Former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe dies

by Stephen Tall on December 4, 2014

jeremy thorpe_2The party website records the passing of former Liberal Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe, who died today aged 85:

Mr Thorpe died today (4 December) at his home in London. He had battled with Parkinson’s Disease for more than 35 years. He was elected as Liberal MP for North Devon in the 1959 General Election and held the seat for 20 years. Following the retirement of Jo Grimond, he was elected as leader of the Liberal Party in 1967. He was a fervent supporter of Britain’s membership of the the EU and played a leading role in the 1975 referendum. Mr Thorpe was defeated at the 1979 General Election and remained a committed Liberal, as the the President of the North Devon Liberal Democrats at the time of his death. He is survived by his son Rupert.

Paying tribute to Jeremy Thorpe Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said:

“Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership and resolve were the driving force that continued the Liberal revival that began under Jo Grimond. Jeremy oversaw some of the party’s most famous by-election victories and his involvement with the anti-apartheid movement and the campaign for Britain’s membership of the common market were ahead of his time. My thoughts are with Jeremy’s family and friends as they try and come to terms with their loss.”

Sir Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon said:

“Jeremy Thorpe was a colossal figure in the revival of the Liberal cause in post-war Britain and today’s Lib Dem politicians continue to feast on his legacy. His charisma, energy and innovative campaigning lit up his generation of British politics. He was the first to embrace fully the television age, the first to hit the campaign trail in a helicopter and both the first and, rather memorably, the last to deploy a hovercraft. He would have shone in whatever walk of life he chose, but it was to the lasting benefit of Liberalism that he rejected the Conservatism of his ancestors and devoted himself to progressive causes at home and abroad. In North Devon he was a greatly loved champion of the community and is remembered with huge affection to this day. He was a towering force in shaping the political landscape of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”

Lord Steel of Aikwood, who succeeded Jeremy Thorpe as Liberal leader said:

“The Liberal Party will always be grateful for Jeremy Thorpe’s remarkable campaigning zest, as indeed I was during my by-election. It paid rich dividends in the uplift the Party secured in the 1974 election. He had a genuine sympathy for the underprivileged – whether in his beloved North Devon where his first campaign was for “mains, drains and a little bit of light” or in Africa where he was a resolute fighter against apartheid and became a respected friend of people like President Kaunda of Zambia.”

Here’s a round-up of some of the coverage:

Daily Telegraph:

Thorpe, at his very best on the stump, had no rival as a vote-gatherer. He could put any argument with skill and panache; his astonishing memory for faces persuaded voters that they were intimate friends; his brilliant gifts as a mimic kept the audience in stitches; his resourceful mind afforded quips and stunts for every occasion. … In the House of Commons he made an immediate impression … the young MP knew how to draw blood, as with his jibe after Harold Macmillan sacked several of his Cabinet in 1962: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his own life.”

The Independent:

He defended the principle of collective security and of loyal membership of the Atlantic alliance. He insisted on the need for Great Britain to join the European Community. He pleaded for co-partnership in industry. He spoke out boldly for constitutional reform. He defied unpopularity over the death penalty. He denounced dictatorship. He rejected racism when Enoch Powell was winning the plaudits of more than the mob.

In short, Thorpe stood up for Liberal values and did not conform to the modish infantilisms of the day. Not that he was insensitive to new problems or to the re-emergence of old ones. He was one of the first politicians to speak often about environmental problems, deploring the demolition of good buildings and warning against pollution. He went to Northern Ireland on several occasions, the first leader of a British political party to do so since the Stormont statelet was set up in 1921.

The Times:

Thorpe reached his political apogee at the next election in February 1974. If 14 seats was a disappointing reward for an immense Liberal effort, well over six million votes, which was more than the Liberal Democrats achieved even in 1997, it seemed to carry with it the promise of an electoral breakthrough. Thorpe’s own constituency returned him with a massive majority of 11,000. It didn’t happen in the second of the two general elections in 1974, but the Liberal party still remained a force with its 13 seats and five million votes.

The Guardian:

After the October 1974 election, Thorpe became the third of the party leaders (following Heath and Wilson) to ride into the sunset, formally resigning the Liberal leadership in May 1976. His remaining three years in the Commons, until his defeat at North Devon in 1979, were poignant and painful ones, both for him and his colleagues. He had to live each day under the shadow of rumour and innuendo, and eventually (though not until 1978) under the direct threat of criminal charges arising from allegations that he had sought to silence Scott: a gunman, Andrew Newton, was hired to meet Scott in 1975, but the only resulting casualty was Scott’s great dane. The last time he displayed his old zest and exuberance publicly was when, on hearing the news of his acquittal, he exultantly threw three cushions into the air and out of the dock at the Old Bailey on 22 June 1979.

Lib Dem blogger Jonathan Fryer – In Memoriam Jeremy Thorpe

… Jeremy was bisexual, but too traditional to admit that publicly, and the lies he told to some of his parliamentary colleagues to cover up his true nature made him persona non grata with some in the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats who never forgave him, though others of us remained faithful friends. … The last time I saw [Thorpe and his wife, Marion] together was at Jeremy’s 80th birthday celebrations at the National Liberal Club, when they were both in wheelchairs, and one had to get very close to Jeremy to hear what he was saying. But his brain remained razor sharp till the end.

BBC Online:

His later years saw the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. But he kept in close touch with the Westminster he loved, despite painful memories. He became the President of the North Devon Liberal Association, later Liberal Democrat Association, and received a standing ovation when he appeared at the 1997 Liberal Democrat conference. In an interview in 2009 the ailing former politician reflected on the events that had brought him down “If it happened now,” he said, ” I think the public would be kinder.”

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.