In his biography of Jeremy Thorpe, journalist Phillip Dalling describes his subject as ‘A dazzlingly talented man’. Whether he is right or not is no doubt a subject of debate. However what cannot be disputed is that Thorpe was a man who led his party with panache, building on the foundations laid by his predecessor Jo Grimond and taking it within a whisker of power – something that hadn’t happened for many decades.
Born into a political family (his father was a Conservative MP) Thorpe joined the Liberal Club at Oxford, nailing his colours to the mast when the party of Asquith and Lloyd George had been eclipsed as a genuine contender for government. Adopted as the candidate for North Devon in 1952 he nursed the constituency, finally winning it in 1959. Thorpe worked as a barrister and journalist in the intervening years.
At that particular General Election his was the only Liberal gain and he was to remain the MP for another twenty years. Prior to becoming leader in 1967, he worked on a target seat strategy and filled the role of treasurer bringing in much needed funds. At the 1970 General Election the Conservatives were returned to power and in what was a poor showing, only six Liberal MPs were elected, and some (including Thorpe) with only very small majorities. At the Liberal Assembly which followed, the policy of community politics was adopted and this led to an acceleration of the progress already made in local government. By-Election wins in places like Ely, Ripon and Rochdale led to high hopes for the future.
When Prime Minister Edward Heath called a snap general election in February 1974, voters flocked to the Liberal banner. The party ran 517 candidates and this gave the vast majority of the electorate a Liberal choice. Thanks to this proliferation of candidates, the party achieved nearly 20% of the national vote. Due to the inequalities of the FPTP system, only 14 seats returned Liberal Members of Parliament. It was certainly an exciting campaign and as a young boy I can well remember the massive poster of Thorpe in the window of a house that overlooked the recreation ground in the village where we lived.
People were fed up with the class war politics of the Conservatives and Labour, andnwhen the votes were counted, the country had a hung parliament. Heath tried to stay in power by talking to Thorpe but propping up a PM who had lost his parliamentary majority was never really a possibility. The fall from grace of which thousands of words have already been written came two years later in 1976 when the storm around Thorpe’s personal affairs meant he had to resign the leadership. His seat in parliament was lost at the next General Election in 1979.
A quiet withdrawal from public life followed which was made more difficult as a result of Parkinson’s disease. Thorpe’s legacy is as a conviction Liberal, who cared deeply about human rights and took a keen interest in the persecution suffered by the black majority populations in Rhodesia and South Africa. He led his party to greater heights by building on the groundwork already set out by Jo Grimond. The great tragedy is that in an age when politicians who had same sex relationships were beyond the pale, he felt compelled to cover up aspects of his private life which ultimately destroyed his career.
David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats