I’ve not said much about the passing away of Jeremy Thorpe, not simply because I only met him once (to interview him – you can read the write-up here). But also because the immediate occasion of someone’s death is a time to mourn their passing rather than to reopen disputes over their past behaviour, and my views on his career are less complimentary than appropriate for the occasion.
Which has made to me all the more striking just how generous the write-ups of his career have been, including from media outlets and personalities usually not instinctively favourable to the party.
At his peak, Jeremy Thorpe was a massively popular political figure, with a light touch of personality that allowed him to pose with a guitar next to Jimmy Hendrix or alone with a violin without looking foolish.
Boris Johnson on the overhead wire, not Ed Miliband with the bacon roll, is the modern parallel. He also had a cunning when it came to securing media coverage, as I recounted in that interview:
The television companies told him one year that they would only come to the Liberal Assembly to cover his speech, on the last day. ‘Oh’, said Thorpe, taking a decision instantly, ‘I’m making my speech on the first day … and a second speech on the last day.’ So he did, and the cameras stayed there for the whole time
Thorpe was instrumental in changing election law by breaking down the previous ban on national advertising (a success that ended up benefitting other parties rather more):
One innovation in February 1974 was spending £10,000 on national advertising – a step which had never been taken before, by any party, at least during general election campaigns. There was some doubt over the legal position, but the Liberals justified it by dividing the total costs between all the constituency campaign expenses. In retrospect, did Thorpe regret opening this Pandora’s Box, where the other parties could heavily outspend the Lib Dems? Not at all – it would have happened at some point in any case, and pound for pound he believed the party benefited much more from its national advertising.
Yet his career ended in scandal. Acquittal in court was followed by a New Statesman article from a juror saying the jury were convinced he had committed crimes, just not the one they had to rule on, and an attempted rehabilitation via Amnesty International was cut off by a grassroots revolt by Amnesty International members:
Shortly after his acquittal, in 1979, he was offered the post of Director-General of the British section of Amnesty International. The application caused great controversy amongst the active members of Amnesty in Britain, perhaps not surprisingly given the timing of the offer. In addition, Amnesty was then having to work hard to show its political independence, and the appointment of someone who had until very recently been a leader of a political party may not have helped. However, given his record of involvement, Thorpe recalls that he felt that the appointment should not have been controversial.
Nonetheless, the divisions within the British Section resulted in a crowded general meeting in central London, at which the ruling Council was voted out (though many of its members were shortly afterwards re-elected). As a result, the appointment fell through. For Thorpe himself, it was, in his words, a ‘sad business’, though not one that has left any bitterness. For many of those who attended the meeting, it is even now the most exciting Amnesty general meeting they can recall, topping even the emergency general meeting from the previous year which was triggered by a serious falling out between staff, the then Director-General and the Board.
I suspect that when the long heralded Thorpe biography, delayed by participants only cooperating on condition it did not appear until after Thorpe’s death, finally appears, his reputation will take another good few knocks.
But in the meantime at least, the warmth of the recollections of the highlights of his career are comforting reminder to all politicians whose careers end in scandal that people can and do remember the earlier times too.