Little, Brown, pp.606, £25
The back story of Michael Bloch’s biography of Jeremy Thorpe is a story in itself. The book’s appearance, in the same month as its subject’s death, is only possible because it has been on ice for many years. In the 1990s the author had numerous meetings with the former Liberal party leader and gained access to many of his circle with a view to writing a vaguely official biography. But after reading a draft in the 1990s Thorpe said words to the effect of ‘over my dead body’, and this took longer to come about than expected. Thorpe died last month at the age of 85.
In the early 1980s, just after his downfall, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and is now said to have had the longest case on record, causing in turn probably the lengthiest and most obscure political twilight in British politics. And so, newly deceased though he is, he seems a figure from another age. I saw him once in London, perhaps 15 years ago, and felt like I’d seen a ghost even then. While reading this absorbing book I tried his name out on a range of people. Of those in their twenties and thirties none (including some serious politicos) had ever heard of him. ‘The head of the Liberal party was on trial for conspiracy to murder?’ they tended to exclaim at some stage in my explanation. There often followed the tragic question ‘And who was Rinka?’. Among those who did remember Thorpe in his time everyone said they had never trusted him. Some claimed it was the waistcoats, others the hats. But everyone knew there was something more to tell.
So for once the use of the phrase ‘long awaited’ is truthful. Though there are sadnesses around the delay, caused not least by the number of people looking forward to this publication who predeceased Thorpe. Most notable among them are his greatest hounder, Auberon Waugh. Though we will never have Waugh’s review of this book it does give the impetus to return to his absorbing first-hand account of the trial (The Last Word) and his masterly Private Eye diaries for the period, not least the entry for 28 February 1982 which starts, ‘Jeremy, Jeremy, bang, bang, woof, woof.’
Michael Bloch’s book is worth reading whether you are familiar with the story or not. It fills in many parts of Thorpe’s life that had been previously obscure. His eccentric and politically well-connected family provide better stories than one expects from a politician’s childhood. Quite a number were homosexual. Lloyd Georges were everywhere. A number were clearly mad. Read the life story of Thorpe’s MP grandfather known as ‘Empire Jack’, study the photo of him squeezing two of his daughter’s friends and consider on which side of sanity’s fence he sat.
At Eton Thorpe was an aesthete. At Oxford he was a union hack. And if all this sounds predictable enough, it is livened by stories which from early on point towards Thorpe’s curious political end. While working his way to the presidency of the Oxford Union Thorpe got away with some chicanery deemed low even by the standards of student politics. His contemporary Robin Day claimed that nobody who had witnessed this could ever trust him again. Another former president of the Union expressed concern that Thorpe’s acquittal on these charges would ‘encourage him to believe that he could get away with anything in the future.’
And so we come to Thorpe’s political career. He was a Liberal party man by association and perhaps by nature, having breathed from the Lloyd Georges the remnants of that tradition. The party may have been at its lowest ebb when he joined it, but that did not dissuade Thorpe from a belief that through it he was destined for national leadership.
But what a party. Then, as now, it was riven by irreconcilable contrary traditions (back then between followers of Gladstonian laissez-faire economics and followers of Lloyd George’s economic interventionism). Then, as now, no one would face up to the fact that, but for the fact that institutions rarely abolish themselves, the party really ought to have dissolved itself after the 1951 election if not before. Yet, as if to demonstrate his permanently fanciful judgement, this was the party to which the highly ambitious Thorpe dedicated his life. He won North Devon at the election of 1959 and after a relatively small number of missteps gained the party leadership in 1967. For anyone not especially interested in Liberal party politics of the 1950s and 60s these chapters probably sound nightmarish, but Bloch is such a deft guide that even this is interesting. Under Thorpe the Liberals began their long relative comeback and his long-term concentration on certain seats was arguably rewarded in the party’s comparative breakthrough in 1997.
And what people. Looking at photos of the 10 Liberal MPs after their ‘triumph’ in 1973 you have to remember two things: that this group of men nearly entered government twice during that decade, and that the photos now comprise a retrospective police line-up. Consider the massive grinning figure of that Liberal titan Cyril Smith and wonder. Reading about the disputes between Smith and Thorpe is almost as sinister as watching the video from the 1970s (a fragment is still on YouTube) of Thorpe being interviewed by Jimmy Saville. But of course it was Thorpe himself who lead the Liberals into their darkest hour. The party may since have been led by an adulterer, an alcoholic and Nick Clegg, but it is having their leader on trial for killing a dog and attempting to kill a man that remains the more serious charge.
For as Bloch writes with calm expertise, all this time Thorpe led a double ledgered life. By day he was the energetic up-and-coming politician, by night he was not only very gay but rather carefree about being so. Reading these unsparing chapters it is not surprising Thorpe did not want the book published during his lifetime. Yet you do wonder what other conclusions he ever expected any biographer to come to. Nevertheless, for fairness’s sake it must be said – and Bloch does stress the point – that whatever else he was, Thorpe was not a hypocrite. He was, for instance, a leading figure in the campaign to enact the recommendations of the Wolfenden report which legalised homosexual acts between consenting adults in private. But from reading Bloch I get the sense that, even if Thorpe had been born fifty years later, and been able to be openly gay, his sexual as well as political preferences would have always led him towards risk.
Of course he was married twice, apparently happily both times (his first wife died in a car accident), and he fathered a son. But although he grew to love his wives and seems to have deeply needed the support that married life gave him, these marriages were almost certainly in some sense ‘cover’.
Because of course there were the men. And among the men there was the curse that was Norman Scott. This was the sometime stable-boy who, when Thorpe first met him in 1960, apparently looked ‘simply heaven’. A relationship ensued. Scott always said it was physical; Thorpe always maintained it was emotional. The evidence suggests it was probably both. Though the connection was relatively brief, it was the one that almost two decades later would destroy Thorpe and create probably the biggest scandal in twentieth century British politics.
On the evidence here I would say that Scott deserved every bit of abuse that the judge in the 1979 trial so famously heaped on him. Bloch spares no details. In meeting Thorpe, Scott found what he evidently regarded as a permanent life raft. For two decades – and despite not setting eyes on Thorpe for fifteen years – whenever Scott needed money he threatened Thorpe with exposure unless he coughed up. It was, put simply, blackmail. Certainly Thorpe was idiotic and would always have tempted such a situation, not least by his habit of writing compromising letters on House of Commons notepaper. But the way in which Scott used these and other artefacts from their brief relationship as a security for years to come is truly disgusting. Years after they had last met Scott needed money to pay for a divorce. He informed Thorpe that he would have to reveal their relationship during the divorce proceedings unless Thorpe gave him money to pay for lawyers and some on top. When Scott was on trial for social security fraud more than a decade after last seeing Thorpe he announced that he would, naturally, have to discuss Jeremy Thorpe at the trial unless more money was handed over. Thorpe was beyond foolish to keep coughing up. But given that homosexuality was illegal at the time he met Scott and that no politician would have had an easy ‘coming out’ even years after it was made legal, Thorpe was caught. The higher he rose in politics the more dangerous Scott became. And failing in life as he did again and again, Scott was always there.
What a web Thorpe ended up spinning. It is amazing, reading the details, that the Liberal party got anything else done in these years. Perhaps they didn’t. As Bloch reveals here, almost every senior Liberal MP and party official either knew about Scott or was actively involved in attempts to shut him up. There were financial sleights of hand that were never explained – tens of thousands of pounds from one donor meant to go to election expenses which seem to have been used for silencing Scott in one way or another. The level of deceit across the top of the Liberal party is really quite shocking to read about, even now.
And then there was the alleged attempt at the ultimate silencing. Whether or not Jeremy Thorpe ever actually planned to have Scott or his dog Rinka killed – or even ‘frightened’ – will probably never be satisfactorily known. He certainly had a motive, and he talked about it often enough. But Bloch is careful on the matter, weighing up all the evidence with care as well as brio. Of course the jury in the 1979 case found Thorpe and his co-defendants ‘not guilty’. But enough unanswered questions and doubts over his character arose to destroy any hope of a political comeback. I didn’t know till reading this work that, like Auberon Waugh, Sybille Bedford had a commission to write a book on the Thorpe trial and sat in on every day. Unlike Waugh she went in as an admirer of Thorpe. What she heard during the trial changed her view and she never wrote the book.
Michael Bloch’s life contains a lot that is new. Anyone who knows his life of James Lees Milne, will not be surprised that this is equally expertly, indeed perfectly, done. But it is damning, shocking and in the end really rather depressing. Thorpe was right on some things (he was for instance an early and fervent opponent of the apartheid regime in South Africa) and he was wrong on others. But all that effort, ambition and a certain undoubted brilliance came to nothing because of his terrible and possibly criminal mishandling of one amazingly vindictive, leeching man who it was his bad luck to meet.
All his successors as party leader attended his funeral last month. But they never forgave him when he was alive. In his empty last decades (which rightly only take up a few pages here) Thorpe apparently dreamed of getting involved in politics again by receiving a life peerage. In the 1990s the then Prime Minister, John Major, indicated he would grant him one if the then Liberal party leader – Paddy Ashdown – agreed. Ashdown would not.
Jeremy Thorpe had hoped to be remembered as a great political leader. I suppose they all do. And perhaps he will be remembered longer than many other politicians of his age or ours. But it will always be for the same thing. Jeremy, Jeremy, bang, bang, woof, woof.