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Jeremy Thorpe: A personal appreciation

December 5, 2014

Jeremy Thorpe, who died yesterday at the age of 85 after a thirty year battle with Parkinson’s Disease, was one of the dominant political personalities of my teenage years. He spoke a language that transcended the sterile class warfare that Labour and the Tories had sunk into in the 1960s and was hugely refreshing because of it. He was a fierce opponent of the evil racist regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa and his courage in speaking out against them was also attractive to many a teenage radical.

He was also a victim of his own confused sexuality in an era far less tolerant than our own. This drove him into a series of bizarre responses to Norman Scott’s vindictive campaign against him which led to his spectacular downfall. That story is retold in vivid detail in many newspapers and websites today and makes sad reading.

For me it is as a brilliant campaigner and a passionate radical Liberal that I will remember him, alongside the modest dignity with which he accepted his exit from public life and his years of illness.

Thorpe: a charismatic platform orator

Thorpe: a charismatic platform orator

He was never afraid to be outspoken on a cause he believed in and his opposition to the illegal racist regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) marked him and the Liberal Party he by then led as a brave and distinctive voice in a timid world. While the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was making the white rebel leader Ian Smith feel undeservedly important by negotiating endlessly with him, Thorpe came up with a more direct solution: bomb the sanctions busting railway lines. Wilson’s attacks on Thorpe were vicious, labelling him “Bomber Thorpe” but I still believe Thorpe was right. The sanctions against Rhodesia were ineffective because the railways from the African coast carried goods to and from the illegal regime with impunity. Cut the supply lines and Smith’s regime would have probably buckled, saving the country from years of guerrilla warfare and, maybe, the blight of the Mugabe regime today.

Thorpe was also the Liberal leader who knew when to say no to the Tories.

Many of us who campaigned for the Liberal Party for the first time in February 1974 held our breath when he walked into 10 Downing Street at the invitation of Ted Heath who wanted a coalition with the Liberals to keep the Tories in power. Despite being offered the job of Foreign Secretary, Thorpe rejected the coalition as it lacked cast iron guarantees on cherished Liberal policies such as electoral reform. What a shame Nick Clegg didn’t take the same stance in 2010.

He was a colourful, genuinely charismatic politician of a type we rarely see nowadays, putting principle before naked ambition as he showed in 1974.

He was also a committed European who would have destroyed Nigel Farage, not pussyfooted around him as today’s party leaders do. I always thought his greatest campaign was the EU referendum in 1975 when he outshone whoever he shared a platform with at some huge rallies – Ted Heath, Roy Jenkins and others were constantly overshadowed by Thorpe.

Many obituaries have commented on his brilliance at recalling names and faces: it was an astounding gift which I never saw fail him. I remember my late mother thinking she was one of the most important people in world when on meeting him briefly for the second time at a Liberal Party Assembly sometime in the mid-70s he remembered her name, where she came from and that her son was a Young Liberal despite us not sharing a surname (my mother, a young widow, had remarried).
One story I must share from later in his life illustrates his humility and simple humanity. We were at a Christmas party at Jonathan Fryer’s house in the early 1990s and when we noticed our two eldest daughters Eleanor and Olivia had disappeared I went to find them. They were with a few other young children sitting on the stairs with Jeremy Thorpe telling them some wonderful Christmas stories. The children were enthralled but had no idea who this man was until a lady guest walked past and said that one day they would read about him in their history books. Jeremy just turned round and said “I don’t think so. I’ll be a tiny footnote at best”. He deserves more than that.

From → Politics

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