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What's all the drama about Jeremy Thorpe

01:00 Thu 11th Jul 2002 |

Well, ITV have produced a controversial documentary (When Jeremy Thorpe Met Norman Scott) that airs once more claims that the former Liberal Party leader had sex with a young stablehand and model called Norman Scott. Scott reveals details of the alleged relationship for the first time outside the law courts. Thorpe, aged 73 and suffering from Parkinson's Disease, does not contribute to the show; his friends have condemned ITV for "what is effectively a retrial".

That's quite a story
There's much more. The country was gripped in 1979 when Thorpe - remember, he'd been leader of the Liberals and one of the country's best-known faces - faced trial at the Old Bailey, charged with incitement and conspiracy to murder. Scott alleged, then and now, that a 'hitman' named Andrew Newton had planned to kill him during a drive across Bodmin Moor. Scott's dog, Rinka, was shot but he himself escaped unhurt. Thorpe and his co-defendants were acquitted by the jury of all charges, but it was the end of Thorpe's political career.

It sounds like the plot of a Jeffrey Archer novel
No doubt Archer would be delighted to hear you say that. But it's worth repeating that, while Archer is still in the clink, Thorpe was acquitted of all charges. The fact that the allegations are being repeated out of court may or may not lead to further legal action, in one direction or another.

Remind me of how events unfolded
Thorpe, an old Etonian, was elected Liberal MP for North Devon in 1959 and became Party leader in 1967. Younger readers may need reminding that we have a third political party in this country (or even a second one, come to think of it) but under Thorpe's leadership the Liberals came close to holding the balance of power in 1974. That's the balance of power, rather than holding power itself; nevertheless, there was talk of a coalition with Edward Heath's Tories and a Cabinet position for the dapper, photogenic, charismatic Thorpe.

So everything was rosy
Far from it. By the mid-70s Norman Scott's allegations of a homosexual relationship with Thorpe were becoming common knowledge. Libel laws prevented the media from printing anything until Scott testified in a magistrate's court early in 1976 about the shooting of his dog the previous year. Here he was able to make his claims public. There was talk of blackmail, intrigue as well as - horror of horrors - homosexuality. The allegations dated back as far as 1961 - a time when homosexual acts were illegal, even between consenting adults.

Thorpe stepped down as Liberal leader because, he said, he could no longer carry on in the face of a campaign of denigration in the press and among his own Party.

What about the conspiracy to murder
Those allegations weren't made until Andrew Newton spoke out on his release from prison in 1977. The police investigated, Thorpe was arrested. He and the other accused went on trial in May 1979, just three days after the General Election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power. Thorpe had lost his seat, by a huge margin, to the Conservative candidate. (Auberon Waugh stood in the constituency on behalf of the Dog Lovers Party).

And the trial itself
A triumph for Thorpe's counsel, George Carmen, then relatively young and unknown. His cross-examination of the main prosecution witness, ex-Liberal MP Peter Bessell, destroyed the case against Thorpe. Scott was branded all kinds of terrible things. The jury deliberated for two days before throwing the charges out.

But there was nothing the politician could do to save his career. He had admitted through his lawyers to 'homosexual tendencies', a tactic that prevented the subject being raised in court, but an admission that the unenlightened Britain of 1979 failed to accept.

What has Thorpe said since
Very little. His retirement from public life coincided with the onset of Parkinson's, and he has lived quietly in Devon and London with his wife. However, in 1999 he published his memoirs, In My Own Time. He again denied having an affair with or plotting to kill Norman Scott.

And Scott
Until now, nothing. He lives on Dartmoor and has been married twice. However, the claims made now will, in Thorpe's own words, 'rake over the embers of the trial' and cause people to talk all over again.

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