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Jeremy Thorpe by Michael Bloch

January 2, 2017

jtAre we to believe that if it wasn’t for Norman Scott, Thorpe would have formed a coalition with Heath and there’d have been no Thatcher?

600 pages seemed a bit daunting at first, especially since the subject doesn’t interest me very much but it was so well-written that I kept on wanting to know what happened next so I finished much earlier than I expected.

It was long suppressed by the subject – until his death, said I was ‘a fair cop.’ A fortnight after Jeremy Thorpe’s death in December 2014, Michael Bloch’s long-suppressed biography of the former Liberal party leader was finally released. Bloch began his research over twenty years ago, conducted hundreds of interviews in 1992-94 with Thorpe’s contemporaries, colleagues and lovers, and had surprisingly amicable discussions with the man himself.

His family had coat of arms from namesake but unrelated family. This fed his fantasies at many low points of his life.

He had Irish low church (Anglo-Catholics were a thing of horror to them) forebears, one a policeman, another ordained without a degree but with the gift of the gab, with poor health and who was a windbag in parliament.

Thorpe took advantage of friends and then discarded them

Born in 1929, he was from boyhood an incorrigible show-off. He got a kick out of misbehaving and evading detection; and on the rare occasions when he was caught, perfected the trick of stout denials of his guilt.

He was accomplished at getting out of games at school, then national service

He was not a committee man but brilliant working on his own

Homosexual acts were illegal when Thorpe was coming to prominence and gay politicians ran the triple risk of blackmail, nasty criminal penalties and career ruin. Even when the law was repealed, many more years had to pass before any politician could come out as gay and hope to survive. Yet it was one of the hypocrisies of that era that so long as they were reasonably “discreet” about it, gay politicians could enjoy a successful career, even a glittering one. An influential figure on the Labour benches was the prodigiously promiscuous Tom Driberg. The Tory ranks included the bisexual Bob Boothby who pursued liaisons with characters from the criminal underworld at the same time as having an affair with the wife of the prime minister, Harold Macmillan.

When Thorpe became leader of his party at the precocious age of 37 his secret was already widely known at Westminster because he was far from careful. He was compulsively promiscuous and all classes were represented in his choice of partners “from heirs to peerages to rough proletarian youths”. He boasted to friends that he had seduced TV cameramen, footmen at Buckingham Palace receptions, even policemen on duty at the House of Commons. He played with fire by sending compromising letters, often on House of Commons stationery. At the time of Princess Margaret’s wedding to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Thorpe sent a friend a postcard: “What a pity about HRH. I rather hoped to marry the one and seduce the other.” His main taste was for men younger than himself and from less privileged backgrounds whom he might dominate in the guise of playing a protective role. When he became leader, he promised anxious colleagues that he would curb himself and get a wife. He did get a wife, cynically telling his press secretary that he thought it would boost the party’s poll rating, but he did not curb himself. During his engagement, he bragged of having sex with “a New York street boy he had picked up in Times Square and taken back to the Waldorf Astoria”. Even Driberg, whose recklessness was legendary, urged Thorpe to take care after hearing gossip about the Liberal leader from rent boys that they both used. Michael Bloch indulges in some psychological speculation about why Thorpe had such a “craving for dangerous adventure” and conjectures that he had “a subconscious longing to be caught and punished”.

Some of Bloch’s new revelations concern the Dorian Gray figure in Thorpe’s youth, Henry Upton. Upton was the sadistic heir to a peerage, with a string of homosexual convictions and tabloid exposures, who disappeared from a boat off the Sussex coast in 1957. An eminent art historian claimed that Upton was killed at Thorpe’s instigation in order to cover up thefts of money. (Bloch is careful to say that the claim was unsubstantiated.)

Scott was refused absolution at Westminster Cathedral

I thought that the author would blacken Scott’s name but Scott does this all by himself – writing a 17 page letter to Thorpe’s mother ostensibly about lost luggage.

The judge at Thorpe’s trial termed Scott “a neurotic, spineless creature, addicted to hysteria and self-advertisement…. He is a crook. He is a fraud, he is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite.”

Richard Wainwight was the well-loved MP for Colne Valley when I workerd there.

It was thought that a wife should stand by husband with homosexual tendencies

There is mention of The Brotherhood Movement – it ordains people and claims  to expand spiritual consciousness and awareness.

The author’s Thorpe is not all black: credit is given to his political achievements where it is due. He helped found Amnesty International. He was a passionate voice against Ian Smith’s racist minority rule in Rhodesia and the apartheid regime in South Africa. He supported the abolition of the vicious laws against gays, so he wasn’t a hypocrite in that respect. His most significant contribution to history was to help Ted Heath pass the legislation taking Britain into the Common Market. Without Liberal votes, it would have been lost. Bloch also makes a persuasive case that Thorpe, an inventive electioneer, was a pioneer of modern campaigning. For a period before he was ruined, he swept his party off its feet and charmed a fair bit of the country, presiding over a Liberal revival which took the party to a level of popularity it had not seen for half a century.

Hypocrite Cyril Smith refuses to share a stage with Thorpe.

The judge at the Old Bailey showed how the establishment protects its own.

Not for the first time, you wonder what it is, exactly, that the Liberal Party stands for. Chamelions?

Thorpe’s reference to the insularity of the UK is even more relevant now in the light of Brexit.

Empire Jack’s sword means little compared to the sword from the Peterloo massacre carried about by Ramesy McDonald, as recounted in Fame Is The Spur by Howard Spring.

Thorpe using money to build a bridge over a duck pond seems like an omen of later expenses scandals.

He was disgraced despite having been found innocent.

The book is repetitive.

Quotations:

In Ursula’s drawing room there was a table draped with a large damask cloth under which two small boys could disappear and not be seen: Jeremy called this his ‘secret house’ and would sometimes lure a friend there, where they would engage in such intimacies as small boys are capable of. On at least one occasion this happened while a fashionable and unsuspecting tea party hosted by his mother was taking place in the room beyond.8 Thus from earliest childhood Jeremy experienced the thrill of forbidden pleasure in reckless proximity to a conventional world, with the risk of exposure and disgrace adding to the excitement.

but always aimed to know just enough — an assessment which might apply to the whole of his career.

Nor was he much of a reader, usually prefering to ask a friend what was in a book than look at it himself.

At this critical stage of his emotional development, he fell entirely under the powerful influence of his mother, who drummed into him that he was the most important person in the world, that he could do no wrong, that he should exploit every opportunity to advance his career and that he must succeed at all costs. In years to come, he would often rebel against her pos­sessiveness; but the egotism, ambition and ruthlessness she had implanted would never be far away.

In so far as he exhibited any serious romantic feel­s, it was towards older women such as Megan Lloyd George ther than his contemporaries. If he ever seemed to be getting ose to a female undergraduate, as he did to Ann Chesney when they were both involved in the OULC, the relationship was likely to arouse the destructive attention of the one who was long to remain the principal woman in his life — his mother.

for at least some of its aficionados at the time, homosexuality also represented an exciting and conspir­atorial world. The idea of operating clandestinely outside the normal scheme of things lent a bohemian spice to life, and there was an element of thrill inherent in the risks involved, ‘like feasting with panthers’. Homosexual circles, obsessed as they were by secrecy, loyalty and code language, had something of a masonic air. Homosexuality could also overcome barriers between classes: gentlemen traditionally sought pleasure with working-class youths such as guardsmen, often to the benefit of both parties.

(It must, however, be noted that Jeremy was always sympa­thetic to the campaign to change the law on homosexuality in which, as will be seen, he became active after his election to Parliament

In the autumn of 1966, a young man called Bill Shannon was loitering outside an antique shop on the King’s Road when he noticed a tall, saturnine figure in a dark suit. “Looking for anything in particular?” the stranger said. They went back to the man’s flat in the heart of Westminster and had sex. The man then got out a camp-bed and invited Shannon to spend the night, and the next morning handed him £3. A few nights later the man picked him up again. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. “A very nice gentleman,” Shannon replied. The man pointed to the mantelpiece, decorated with photos of himself and various eminent political figures. He was, he explained, an MP. A few months later, he was elected leader of the Liberal party.

Like Jeremy, Bessell was a showman and extrovert, witty and imaginative, an elegant charmer with a theatrical touch who enjoyed intrigue and danger. He indulged in a promiscuous heterosexuality hardly less dan­gerous in terms of career and reputation (particularly among the God-fearing Cornish) than Jeremy’s homosexuality: he kept a wife and family in Cornwall and mistress in London, and was a compulsive and accomplished seducer of women. He was a fan­tasist and in this respect went further than Jeremy: he developed a habit of telling everyone what they most wanted to hear, caus­ing many to regard him as a liar, hypocrite and mischief-maker. As a lay preacher who practised little of what he preached but had a power to hold audiences, he was also seen, by those who knew the truth about him, as a crook of the Elmer Gantry variety. His sense of fantasy was particularly marked when it came to his busi­ness career: he was not without talent, and set up a number of successful small enterprises (including the felt-tip pen and vend­ing-machine companies of which Jeremy became a director), but he overreached himself by launching a series of wildly ambitious transatlantic schemes which he hoped would make him rich but merely landed him in debt. The fact that he managed to hold off his creditors for so long was a tribute to his persuasive powers. (He looked to his political career to help rescue him from his business troubles, writing to a creditor that `the letters MP are worth more than stocks and shares …’)

If you are in public life you are more vulnerable and must not put yourself in a position where you can be subject to blackmail or other pressures. Peccadilloes which might be acceptable for a pri­vate citizen can become a great danger to security with a person in public life.

That day I gave birth to this vice that lies latent in every man.

“Bunnies can (and will) go to France. Yours affectionately, Jeremy. I miss you.”

Had he not done any of these risky things, it is unlikely that Scott could have done him much harm. Jeremy turned the affair into a drama because, consciously or unconsciously, he wanted a drama. It was almost as if he had a psychological need to sustain a threat to his career, which provided him with a challenge and gave him a thrill of fear.

Between (Heath) and Jeremy there had long existed the mutual mistrust of the dedicated plodder and the brilliant lightweight, the repressed introvert and the flamboyant extrovert.

This country has been in retreat since the war — retreat from over­seas possessions, overseas commitments and many of the responsibilities it accepted abroad. There are some who would wish to go further and turn this island into one with a siege economy. The time has come to end that retreat, to reverse it, to advance into Europe.

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From → Biography, Sexuality

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