Jeremy Thorpe and the South African Secret Service

How Thorpe duped Harold Wilson…

jtYesterday marked the passing of Jeremy Thorpe, the former British Liberal leader who died aged eighty-five, had suffered from Parkinson’s Disease for many years. Thorpe, who was once voted Britain’s most popular politician would also prove to be the country’s most infamous by the end of the seventies following years of gossip, scandal and eventually a high court trial for attempted murder.

Whilst there will be scores of obituaries and tributes paid to Thorpe in the coming hours and days I would like to focus on one particular part of ‘the story’, Harold Wilson’s support of Thorpe during the height of the Norman Scott scandal.

In the early sixties the security services were already aware of Thorpe’s alleged homosexuality and the threat of blackmail which would inevitably ensue should he be caught in what was then, still an illegal act. Following a trip to San Francisco (SF) he wrote to a gay lover living there declaring SF ‘to be the place he would come to should a gay scandal ever come out’. A year later, Sir Frank Soskice, the Home Secretary under Harold Wilson’s first administration was told of a blackmail attempt against Thorpe via a letter given to his mother which demanded £30 to keep quiet about her son’s sexuality. Roy Jenkins who went on to replace Soskice also received complaints via the police about Thorpe committing acts of buggery and yet despite this, Wilson would stand by him a decade later during his second term as Prime Minister.

In 1961 a former model called Norman Josiffe, later known as Norman Scott, was working as a stable boy when he met Thorpe. Scott would allege that he had an affair with Thorpe which lasted for three years and continued with these allegations into the 1970s when Senior Liberal’s finally addressed the issue by holding a secret enquiry in 1971. They would turn to the then Home Secretary and renegade Conservative, Reginald ‘Reggie’ Maudling for assistance who dismissed the case out of hand by declaring Scott a ‘nutcase’. Whilst Scott was clearly a troubled young man who had previously been sectioned under the Mental Health Act there can be little doubt that Thorpe took advantage of his vulnerability and despite being given money and help obtaining a job, Scott, who was obsessed with Thorpe felt deeply resentful against his former lover’s perceived betrayal.

What could not be ignored was the considerable size of police and MI5 files on Thorpe and his affair with Scott as well as Scott’s own personal collection of letters and postcards including a derisory comment about Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones. When newspapers and politicians dismissed Scott’s rambling accusations he met the journalist Gordon Winter who would prove so keen to hear the story that they slept together. Unbeknown to Scott, the journalist was on the payroll of the South African secret service. ‘BOSS’ as they were known were one of the most accomplished agencies in the world and knew all about Thorpe’s outspoken remarks against their government.

Thorpe, whose reputation was being dragged through every ditch was alleged to have organised a plot to kill Scott, according to reports a number of bizarre methods were considered and discussed but later dismissed. What is known however, is that a former airline pilot called Andrew Newton attempted to shoot Scott whilst he walked his dog on Exmoor. Newton missed Scott but killed the dog.

Step forward Harold Wilson, now into his second term as Prime Minister and a man who was becoming increasingly isolated within his own party. He was in the grip of a deep paranoia against the intelligence services, envisaging plots against him at every turn. Thorpe knew this and came to Wilson with the claim that the whole affair was a set up by BOSS to discredit both him and Wilson. In truth, the South African’s did nothing with Winter’s information, they more than likely sat back and watched the pair create their own train crash. Thorpe, despite being ideologically opposed to Wilson and his government was on friendly terms with the Prime Minister and used this to his advantage.

Wilson was convinced about the merits of Thorpe’s story and hired two BBC journalists to begin a year long investigation into BOSS and their links to Winter and the Thorpe affair. Such was Wilson’s paranoia that the journalists were told to watch out for bugs, phone taps and agents following their every move. Wilson told them this would prove to be the British ‘Watergate’, it wasn’t and the BBC dropped the investigation, forcing the journalists to sell their information to the press.

Thorpe’s betrayal of Wilson’s trust was as bad as his manipulating a Prime Minister who was clearly becoming ever more mentally fragile. He knew Wilson believed the South African’s were behind it all, that they had, so Wilson believed, committed burglaries against him and this obsession culminated in an extraordinary conversation with the two journalists in which he said: “I see myself as the big fat spider in the corner of the room. Sometimes I speak when I am asleep. You should both listen. Occasionally when we meet I might tell you to go to the Charing Cross Road and kick a blind man standing on the corner. That blind man might tell you something, lead you somewhere” It was an unforgivable act in the eyes of Wilson’s long-suffering (and alleged lover) personal secretary, Marcia Williams who, like Wilson had been on friendly terms with Thorpe. Even when it became clear to Wilson that Thorpe had indeed indulged in an affair with Scott he maintained his rhetoric against Winter and the South African’s. Looking back it seems remarkable that a serving British Prime Minister could be allowed to nurture and pursue such outlandish thoughts and conspiracy theories but he was and Thorpe, if he had a conscience should have considered his actions.

By the end of the seventies the court case against Thorpe and his alleged co-conspirators was thrown out but Thorpe’s career was finished.

Further reading:

Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe

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