‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Jeremy Thorpe's bust

Jeremy Thorpe is best remembered as the only British political party leader to have gone on trial for conspiracy to murder. He was acquitted, but the circumstances leading to his trial were so bizarre that they have overshadowed almost everything else about his career, including his jumping over people’s garden gates to deliver leaflets, his campaigning by hovercraft and leading the Liberals to several spectacular by-election victories.

I went to interview Jeremy Thorpe at his home in London in 2001 when I was researching my biography of Clement Davies, the Liberal leader immediately after the Second World War. Poor old Clem had a difficult life. Three of his four children died at the age of 24 in unrelated incidents and Clem was an alcoholic – a fact vehemently denied by some of his former colleagues, but confirmed by his family. Despite all his problems, Clem Davies did hold the Liberal Party together so that there was something left to lead. Clem was succeeded by Jo Grimond and then in turn by Jeremy Thorpe from 1967 to 1976.

By the time I met him, Jeremy Thorpe had been affected by Parkinson’s disease for over twenty years. His voice was barely more than a whisper and he walked with the aid of two sticks. He lived with his second wife, Maria Donata Nanetta Paulina Gustava Erwina Wilhelmine, formerly the Countess of Harewood, known simply as Marion. She died earlier this year and Jeremy died this week at the age of 85.

Their house must have been one of the most expensive addresses in London. It left a lasting, or rather several lasting, impressions on me. My first impression had plenty of time to develop. I was shown into a huge square room full of antiques, books, ornaments and dust. There were beautiful cabinets, but with cracked glass in some of the doors. There was a bust of Jeremy on a desk. (Incidentally, where should one keep one’s own bust?) The dust and the bust were the overriding memories. Time passed, maybe twenty minutes, no-one appeared and I began to look around for the skeletons of previous visitors. Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I looked into the next room. It was almost identical to the first – book, antiques, dust and no sign that anyone had been in there for years.

Eventually I was shown up to Jeremy’s study on the first floor – a small, brightly-lit room with Formica furniture, resembling an examination room at a clinic more than a study in a luxurious house at one of London’s grandest addresses. Jeremy was wary, but helpful and courteous. I think I managed to catch most of what he said.

Next I visited Emlyn Hooson, a parliamentary colleague of Jeremy’s. Emlyn had entered Parliament as Liberal MP for Montgomeryshire at the by-election caused by Clem Davies’s death in 1962. By chance Emlyn ended up being the first person to hear the full story of Jeremy’s alleged relationship with Norman Scott, which set off the chain of events ending at the Old Bailey. Norman Scott turned up at the House of Commons, asking to see the most senior person available from the Liberal Party. Emlyn Hooson fitted the bill, as the only one of the party’s MPs who could be found in the building. Emlyn listened politely, but incredulously, to a story of a gay relationship (illegal at the time in the early 1960s) which had gone wrong.

Eventually, Norman Scott’s Great Dane dog, Rinka, was shot dead on Exmoor by an airline pilot, letters written by Jeremy to Norman appeared in the press, including one with the immortal line ‘Bunnies can and will go to France’. A plot was alleged that involved Jeremy Thorpe conspiring with others to murder Norman Scott. The case was delayed while Jeremy fought and lost his seat in the 1979 general election. He was cleared on all charges, but his subsequent attempts at rehabilitating his career and entering the House of Lords all met with rebuff. He did publish a fragmentary memoir, which glossed over pretty much everything about the trial, but which did reveal another claim to fame. It turns out that Jeremy Thorpe was also the only party leader whose mother was a horsemeat butcher (during the war).

It all leads me to think that had the 1967 Sexual Offences Act (which decriminalised homosexuality) been passed earlier, all of this could have been avoided, Rinka could have lived out her dog’s life, and just think how useful Jeremy Thorpe’s expertise could have been in Parliament during the horsemeat scandal.

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