1982, on the strength of Thorpe’s long-held passionate campaigning against apartheid South Africa, but he soon left after complaints were made about his appointment. Maintaining his presidency of the North Devon Liberals, Thorpe retired completely as a result of his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease in 1987, but received a standing ovation when he appeared at the Liberal Democrat Party conference in 1997 and published his memoir In My Own Time in 1999.

He died on 4th December 2014, having been confined to a wheelchair for several years, only surviving his cherished second wife by a matter of months. Speaking about the events that marred his ‘distinguished public record’ in 2009, ‘If it happened now,’ Thorpe ruminated, ‘I think the public would be kinder.’