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Forgotten but not quite

Miles Piper remembers a notable 20th Century poltiical figure

Former Lib-Dem leader Jeremy Thorpe died yesterday aged 84 after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

[Actually – hold that statement for a moment. I saw a comment by a lady in the media, somewhere within the past week, that she resented people’s experience of living with cancer being described as a ‘battle’ or ‘fight’ because it implied – whenever death resulted – that the deceased had somehow been defeated, or given up … which was inappropriate and/or untrue. I empathise with that sentiment. Let’s just say that Jeremy Thorpe died after suffering from Parkinson’s for many years.]

This morning I’ve flicked through the online obituaries and reminded myself of the path of Thorpe’s career. There was a sense – long ago, during the time of Jo Grimmond and Thorpe – when the Liberals (later Lib-Dems) seemed like genuine potential contenders for a return to government and high office, simply because of the apparent quality of their leaders, judged as equal, or not that far behind, that of the Labour and Tory parties.

Thorpe could certainly hold his own in the charisma stakes with the likes of Wilson, Callaghan and Ted Heath. He was also quick-witted and waspish enough to be listenable or watchable – I still recall with fondness his quip on Harold Macmillan’s 1962 ‘Night of the Long Knives’ (when as PM he sacked half his Cabinet) … re-arranging a well-known biblical quotation into “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life.”

At the end of the day, while lacking greatness, Jeremy Thorpe can be characterised as a colourful and popular performer on the British political stage. I’m slightly reluctant to describe him as a Joker [if only on the basis of the worthy advice ‘If you can’t speak well of the dead, say nothing’], apt though that may be, because – at the time he rose to prominence – for all the bluff and hot air, no politician with burning ministerial ambitions ever joined the Liberals.

Inevitably, no assessment of his political career can avoid the circumstances that caused its demise – specifically the Norman Scott Affair, first publicised (some might say ‘and then flogged to death’) by Private Eye, which eventually led to Thorpe’s trial in 1979 on a charge of conspiracy to murder, of which he was acquitted.

It is perhaps stretching the actualité slightly for me to claim that I had a small walk-on part in the trial, but that’s not going to stop me here. At the time I was a young barrister, either in my second pupillage or just after it – I cannot remember which at this time distance. Like many of my peers I was then plying my trade by a daily traipse, primarily around the magistrates and lesser crown courts of Greater London, mostly making bail applications or defending those accused of minor criminal offences.

One day, having an afternoon cup of tea and a bun in a coffee shop with one of my pals, we got to discussing the progress of the Thorpe trial – both of us having agreed well in advance that Thorpe was ‘bang to rights’ guilty as charged.

briefMy pal suddenly informed me of what I did not then know, viz. that any barrister (dressed in robes and wig) was entitled to sit-in on any court in the land.

On impulse, the following day – our own mundane court appearances then done or cancelled – we duly pitched up at the Old Bailey in what, in the modern age, would be regarded as fancy dress, took a position towards the back of the court … and (in theatrical terms) watched proceedings from about the fifth row of the stalls.

It was such fun that thereafter we repeated the experience whenever we could. Sadly, as it happened, we were not in court on the day that the verdict(s) were given. My recollection of that day is that the reaction of most people I came across at Thorpe’s acquittal was disbelief.

The gist of received legal opinion in the pubs and bars I frequented at the time was that the ‘Establishment’ had deliberately orchestrated things to charge Thorpe with conspiracy to murder – the standard required to prove any criminal conspiracy is particularly high – in order to increase the chances of an acquittal. The theory ran that, had they opted to charge him with a lesser crime (e.g. along the lines of ‘accessory to’ or similar) then Thorpe would definitely have been convicted on the evidence.




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About Miles Piper

After university, Miles Piper began his career on a local newspaper in Wolverhampton and has since worked for a number of national newspapers and magazines. He has also worked as a guest presenter on Classic FM. He was a founder-member of the National Rust board. More Posts