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Jeremy Thorpe: why I believed in him at the time

Jun 10, 2018

David Boyle writes:

I watched the Thorpe scandal on the BBC series A Very English Scandal with a great deal of emotion. In fact, at the end of the last programme, I found myself in tears – and I’ve been wondering why ever since.

It was, of course, brilliantly directed, written and acted – and also brilliantly evocative of a period when I was first politically aware.

I remember vividly poring over the blow-by-blow accounts of the trial in the Telegraph in my friend Stuart’s room in college (I still have the cuttings somewhere).

That was before I knew Thorpe himself, many years later. He and Marion were very kind to me. He was also still a purveyor of the Liberal, and now the Lib Dem, besetting sin – policy wheezes designed to attract attention, but with virtually no content.

And admire him as I did, especially in those trial days – and I joined the party only weeks before the trial – that was the Thorpe problem: brilliant razzmatazz, genuine Liberal convictions, but no coherent programme.

I’m not sure if I was weeping for myself or for my party. Or indeed for Thorpe and Scott, who both seem to me – and the series portrayed this even-handedly – the victims of forces beyond themselves.

As I appear to be the only person on earth to remember what the late 1970s felt like, I feel some responsibility to explain what it seemed like at the time.

It certainly was hardly an easy time to be a Liberal (it was the pillow-biting that did it). I remember convincing myself, after reading the detailed account of Norman Scott’s meltdown during the trial – not included in the BBC drama – that his affair with Thorpe was a fantasy, though realising that Thorpe may, even so, be guilty of incitement to murder, along the lines of Henry II and Thomas Becket.

It was a period of complex conspiracy theories – now long forgotten – and so here are three to explain some of the background.

  1. The Apartheid Connection. It was widely believed that the acquittal of Peter Hain, then Young Liberal chair, on a charge of theft, was despite a plot to bring about a case of mistaken identity engineered by the South African secret service. Hain and Thorpe were two of the most prominent anti-Apartheid activists in the UK, so it seemed likely to us at the time that the Scott affair had some South African links too. That was, unfortunately, also what led us to dismiss the allegations made public by RAP about Cyril Smith.
  2. The Harold Wilson connection. It was strange, as I remember it, that the trial of Andrew Newton, the would-be assassin, took place on the same day as Wilson announced his resignation and Princess Anne announced her divorce. Wilson was connected because he had secretly contacted two Sunday Times journalists, told them he would guide them to a big story, and then got irritated because instead he had guided them to the Thorpe Affair, which they then failed to look behind. You can read what they found in The Pencourt File.
  3. The intelligence connection. What was Wilson’s real story? It seems likely that it was his conviction that the intelligence services were plotting against him. You can read more on this in The Wilson Plot. And here we find ourselves at the heart of the real conspiracy theory, during this strange period of private armies. In 1987, the Sunday Times reported on the 1975 plot to borrow the QE2, put Wilson and his cabinet aboard and take over the government. You can read a little about this shadowy affair, by members of the establishment and the military, here. Those involved, as the Sunday Times did not report, were also linked to the bid to make Margaret Thatcher leader of the opposition that same year.

I have long since abandoned the hope that maybe Thorpe was innocent. But equally I don’t think the Scandal series was quite accurate in its portrayal of a politician protected by the establishment. Of course, Thorpe was protected, but only because they had already thrown him to the wolves to distract from the real story.

Or have I myself become victim to the conspiracy mania that the 1970s seems to have generated?

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