There is a photograph, in this absorbing biography of the late and not quite great Liberal Party leader, of him fastidiously attending to the tie on his newly unveiled likeness in Madam Tussaud’s. Thorpe’s relative dandyism in the grey days of the 1970s—all trilbies, velvet collars and waistcoats—even then appeared slightly anachronistic, but the picture also shows how much politics and our attitude to politicians have changed. When Thorpe was in his heyday, it was obviously thought quite fitting that a political leader not in government would be important enough to merit such a wax makeover and, in a country with only three TV channels, famous enough to be popularly recognised. Politics, with its hold on our collective attention, was the only show in town.
Those days are long gone, but it was in any case rather a tatty, dreary show. That Michael Bloch manages to inject life into it, indeed make the manoeuvrings of post-war Westminster politics into an almost page-turning narrative, is not just down to his deft handling of what is obviously a mass of research, but surely derives too from his origins outside the Westminster bubble (he has previously written extensively about the Windsors). In feel and style, the book most resembles Charles Moore’s opus on Thatcher, quite an achievement when one considers the relative historical importance of the subjects. But unlike Moore’s book, one finds oneself picturing the personalities and events solidly in black and white, as though they are not quite part of the modern age.
Despite Bloch’s skill, readers under 40 will still have to take on trust much of the description of Thorpe’s qualities. The author describes the charisma, wit and talent for mimicry which apparently dazzled audiences from Eton onwards, but other than his famous line about Harold Macmillan (“No greater love hath a man than that he lay down his friends for his life”), few people seem to have thought them worthy of recording. He was, in short, a showman, and apparently effective enough to take millions of voters along with him.
What does come through loud and clear however is Thorpe’s intellectual superficiality, vanity and seat-of-the-pants approach to many of the issues on which he was called to have an opinion. Certainly his anti-apartheid stance seemed genuine and passionate, as was his belief in Britain’s need to be in Europe. But at no point does one feel that this man was anything other than somebody playing the political game to the greater glory of Jeremy Thorpe. There was no bigger picture. At one point in 1974, when he held talks with the beleaguered Prime Minister Edward Heath, it certainly looked as if he might wield some power from within government. But it came to nothing and now, like the rest of his political career, it all looks very beside the point.
What transforms this story from one about a colourful political also-ran into something different entirely is, of course, the fact that in 1979 Thorpe found himself on trial for incitement to murder the sometime model Norman Scott. It matters not at all that Thorpe was acquitted; he was destroyed (although this seemingly took some time to sink in), and Bloch rightly views all past roads as leading to this dramatic one set-piece, like the Titanic and the iceberg. To that extent it has a touch of the genuinely tragic about it, albeit a tragedy in which it is hard to feel the remotest sympathy for any of the protagonists.
The whole truth of what happened, who incited whom, who paid whom, and how it somehow all ended with a Great Dane (Scott’s dog) lying dead on a windy moor will never be fully known now. Thorpe’s alleged co-conspirators were a tawdry and inept gang, the details of their plotting almost comical in their parochialism. For a so-called political Trial of the Century, it was solidly second-rate. The internecine trail of meetings, shady dealings and even shadier characters is carefully and clearly charted by Bloch, who at certain points one can almost sense holding his nose as he writes. Indeed, whatever his original opinion of Thorpe himself, I’d wager that the author emerged at the other end of this project with, shall we say, a more complex view.
What there can be little doubt about is the sheer loathsomeness of Scott, who from the first chance meeting with Thorpe back in the early Sixties contrived to remain an active and combustible threat to a politician with the national stage in his sights. A professional leech, he appears to have gone through life relying on the kindness of strangers who then, disturbed by his behaviour and obsessions, tried gradually to peel him away. Reduced to ranting about Thorpe in rural pubs to anybody unfortunate enough to be within earshot, he finally got his man.
Thorpe always denied that there’d been a homosexual relationship with Scott. As a teenager at the time of the scandal, I remember how little was asked of Thorpe by the media on the question of his sexuality; somehow his entanglement with Scott emerged as an aberration, a strange one-off in the life of an otherwise ordinarily married man. Where this book is most revealing, perhaps, is in the picture it paints Thorpe in his early days as an active and sometimes reckless gay man (homosexuality was still illegal) but whose ambition dictated that he took a wife. Apparently Thorpe, who cooperated fully with Bloch on this book, read it and declared that it could not be published while he was alive, showing that, not just politically, he was a man from a different age.