On 10 May 1976, Jeremy Thorpe resigned as leader of the Liberal Party. Despite helping to revitalise the Liberals, his decision to step down did not come as a shock. Thorpe had for some time been dogged by rumours surrounding his personal life. By the time of his resignation, he was facing allegations of engaging in ‘homosexual acts’ – before they were decriminalised by the Sexual Offences Act 1967 – and involvement in a plot to murder his alleged former lover. The scandal was yet to reach its height, however, and Thorpe continued as Liberal spokesman on foreign affairs under his eventual successor, David Steel.
Jeremy Thorpe was born in London in April 1929. His father, John, had been a Conservative MP, as had his maternal grandfather, Sir John Norton-Griffiths, or ‘Empire Jack’. After wartime evacuation to the United States, Jeremy was educated at Eton and then Trinity College, Oxford. Here the charismatic Thorpe became head of the Liberal Club, the Law Society and finally the Union. After practising law and working to reduce the Conservative majority in his adopted North Devon seat, he was narrowly elected to Parliament in 1959 at the age of 30.
Thorpe’s election as Liberal leader came in January 1967. His leadership did not begin well, and the 1970 election saw the Liberals return just six MPs, down from 12 in 1966. Just weeks later, personal tragedy struck when Thorpe’s wife Caroline was killed in a car crash.
Britain was in the midst of industrial disputes when Conservative prime minister Edward Heath called the next general election. The February 1974 poll saw the Liberals nearly treble their vote, but the nature of the electoral system saw this translate to just 14 seats. The result was a hung parliament. Labour became the largest party. Facing the end of his premiership, Heath offered Thorpe a senior Cabinet post in exchange for Liberal support of the government. Thorpe, however, was unwilling to agree to a coalition without electoral reform, and Heath resigned as prime minister.
The scandal surrounding Thorpe originated in the early 1960s. He met Norman Josiffe, later known as Norman Scott, a stable boy and part-time model, and the two men established a relationship. The exact nature of this is contested. According to Scott’s account, it was sexual at a time when ‘homosexual acts’ were still illegal in the UK. Despite receiving assistance from Thorpe, Scott was convinced that he had been wronged. He subsequently sought ways to publicise the relationship. Continue reading »