British Politician Jeremy Thorpe Is Charged with Attempted Murder Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

British Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe was accused of hiring an assassin to kill Norman Scott, Thorpe’s alleged former lover. Scott later said that Thorpe threatened to kill him if he revealed the affair. After his release from prison, the gunman said he had been hired to kill Scott. Thorpe and three codefendants were acquitted, but the incident ended Thorpe’s political career.

Summary of Event

Flashy and opinionated, Jeremy Thorpe was elected to Parliament from Britain’s North Devon District in 1959. He became Liberal Party leader in 1967 and remained popular enough to retain his seat when the Conservative Party drove the Liberals from the majority in 1970. However, in 1971, the start of a scandal would affect the rest of Thorpe’s political career. [kw]Thorpe Is Charged with Attempted Murder, British Politician Jeremy (Aug. 4, 1978) [kw]Murder, British Politician Jeremy Thorpe Is Charged with Attempted (Aug. 4, 1978) Thorpe, Jeremy Scott, Norman "Rinkagate"[Rinkagate] Thorpe, Jeremy Scott, Norman "Rinkagate"[Rinkagate] [g]Europe;Aug. 4, 1978: British Politician Jeremy Thorpe Is Charged with Attempted Murder[01750] [g]England;Aug. 4, 1978: British Politician Jeremy Thorpe Is Charged with Attempted Murder[01750] [c]Murder and suicide;Aug. 4, 1978: British Politician Jeremy Thorpe Is Charged with Attempted Murder[01750] [c]Government;Aug. 4, 1978: British Politician Jeremy Thorpe Is Charged with Attempted Murder[01750] [c]Politics;Aug. 4, 1978: British Politician Jeremy Thorpe Is Charged with Attempted Murder[01750] [c]Law and the courts;Aug. 4, 1978: British Politician Jeremy Thorpe Is Charged with Attempted Murder[01750] Newton, Andrew Holmes, David Deakin, George Le Mesurier, John

Jeremy Thorpe outside a courtroom in London in June, 1979.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1971, former model Norman Scott alleged that he and Thorpe had been lovers between 1961 and 1963. His claim was a shock to the public. Male homosexuality had been decriminalized in England only in 1967. Though the Liberal Party’s subsequent investigation cleared Thorpe, Scott maintained the truth of his allegations.

The situation remained at a standstill until 1975, the year Scott began to feel unsafe. He would later claim Thorpe had threatened to kill him for revealing the affair. In one incident, Scott had been walking a friend’s dog, a Great Dane named Rinka, in Exmoor National Park (in the south of England) in October. During the walk he encountered former pilot Andrew Newton. Newton shot the dog dead but his gun misfired when he turned it on Scott.

At Newton’s trial in 1976, Scott again claimed to have been Thorpe’s lover during the 1960’s, adding that Thorpe had threatened to kill him if he brought the relationship to light. Scott also sold the press personal letters, allegedly written by Thorpe to Scott, calling Scott by a pet name and discussing a planned trip. This time, Thorpe’s political position was threatened, and he resigned his Liberal Party leadership in May of that year. Newton was convicted of the attempted murder and spent one year in prison. Thorpe’s name was never mentioned in conjunction with Newton at this time.

However, when Newton was released from prison in 1977, he stirred the scandal back to life, insisting that he had, in fact, been hired to kill Scott. After Thorpe’s name was associated with the case, the scandal became known as Rinkagate. Thorpe, who always maintained that his friendship with the former model had been platonic, repeatedly denied the accusations. By this time, Thorpe was married to his second wife, Marion. His first wife had died in a car accident in 1970, before the initial allegations were made. Thorpe firmly insisted on his innocence, refusing to resign his seat in Parliament.

Over a year later, on August 4, 1978, Thorpe and three codefendants, David Holmes, George Deakin, and John Le Mesurier, were formally charged with plotting to murder Scott and dispose of his body. Only Thorpe was accused of hiring Newton to commit the murder. The prosecution listed as a motive the continuing damage Scott’s allegations had been having on Thorpe’s political career. Thorpe allegedly told fellow liberal Peter Bessell at a meeting of Parliament that Scott had to disappear. Thorpe also allegedly tried to get Liberal Party treasurer Holmes to murder Scott, but when that idea had fallen through, he had begun to plot against his alleged former lover with nightclub owner Deakin and carpet-company tycoon Le Mesurier. Finally, Thorpe was accused of having hired Newton to commit the crime and of paying Newton’s £5,000 assassination fee from Liberal Party funds.

It was nearly a year before the case came before a British jury. At that time, the trial drew enormous public attention, focusing as it did on a government official’s alleged sexual peccadilloes and outrageous behavior. Indeed, the case destroyed Thorpe politically. In the election, which preceded the trial by only a week, he lost his seat to a Conservative opponent, as voters had little patience with homosexual love affairs, scandals, and murder plots; furthermore, Thorpe’s guilt generally was assumed. In an interesting addendum, the British Broadcasting British Broadcasting Corporation Corporation (BBC) turned up surprising hints that Scott may not have been the only source of accusations against Thorpe.

During the 1979 trial, which lasted just over a month, Thorpe admitted he had discussed the possibility of trying to scare Scott into silence, but he categorically denied the murder-for-hire charges. In fact, he and his codefendants were completely cleared by the jury on June 29.

Over the course of Thorpe’s political career, England’s prime ministry changed hands several times. Twice, Labour Party candidate Harold Wilson held the seat (1964-1970, 1974-1976). Wilson was something of a character himself, insisting that the Security Service, or MI5 MI5[MIfive] (Britain’s equivalent of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency), plotted to drive him from office during the late 1970’s. In 2002, the British Broadcasting Corporation BBC reported that Wilson had supposedly had a minor clerk, Jack Straw, examine evidence in Scott’s social security file to determine the truth of Scott’s allegations against Thorpe. Straw, who became much more prominent in British politics, acknowledged reading the file on order of his superiors, but he did not believe he violated anyone’s privacy. However, parts of Scott’s file disappeared, bringing suspicion that it had been examined to incriminate Thorpe. If so, the motive would have been a purely political effort by Wilson to prevent an anti-Labour Party alliance between Thorpe’s Liberals and the Conservative Tory Party. The media made much of the mystery when it came to light in 2002, but no political action was taken.

Impact

The impact of Thorpe’s trial needs to be considered in the proper context. The gay and lesbian rights movement was fully under way in Britain by the time the scandal broke, but gay and lesbian public figures were unheard of. Thus, news of Thorpe’s alleged homosexual trysts came as an enormous shock to the public. His actions were considered to be criminal behavior, even though they came to light several years after male homosexuality was decriminalized in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the public refused to believe that a political figure such as Thorpe could be involved in something as sordid as a murder-for-hire scheme.

Thus, the popular press covered the event exhaustively, and most people considered Thorpe guilty, even though the jury exonerated him. The event remains part of contemporary popular history in Britain; indeed, the British Broadcasting Corporation BBC’s investigation into the case in 2002 proves its staying power. The scandal was enough to end Thorpe’s political career, even as it left several questions unanswered, including, Why did Newton confront Scott if not to murder him? Thorpe, Jeremy Scott, Norman "Rinkagate"[Rinkagate]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freeman, Simon, and Barrie Penrose. Rinkagate: The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Thorpe. London: Bloomsbury, 1996. Comprehensive rehearsal of the scandal, including its political significance and analysis of Thorpe’s career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Purton, Peter. Sodom, Gomorrah, and the New Jerusalem: Labour and Lesbian and Gay Rights, from Edward Carpenter to Today. London: Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights, 2006. Discusses the historical relationship between gay and lesbian rights and politics in Britain, placing the Thorpe scandal in context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thorpe, Jeremy. In My Own Time: Reminiscences of a Liberal Leader. London: Politico’s, 1999. Thorpe provides perspective on his trial and acquittal but focuses more in this work on his years in office.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waugh, Auberon. The Last Word: An Eyewitness Account of the Trial of Jeremy Thorpe. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. Journalist Waugh delivers his own judgments on the Thorpe trial, contesting the judge’s claim to the last word. Discussions of the British justice system are interspersed with trial reporting.

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