New book reveals different side to controversial North Devon MP Jeremy Thorpe

PUBLISHED: 17:12 04 February 2019

Jeremy and Marion Thorpe canvassing in Chittlehampton.

Jeremy and Marion Thorpe canvassing in Chittlehampton.

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Former North Devon MP Jeremy Thorpe is mainly remembered today because of the Norman Scott scandal which destroyed his political career. But author of a new book on Thorpe, PHILIP DALLING, says that no matter how much dirt has been thrown at the flamboyant politician, he still has a legion of admirers in his old parliamentary constituency

Jeremy Thorpe, former leader of the Liberal Party and Member of Parliament for North Devon, returned to the headlines in 2018 courtesy of a BBC Television dramatisation of the events which led to the flamboyant politician’s appearance in the dock of the Old Bailey, accused of conspiracy and incitement to murder.

He was accused of hiring a hitman to kill Norman Scott, a former groom and model who had been a thorn in the side of the politician for many years, alleging a homosexual relationship with Thorpe at a time when such a liaison was illegal and often punished by a prison term. In the event Thorpe was acquitted, but his public life was over.

Thorpe, who for three decades and more suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and died , aged 85, in 2014, came to life on the screen in the drama, A Very English Scandal, courtesy of an uncannily lifelike portrayal by Hugh Grant, usually best known for his romantic comedy roles.

Having lived through much of Thorpe’s political career, including the time in the mid-1970s when he came close to holding the balance of political power in the United Kingdom when neither Edward Heath’s Conservatives nor Harold Wilson’s Labour could command an overall majority in the House of Commons, I was aware of the bare bones of the story.

The unveiling of a portrait of Jeremy by his successor as Liberal Leader, David Steel (left) at the National Liberal Club in London.  On the right is Michael Aza Pinney, who contested the North Devon constituency for the Liberals in 1987.The unveiling of a portrait of Jeremy by his successor as Liberal Leader, David Steel (left) at the National Liberal Club in London. On the right is Michael Aza Pinney, who contested the North Devon constituency for the Liberals in 1987.

But when Steven Pugsley, chairman of the publishing group Halsgrove and a North Devonian himself, asked if I would consider writing a book looking at Thorpe’s achievements for the area and attempting to explain his enduring popularity, I had mixed feelings.

The BBC dramatisation had not been universally popular in Jeremy Thorpe’s old stamping ground. There were mutterings about dragging up old history and many of those who had been the MP’s staunchest admirers simply refused to watch the programmes or even talk about the scandal. In many cases these were members of the nonconformist churches and chapels, which had historic links with the Liberal Party.

The sort of book Steven Pugsley was suggesting would simply not be possible unless those who had known, admired and worked closely with Thorpe were willing to talk to me.

In the event, I managed to convince a substantial number of people that the end product would concentrate on the positive aspects of Jeremy’s life and career, although clearly any attempt to completely sweep the Scott affair and its aftermath under the carpet would mean that the book would lack credibility and could be dismissed as mere hagiography (a biography that treats its subject with undue reverence).

One of the last pictures of Jeremy Thorpe, taken when, with his wife Marion, he visited North Devon Hospital to present equipment for the Caroline Thorpe Ward, endowed in memory of his first wife, who was killed in a car crash.One of the last pictures of Jeremy Thorpe, taken when, with his wife Marion, he visited North Devon Hospital to present equipment for the Caroline Thorpe Ward, endowed in memory of his first wife, who was killed in a car crash.

Thorpe’s 20 years as North Devon MP and his seven General Election victories, at a time when the fortunes of the Liberals nationally were at a low ebb, owed a great deal not just to his undoubted charisma and political skills but also to the incredibly professional and savvy team operating from the Liberal Party headquarters in Barnstaple.

When Thorpe was first adopted as candidate for the seat in 1952, the Liberal Party in North Devon was in virtual despair, having slumped to third place behind the Conservatives and Labour at the previous election. But new agent Lilian Prowse and her deputy Peter Bray built up a well-oiled political machine, with as many as 60 town and village branches of the party, canvassing and raising funds. No other Liberal association in the country could match what North Devon achieved.

Despite the scandal Thorpe himself is best remembered by friend and political opponent alike for his very real achievements; he played a major role in getting a new hospital for North Devon and fought and won assisted area status, helping to attract new jobs and prevent young people having to move away from the area. His supporters still claim that had his career not been shattered as it was, the controversial North Devon Link Road could have been built as a dual carriageway.

Nationally too his talents have been recognised and many commentators have deplored the fact that the scandal masked Thorpe’s real achievements. The book’s title Jeremy Thorpe: A Dazzlingly Talented Man, comes from an article by journalist David Randall, writing in The Independent in 2009.

Front cover of the book, showing Thorpe on a walkabout in Barnstaple.Front cover of the book, showing Thorpe on a walkabout in Barnstaple.

Randall used the phrase in welcoming the fact that the Liberal Democrat Party was to celebrate the former politician’s 80th birthday. It was he said, ‘an absolution of sorts’ for a man who had been in the shadows since the 1979 trial.

Jeremy Thorpe: A dazzlingly talented man, by Philip Dalling (Halsgrove £14.99, ISBN 978¬0¬85704¬336¬8 is now on sale in all good bookshops.

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