Saturday, 6 December 2014

Local by-election result from 5/12/14 and my thoughts on the life and times of Jeremy Thorpe

Readers, only one local by-election from this week featured a Green Party candidate, and the results of it were as follows:

Adur DC, St. Mary's: Conservative 340 (38.4%, +1.3%), Labour 223 (25.2%, +2.6%), UKIP 216 (24.4%, +3.2%), Green 106 (12.0%, -0.7%).

All changes are since 2014.

Two days ago, former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, the last pre-Thatcher leader of any major British political party, died aged 85, having suffered from early onset Parkinson's disease for 30 years. He famously helped the Liberals rise to prominence in the February 1974 general election, polling six million votes and 14 seats, but is infamously remembered for the 'Rinkagate' scandal, involving Norman Scott and his dog, Rinka.

Throughout recent history, there has been much speculation about the facts and rumours behind the Rinkagate affair of 1976, which caused Jeremy to resign as Liberal leader the same year. I myself wonder this, however-did Conservative allies engineer the quick spreading of Rinkagate in order to stitch up the 1979 general election in the Conservative Party's favour?

In my opinion, the answer is yes. Here is why.

This is not to say that I think well of Jeremy himself, because I do not. His Edwardian style of dress (particularly the trilby hat he often wore) was a hint of his upper-class, old guard origins. John Jeremy Thorpe, descended from Conservative MPs, was Eton-educated and an alumnus of Trinity College, Oxford. Although his Labour and Conservative contemporaries, Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, were also educated at Oxford University, neither of them had a wealthy background nor were they fortunate enough to be able to attend prestigious private schools. (Harold won a scholarship to a grammar school and needed a grant to pay for his Oxford studies; Edward also only got to Oxford by scholarship as there were no state-sponsored student grants or loans back in the 1930s). He also married a woman whose husband was a first cousin to none other than Queen Elizabeth II, and the Archbishop of Canterbury of the time officiated the marriage ceremony!

In spite of this background, Jeremy was more radical than many other Liberals of his time-in particular, he called for campaigns on the apartheid-era states of Rhodesia and South Africa. Despite almost losing his seat of North Devon in 1970, he was able to rise to prominence once again-during the 1972-74 Liberal revival which led to the Liberals winning a total of 14 seats during the February 1974 general election-eight more than in 1970, and with almost 20% of the votes cast.

What needs to be made clear is that the Conservative vote took a considerably greater hit from the Liberals than the Labour vote did-the Conservative vote fell nationally in February 1974 by 8.5%, but Labour's vote in the same election only fell by 5.9%. The Liberals captured five seats from the Conservatives (Berwick-upon-Tweed, the Isle of Ely, Bodmin, Hazel Grove, and the Isle of Wight, but lost their by-election gains of Ripon and Sutton & Cheam ) but only three from Labour (Cardiganshire, Colne Valley, and Rochdale). Also, they did not field candidates in every British constituency (they fielded 517 out of 623); many of the constituencies they did not field a candidate in were solidly Labour at the time.

The Conservatives thus knew that the Liberals were splitting their vote in places the Liberals could not win, and that indirectly and unintentionally the Liberals ensured that Labour won the most seats despite the fact Labour did not win the most votes in the February 1974 election. Regarding the affair itself, it was first brought to light by Auberon Waugh, a notable Private Eye correspondent, on 12 December 1975; Auberon wrote 'my only hope is that sorrow over his friend's dog will not cause Mr Thorpe's premature retirement from public life'. This led to the opening up of knowledge of the affair, helped by Bodmin's former Liberal MP, Peter Bessell (a close friend of Jeremy's who represented Bodmin from 1964 to 1970) agreeing to an interview by the very pro-Conservative Daily Mail.

In my opinion, Peter Bessell was a Conservative in drag posing as a Liberal-whilst in Parliament, he supported capital punishment and British involvement in the Vietnam war but was not pro-EEC-antithetical to his few fellow Liberal MPs. Strangely for a friend of Jeremy Thorpe, Peter was opposed to sanctions on Rhodesia. He met his own not-so-well-known end after problems with his businesses occurred just prior to 1970, and he fled to California to avoid potential bankruptcy.

One interesting note is this: within the 1970-74 Parliament, the Liberal revival in Jeremy's tenure only took place from October 1972 onwards, with their win of Rochdale from Labour. In by-elections from October 1970 to May 1972, the share of the Liberal vote fell in every single one they stood in, and they only saved their deposit in the Arundel and Shoreham by-election during that time. Maybe it was just the choice of Liberal candidates that tells this story....

The revelation of Rinkagate and the affair between Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott caused it to all unravel. Rising Liberal support shattered, to the point where in polls of the day the Liberals were polling below 10%, and in by-elections they were losing votes (and £150 deposits) left, right, and centre, typified by their fifth-place finish in the infamous Walsall North by-election, whose result alongside that of the Workington by-election the same day cost Harold Wilson's Labour government their tiny majority.
(Coincidentally, this is when the Ecology Party, now of course the Green Party, stood its first ever parliamentary by-election candidate). The one saving grace for the Liberals (even when Jeremy was replaced as Liberal leader by David Steel, the damage from the Thorpe affair still reverbrated) was in the Liverpool Edge Hill by-election, where somehow David Alton won that seat from Labour (after they lost the vote of no confidence in March 1979) on a 30% swing, and kept it and its successor Liverpool Mossley Hill for another 18 years.

The fallout from the Thorpe affair divided the Liberals internally as well-John Pardoe, who became Deputy Leader after failing to succeed Jeremy as actual Liberal leader, lost his seat of North Cornwall in 1979 having held it for 13 years because he supported Jeremy over the scandal. The only other Liberal MP to lose his seat in the 1979 general election, despite the significant fall in the Liberal vote that year, was Emlyn Hooson, who was not actually friendly towards Jeremy and was in fact investigating him over the allegations against him. Why Emlyn lost his seat of Montgomery, I do not know, and his obituary does not tell me either.
Meanwhile, David Penhaligon, MP for Truro, spoke against the Lib-Lab pact of 1977 and refused to support Jeremy when Jeremy did not stand down from his North Devon seat of 1979, as David Penhaligon advised. David Penhaligon increased his majority in Truro substantially in 1979, but Jeremy lost North Devon on a 12% swing (swings that size are rare even in modern general elections). At the same time, the relative weakness of James Callaghan compared to his predecessor, Harold Wilson (who I believe resigned not only because of his ill health but also because of attempts by MI5, and pro-establishment figures with links to the secret services like Airey Neave, to undermine him and undemocratically replace him), was used easily to attack Labour by the Conservatives and Conservative-allied press, which combined with a loss of Liberal votes in many Conservative-Labour swinging bellweather seats and the vote of no confidence of March 1979 where the Liberals severed their temporary pact with Labour, all helped Margaret Thatcher win the 1979 general election.

As for Rinkagate itself, so much information within it has been clouded, making it difficult for me to make my assessment of it. The trial judge's abusive (he referred to Norman as a liar, sponger and whiner and Peter as a humbug just seeking financial gain; I do not believe a Crown Court judge like Sir Joseph Cantley, who presided over the trial, would get away with such abusive remarks today) and blatantly biased summing up was a serious issue, as were the questions over the details of the entire incident. Andrew Newton was the man who shot Rinka (Norman Scott's pet dog), but I believe there are some doubts about whether Jeremy actually hired Andrew to kill both Rinka and Norman. Media bias on both sides within the scandal (e.g. the Sunday Times publishing 'the lies of Norman Scott' and other major newspapers painting a shady picture of Jeremy Thorpe and co) is also a notable problem. I believe that the character of the defendants or the plaintiffs should not have been included in the summing up, only the evidence on both sides within the case.

However, had I been around in 1979 and on that jury which acquitted all four defendants in that trial, I would not have judged Jeremy at least to be guilty, simply because there is insufficient evidence to clearly prove he was involved in a conspiracy to kill Norman Scott.  There probably was one, given the evidence, but I do not believe we can ever be certain of that. As for the guilt or lack thereof of Andrew, David Holmes, and John Le Mesurier, the other defendants, I am not so sure; I believe much of the truth behind Rinkagate, and the supposed affair between Jeremy and Norman, will never be known.

The public perception following the trial nevertheless ended Jeremy Thorpe's political career; he never fully regained the trust of the Liberal Party despite having been made honorary president of North Devon Liberal Democrats in 1988 (by which time he had acquired early onset Parkinson's disease). He survived in general obscurity hereafter until he died; when I first learned about him I was surprised to read that he was still alive when his Conservative/Labour contemporaries of Edward Heath and Harold Wilson were long since dead (Edward died in 2005, Harold died in 1995).

If I did not post this yesterday, it is because of the controversial nature of the events in Jeremy Thorpe's life which has made it difficult for me to write an opinion of it all; I feel that as an (amateur) historian of politics I need to write this. If you have an opinion on all this, please let me know.


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