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Jeremy Thorpe and the military coup

I watched the Thorpe scandal on the BBC series A Very English Scandal with a great deal of emotion. In fact, at the end of the last programme, I found myself in tears – and I’ve been wondering why ever since.

It was, of course, brilliantly directed, written and acted – and also brilliantly evocative of a period when I was first politically aware.

I remember vividly poring over the blow-by-blow accounts of the trial in the Telegraph in my friend Stuart’s room in college (I still have the cuttings somewhere).

That was before I knew Thorpe himself, many years later. He and Marion were very kind to me. He was also still a purveyor of the Liberal, and now the Lib Dem, besetting sin – policy wheezes designed to attract attention, but with virtually no content.

And admire him as I did, especially in those trial days – and I joined the party only weeks before the trial – that was the Thorpe problem: brilliant razzmatazz, genuine Liberal convictions, but no coherent programme.

I’m not sure if I was weeping for myself or for my party. Or indeed for Thorpe and Scott, who both seem to me – and the series portrayed this even-handedly – the victims of forces beyond themselves.

As I appear to be the only person on earth to remember what the late 1970s felt like, I feel some responsibility to explain what it seemed like at the time.

It certainly was hardly an easy time to be a Liberal (it was the pillow-biting that did it). I remember convincing myself, after reading the detailed account of Norman Scott’s meltdown during the trial – not included in the BBC drama – that his affair with Thorpe was a fantasy, though realising that Thorpe may, even so, be guilty of incitement to murder, along the lines of Henry II and Thomas Becket.

It was a period of complex conspiracy theories – now long forgotten – and so here are three to explain some of the background.

  1. The Apartheid Connection. It was widely believed that the acquittal of Peter Hain, then Young Liberal chair, on a charge of theft, was despite a plot to bring about a case of mistaken identity engineered by the South African secret service. Hain and Thorpe were two of the most prominent anti-Apartheid activists in the UK, so it seemed likely to us at the time that the Scott affair had some South African links too. That was, unfortunately, also what led us to dismiss the allegations made public by RAP about Cyril Smith.
  2. The Harold Wilson connection. It was strange, as I remember it, that the trial of Andrew Newton, the would-be assassin, took place on the same day as Wilson announced his resignation and Princess Anne announced her divorce. Wilson was connected because he had secretly contacted two Sunday Times journalists, told them he would guide them to a big story, and then got irritated because instead he had guided them to the Thorpe Affair, which they then failed to look behind. You can read what they found in The Pencourt File.
  3. The intelligence connection. What was Wilson’s real story? It seems likely that it was his conviction that the intelligence services were plotting against him. You can read more on this in The Wilson Plot. And here we find ourselves at the heart of the real conspiracy theory, during this strange period of private armies and what seemed like looming social breakdown. In 1987, the Sunday Times reported on the 1975 plot to borrow the QE2, put Wilson and his cabinet aboard and take over the government. You can read a little about this shadowy affair, by members of the establishment and the military, here. Those involved, as the Sunday Times did not report, were also linked to the bid to make Margaret Thatcher leader of the opposition that same year.

I have long since abandoned the hope that maybe Thorpe was innocent. But equally I don’t think the Scandal series was quite accurate in its portrayal of a politician protected by the establishment. Of course, Thorpe was protected, but only because they had already thrown him to the wolves to distract from the real story.

Or have I myself become victim to the conspiracy mania that the 1970s seems to have generated?

The post was first published on the Real Press blog.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

Comments

  1. Felix Dodds says

    My friend the article misses the key point that Thorpe hired someone to kill Scott and that would have happened if the gun hadn’t jammed. That there were other stories that should have been told at the time is completely true too but there should be no glossing over of what he did….all for the sake of a NI card…some might say.

    • David Boyle says

      You’re right, Felix. I wouldn’t suggest otherwise. I wanted to explain why, at the time, I felt as if I was on his side – and why I did not believe, back then, that he was guilty. It was rather a long time ago…

  2. Chris Foote Wood says

    I knew Thorpe well and met with him a number of times both before and after his trial. As Liberal leader he campaigned with me in my Bishop Auckland ward, and my wife Frances & I visited him and Marion at their London home in his later years. I too agree with the “Henry II” theory ie “who will rid me of this rebellious priest?” and I am sure it was his well-meaning (?) but incompetent friends who engineered the gloriously inept plot to murder Scott and were not ordered to do so as depicted in the tv film. I also believe it was the shooting of the dog Rinka that enraged the British public more than the attempt to murder Scott. For the record, in January this year I joined the Labour Party after 61 years as an active Liberal Party/LibDem member, councillor for 40 years, standing for parliament nine times etc etc.

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Get email notifications</p></li><li id="field_2_1" class="gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_hidden_label field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Name<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_complex ginput_container no_prefix has_first_name no_middle_name has_last_name no_suffix gf_name_has_2 ginput_container_name' id='input_2_1'> <span id='input_2_1_3_container' class='name_first' > <input type='text' name='input_1.3' id='input_2_1_3' value='' aria-label='First name' tabindex='70' aria-required='true' placeholder='First Name*' /> <label for='input_2_1_3' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>First</label> </span> <span id='input_2_1_6_container' class='name_last' > <input type='text' name='input_1.6' id='input_2_1_6' value='' aria-label='Last name' tabindex='72' aria-required='true' placeholder='Last Name*' /> <label for='input_2_1_6' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>Last</label> </span> </div></li><li id="field_2_2" class="gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_2_2' >Email<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_2' id='input_2_2' type='email' value='' class='large' tabindex='74' placeholder='Email*' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_2_4" class="gfield gf-conf-check gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Confirmation<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_checkbox'><ul class='gfield_checkbox' id='input_2_4'><li class='gchoice gchoice_2_4_1'> <input class='gfield-choice-input' name='input_4.1' type='checkbox' value='Please keep me updated on new website content and Radix news. (We will process your data in accordance with our <span class="pp"><a href="https://radixuk.org/privacy-policy/">Privacy Policy</a></span>. You may withdraw this consent at any time by &lt;a href=&quot;"mailto:[email protected]"&quot;&gt;emailing us&lt;/a&gt; or clicking “unsubscribe” at the bottom of our emails).' id='choice_2_4_1' tabindex='75' /> <label for='choice_2_4_1' id='label_2_4_1'>Please keep me updated on new website content and Radix news. (We will process your data in accordance with our <span class="pp"><a href="https://radixuk.org/privacy-policy/">Privacy Policy</a></span>. You may withdraw this consent at any time by <a href="mailto:[email protected]">emailing us</a> or clicking “unsubscribe” at the bottom of our emails).</label> </li></ul></div></li><li id="field_2_6" class="gfield gform_validation_container field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_2_6' >Comments</label><div class='ginput_container'><input name='input_6' id='input_2_6' type='text' value='' autocomplete='new-password'/></div><div class='gfield_description' id='gfield_description_2_6'>This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.</div></li></ul></div> <div class='gform_footer top_label'> <input type='submit' id='gform_submit_button_2' class='gform_button button' value='SUBSCRIBE' tabindex='76' onclick='if(window["gf_submitting_2"]){return false;} if( !jQuery("#gform_2")[0].checkValidity || jQuery("#gform_2")[0].checkValidity()){window["gf_submitting_2"]=true;} ' onkeypress='if( event.keyCode == 13 ){ if(window["gf_submitting_2"]){return false;} if( !jQuery("#gform_2")[0].checkValidity || jQuery("#gform_2")[0].checkValidity()){window["gf_submitting_2"]=true;} jQuery("#gform_2").trigger("submit",[true]); }' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_ajax' value='form_id=2&amp;title=&amp;description=&amp;tabindex=69' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='is_submit_2' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_submit' value='2' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_unique_id' value='' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='state_2' value='WyJbXSIsIjg1ZGYwZWM3YzAyMDRmYTcyZDYxNmIwMWJiNmFhYzVhIl0=' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_target_page_number_2' id='gform_target_page_number_2' value='0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_source_page_number_2' id='gform_source_page_number_2' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_field_values' value='' /> </div> </form> </div> <iframe style='display:none;width:0px;height:0px;' src='about:blank' name='gform_ajax_frame_2' id='gform_ajax_frame_2' title='This iframe contains the logic required to handle Ajax powered Gravity Forms.'></iframe> <script type='text/javascript'>document.addEventListener( 'DOMContentLoaded', function($){gformInitSpinner( 2, 'https://radixuk.org/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.svg' );jQuery('#gform_ajax_frame_2').on('load',function(){var contents = jQuery(this).contents().find('*').html();var is_postback = contents.indexOf('GF_AJAX_POSTBACK') >= 0;if(!is_postback){return;}var form_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_wrapper_2');var is_confirmation = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_confirmation_wrapper_2').length > 0;var is_redirect = contents.indexOf('gformRedirect(){') >= 0;var is_form = form_content.length > 0 && ! is_redirect && ! is_confirmation;var mt = parseInt(jQuery('html').css('margin-top'), 10) + parseInt(jQuery('body').css('margin-top'), 10) + 100;if(is_form){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').html(form_content.html());if(form_content.hasClass('gform_validation_error')){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').addClass('gform_validation_error');} else {jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').removeClass('gform_validation_error');}setTimeout( function() { /* delay the scroll by 50 milliseconds to fix a bug in chrome */ jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').offset().top - mt); }, 50 );if(window['gformInitDatepicker']) {gformInitDatepicker();}if(window['gformInitPriceFields']) {gformInitPriceFields();}var current_page = jQuery('#gform_source_page_number_2').val();gformInitSpinner( 2, 'https://radixuk.org/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.svg' );jQuery(document).trigger('gform_page_loaded', [2, current_page]);window['gf_submitting_2'] = false;}else if(!is_redirect){var confirmation_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('.GF_AJAX_POSTBACK').html();if(!confirmation_content){confirmation_content = contents;}setTimeout(function(){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').replaceWith(confirmation_content);jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gf_2').offset().top - mt);jQuery(document).trigger('gform_confirmation_loaded', [2]);window['gf_submitting_2'] = false;wp.a11y.speak(jQuery('#gform_confirmation_message_2').text());}, 50);}else{jQuery('#gform_2').append(contents);if(window['gformRedirect']) {gformRedirect();}}jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [2, current_page]);} );} );</script>
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[gravityform id=5 title=false description=false ajax=true tabindex=64]
<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper gform_legacy_markup_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_5' ><div id='gf_5' class='gform_anchor' tabindex='-1'></div><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_5' id='gform_5' action='/opinion/jeremy-thorpe-and-the-military-coup/#gf_5' novalidate> <div class='gform_body gform-body'><ul id='gform_fields_5' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id="field_5_5" class="gfield gravity_head gfield_html gfield_html_formatted gfield_no_follows_desc field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><h3>Get emails</h3></li><li id="field_5_1" class="gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_hidden_label field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Name<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_complex ginput_container no_prefix has_first_name no_middle_name has_last_name no_suffix gf_name_has_2 ginput_container_name' id='input_5_1'> <span id='input_5_1_3_container' class='name_first' > <input type='text' name='input_1.3' id='input_5_1_3' value='' aria-label='First name' tabindex='65' aria-required='true' placeholder='First Name*' /> <label for='input_5_1_3' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>First</label> </span> <span id='input_5_1_6_container' class='name_last' > <input type='text' name='input_1.6' id='input_5_1_6' value='' aria-label='Last name' tabindex='67' aria-required='true' placeholder='Last Name*' /> <label for='input_5_1_6' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>Last</label> </span> </div></li><li id="field_5_2" class="gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_5_2' >Email<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_2' id='input_5_2' type='email' value='' class='large' tabindex='69' placeholder='Email*' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_5_4" class="gfield gf-conf-check gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Confirmation<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_checkbox'><ul class='gfield_checkbox' id='input_5_4'><li class='gchoice gchoice_5_4_1'> <input class='gfield-choice-input' name='input_4.1' type='checkbox' value='Consent' id='choice_5_4_1' tabindex='70' /> <label for='choice_5_4_1' id='label_5_4_1'>Please keep me updated on new website content and Radix news. 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[gravityform id=6 title=false description=false ajax=true tabindex=999]
<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper gform_legacy_markup_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_6' ><div id='gf_6' class='gform_anchor' tabindex='-1'></div><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_6' id='gform_6' action='/opinion/jeremy-thorpe-and-the-military-coup/#gf_6' novalidate> <div class='gform_body gform-body'><ul id='gform_fields_6' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id="field_6_5" class="gfield gravity_head gfield_html gfield_html_formatted gfield_no_follows_desc field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><h3>Before you go!</h3> <p>Stay up to date with what's happening at Radix. 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