5 Dec 2014

Thorpe dilemma for Liberal Democrats

Norman Scott, the man whom Jeremy Thorpe was accused of trying to murder, has today warned that Thorpe’s forthcoming funeral will be an occasion for political bigwigs to gloss over the extraordinary events of the 1960s and 1970s.


“The establishment will all turn up at the funeral,” he told me today.  Scott says he’s especially upset at the way senior Liberal Democrats such as Davis Steel, and Sir Nick Harvey, one of Thorpe’s successors as MP for North Devon, have paid warm tributes to Thorpe.

In 1979, Jeremy Thorpe went on trial at the Old Bailey accused of a conspiracy to murder Scott.  It was an extraordinary story, in which a hit-man, Andrew Newton, ended up shooting dead Norman Scott’s Great Dane Rinka.  Newton also threatened to kill Scott himself, as a part of a conspiracy by Thorpe and a group of friends to silence him.  The relationship between Thorpe and Scott had started in 1961, at a time when Thorpe was a newly elected Liberal MP, and homosexual activity in Britain was still illegal.

Thorpe was acquitted thanks to brilliant work in court by his QC, George Carman, who persuaded Thorpe – much against Thorpe’s wishes – not to give evidence in the witness box.  In those days the prosecution was not allowed to exploit the silence of an accused man.  Today that would be allowed.

Carman’s son Dominic, who wrote a brilliant biography of his father (and has twice stood as a Liberal Democrat candidate in recent years), tells me that, partly because of the attempted murder trial, Thorpe was also heavily involved in the cover-up of Liberal MP Cyril Smith.

Allegations about Smith’s sexual abuse of teenage boys in children’s homes in Rochdale first surfaced in the Rochdale Alternative Paper in 1979, only weeks before the Thorpe trial, and was immediately taken up by Private Eye.  According to Dominic Carman, Jeremy Thorpe already knew all about the allegations against Smith.  But Thorpe and his QC, George Carman, were hugely worried that if the allegations against Smith gained wider coverage, they might wreck Thorpe’s chances at the Old Bailey.  So, says Dominic Carman, various legal powerful legal allies, including Lord Goodman, were recruited to warn Fleet Street editors not to pursue to Smith story.  The warnings worked, and Cyril Smith remained an MP for another 21 years.

The judge in the Thorpe trial, Mr Justice Cantley, spoke strongly against Norman Scott and called him a “crook”, and the jury acquitted Thorpe.  Dominic Carman tells me it was four months, though, before Thorpe wrote to thank George Carman for his work, though Carman can’t have been too upset.  The Thorpe case established Carman’s reputation as the most feared and formidable cross-examiner and advocate of his generation.

But few people believed Jeremy Thorpe’s protestations of innocence, and his career never recovered.

Thorpe tried to resurrect his reputation by securing a job with Amnesty International, but Amnesty had to withdraw the offer after a public outcry.

And, most bizarre, Jeremy Thorpe almost became a TV reporter with ITN.  In March 1980, eight months after his acquittal, News at Ten broadcast an interview which Thorpe conducted for ITN with the Zambian leader Kenneth Kaunda.  This was an attempt by Thorpe to revive the successful career he had pursued as a TV reporter in the 1950s with ITV’s ‘This Week’ programme.

And earlier, around 1977, at a time when the stories against Thorpe were first emerging, and he had been forced to resign as Liberal leader, the then editor of ITN, Nigel Ryan, decided to give him a job as an ITN reporter.  Ryan, who died earlier this year, was on friendly terms with many establishment figures, and according to the former ITN foreign editor Mike Morris, Ryan felt sorry for Thorpe and thought he should help him out as “he was down on his uppers”.  Morris says he went to see Ryan and threatened to resign immediately if Thorpe were appointed.  Ryan dropped the idea.

The story illustrates the way in which Jeremy Thorpe successfully built a network of friends and relationships within the British establishment.  Indeed with the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, marryinh Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Lord Snowdon) in 1960, Thorpe was due to be best man.  But the police then explored rumours about Thorpe’s homosexuality, and the idea was dropped.

With Thorpe’s forthcoming funeral, the modern British establishment faces the dilemma of whether to attend.  It will be a particular problem for Thorpe’s several successors as Liberal leader – David Steel, Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy, Ming Campbell and, of course, Nick Clegg.  And in recent years the Lib Dems went some way towards welcoming Thorpe back into the party.

Some will argue it would be heartless, unforgiving and uncompassionate for senior Lib Dems and other figures to stay away, especially when Thorpe was never convicted of anything.  Others will say that Norman Scott has a good point, and that for Nick Clegg, David Steel, Nick Harvey and others to go to the funeral will be to turn a blind eye to Thorpe’s very serious wrongdoing.

And the Lib Dems have been accused of more than their share of scandals over the years – not just Jeremy Thorpe and Cyril Smith.

Quite a dilemma for a liberal party.