Tuesday 9 December 2014

The origins of the Thorpe affair

Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberal Party when I was first politically aware. I found myself drawn to the party through their string of by-election victories during my O Level years, though I didn’t actually join until David Steel was leader.

I remember him fondly, not because I really remember anything he said, but because he landed by helicopter in my school playing fields in 1974 and made me aware that I was a Liberal – and because he kindly hosted a fund-raising party for local candidates (of which I was one) in his home before the 2001 election.

I always admired him.

I remember his trial in amazing detail, collecting the press cuttings, which I still have somewhere or other. I remember Mr Justice Cantley’s outrageous summing up – dismissing one of the co-defendants as “the kind of man who has a cocktail bar in his living room”. George Carman won for Thorpe, but the forensic stuff that emerged during the trial fatally undermined him.

I went to school in the early 1970s in Swiss Cottage and the whole place seemed to reek of that same razzmatazz Liberalism. Lunch at Lord Beaumont’s mansion. Here was Derek Nimmo. There was Clement Freud. It was as if all that 1960s radicalism had settled down to a sediment of Liberalism.

The difficulty was that Thorpe’s Liberalism was too much razzmatazz to remember the content. Looking back, it was a fatal period when the party came to believe that – if they just hired a hovercraft here and there, or won a celebrity endorsement – the world would beat a path to their door. At least long enough to vote correctly.

It doesn't work like that.  Parties survive long-term by thinking as much as by campaigning.

There was more thinking in the Ashdown years. Much less again in the Kennedy years and, despite being shackled to Whitehall, there does seem to me more of an intellectual striving during the Clegg years. For obvious reasons, it just hasn’t included the leadership.

But there are continuing mysteries about Thorpe and those years of 1970s conspiracy. And it is surprising that none of the commentary in the media after his death last week has revived it.

It seems unlikely, with the benefit of hindsight, that Cyril Smith was being framed by the South African secret service, as so many people seemed to think back then. It isn’t clear yet what history will say about some of the allegations of conspiracy.

But it seems to have been forgotten that the Thorpe affair began to be dug out by two Sunday Times reporters who had been asked by Harold Wilson, in conditions of the strictest secrecy, to find out if he was being targeted by the UK intelligence services.  That conundrum has never been resolved, and Wilson resigned the following year.

The real story behind Wilson’s fears has still not emerged, though there have been strange hints over the years. Whatever the truth is, the origins of the Thorpe affair lie partly in that peculiar twilight world of conspiracy, private armies and rumours of extremist coups which so infected the mid-1970s.

It is probably time somebody told the whole story properly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The real story-the M15 file.