Sex, blackmail, and attempted murder: the Thorpe affair


Jeremy Thorpe, former leader of the Liberal Party, died earlier this month. He led his party from the wilderness back to political relevance. He turned down Heath in early 1974, when a hung parliament almost led to a Conservative-Liberal coalition. Moreover, he was a well-respected public speaker and political authority. But that isn't really what we remember him for. We remember him for his involvement in what is widely considered the most incredible political scandal in British political history.  

The scandal almost had it all, so sophisticated and ridiculous that novelists wouldn't dare make it up. It was a story published across the world. 

From 1960 to 1964, Thorpe had been close to a young farmhand named Norman Scott. So close, in fact, that Scott later alleged that the two of them had a physical homosexual relationship between 1961 and 1962; this was illegal until 1968. 

Scott seemingly relied on assistance from Thorpe from 1961, when he turned up to the House of Commons penniless and homeless. Thorpe found him a place to live and helped find him work. This was when, according to Scott, their relationship acquired a sexual dimension. 

By Scott's account, Thorpe became an abusive partner. Scott later claimed that Thorpe had stolen his National Insurance card and assumed the role of his employer. In December 1962, a desperate Scott went to the police and explained their whole relationship. Despite the fact he brought proof in the form of letters written by Thorpe, the police decided not to take the case further. 

Scott promptly left for pastures new, retaining the letters that supposedly proved he and Thorpe had a sexual relationship. For the next few years, Scott continued to badger Thorpe regarding the National Insurance card allegations. Ultimately, in 1965, he wrote to Thorpe's mother revealing his claims. 

This was the beginning of an increasingly tense time between the two, as it became obvious that Scott was blackmailing Thorpe, implicitly or explicitly, in some way. After a successful intervention from the Liberal Party, Thorpe received some assurances from Scott in 1967 and Thorpe agreed to pay Scott £5 - £10 per week until 1968, when he paid a final £75 on the condition that he wouldn't hear from Scott again. 

In 1968 Thorpe married his first wife, Caroline Allpass, briefly reassuring the Liberals that his private life was not going to embarrass them. Yet it was during 1968 that Thorpe started plotting Scott's murder. 

Behind the scenes, Scott was still worrying Thorpe. Scott was now married with a pregnant wife, and needed his National Insurance card to receive child benefit. He threatened to release his story to the press, which was briefly nullified when Scott was issued a temporary National Insurance card. Eventually, his marriage broke down in 1970, and, blaming his former colleague, forced Thorpe to agree to pay for the whole divorce as to keep his name off the records. By this time, Thorpe himself was mourning the death of his wife.

This settlement didn't last long. Scott had got in touch with a Welsh Liberal MP and the party investigated the allegations. In 1971, a secret Party enquiry was called and Scott gave evidence. Questioned by an unsympathetic Lord Byers, Scott changed his story and appeared unconvincing. The party cleared Thorpe. 

From 1972, an angry Scott tried his very hardest to hurt Thorpe. Yet, despite the sensationalist nature of the British press, no newspaper would touch his accusations, presented unconvincingly without meaningful evidence. 

Everything came to a head in 1974. According to Liberal Party associate Holmes, determined that Scott should be killed, Thorpe found a hit man willing to shoot Scott for £10,000. Thorpe went on to convince Sir Jack Hayward (notable Liberal Party donor and former Wolverhampton Wanderers chairman) that the Party needed a £10,000 donation to be funnelled through a Channel Island account. 

In October 1975 the hitman, Newton, met with Scott claiming to be a bodyguard hired to protect him from possible assassination attempts. Newton drove Scott to a secluded country road, stopped and pulled a gun on him. Newton first shot his dog before telling Scott that he 'was next'. 

Newton's gun jammed several times while attempting to murder Scott, and Newton eventually fled in his car, leaving Scott by the side of the road. 

The press knew, but the story broke in 1976 when Scott told part of it in court (thus covering newspapers from libel prosecutions). Thorpe was reluctantly forced to resign as party leader by David Steel among others. Piece by piece it came out until, in 1978, Thorpe was charged with incitement to murder among other crimes and the world's media was granted the right to publish every allegation against Thorpe and his Liberal Party contemporaries. 

Thorpe was defeated as MP for North Devon in 1979, part-way though his trial, by over 8,000 votes. He was later acquitted, but the public were never satisfied by his explanation of events.

Thorpe retired largely from public life after 1980, forced mainly by a Party that wanted nothing to do with him. His reputation has somewhat recovered since the 1970s, aided by his silence, his charity work, and his continuing devotion to his second wife Marion Stein. He was invited to speak at the 1997 Lib Dem party conference, and received a standing ovation. By the time of his death in earlier this month, he had became a cult figure within the party.