In 1967, when MP for North Devon Jeremy Thorpe became leader, the Liberal Party was long past its heyday. But he galvanized the Party back into action to place it firmly at center stage of British politics. At just 37 years old with saturnine good looks, rapier wit and a foppish taste in clothing, Thorpe radiated an extraordinary charisma that won the hearts of the electorate.
There was only one problem – despite the fact that he was married, he was rumored to have had a passionate affair with male model Norman Scott back in 1961 when homosexuality was still a criminal offence. The whispers were so persistent that eventually, in 1971, the Liberal Party was forced to hold a ‘whitewashing’ inquiry to squash the story.
At the general election of 1974 Thorpe was at the top of his game.
The Liberals won 14 seats, holding the balance of power in a hung parliament. This was Thorpe’s moment… until the homosexuality smears resurfaced, to devastating effect. A man named Andrew Newton had been charged with the attempted murder of Norman Scott and, as a trial witness, Scott ensured that Thorpe’s name was dragged through the mud. The embarrassment was too much and Thorpe was forced to quit as Liberal leader in May 1976.
Scott continued stirring and the story refused to die. In August 1978 Thorpe was charged with conspiracy to murder. With incredible bravado he stood in the general election of May 1979. But the allegation was too much for North Devon to swallow – he lost his seat, and a few days later appeared in court. The jury ultimately found Thorpe not guilty but the damage had been done – he had provided the nation with a sensational political scandal, his reputation was in tatters and the Liberal Party was permanently tainted.
Where: London and Devon, UK
Toll: Politics was the poorer – parliament and the nation lost a major talent. Jeremy Thorpe’s career was in ruins and tragically he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease shortly after, it was a terrible waste of a brilliant politician, and the Liberal Party was a spent force thereafter, ultimately merging with the Social Democratic Party to form the Lib-Dems.
You should know: Norman Scott sold love letters written by Thorpe, one of which contained the line ‘bunnies can and will go to France’ – ‘bunny’ supposedly being Thorpe’s pet name for his lover. At Thorpe’s trial the judge summed up Scott as’… a fraud; he is a sponger; he is a whiner; he is a parasite’.