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Jeremy Thorpe, former British political leader, dies at 85

Shown in this Feb. 1970 file photo, Jeremy

Shown in this Feb. 1970 file photo, Jeremy Thorpe, an influential British politician who helped revive the Liberal Party before his career was cut short by scandal, died Dec. 4, 2014 after a long battle with Parkinsons Disease. He was 85. Newsday's obituary for Jeremy Thorpe
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Harry Todd

LONDON - Jeremy Thorpe, an influential British politician who helped revive the Liberal Party before his career was cut short by scandal, died on Thursday. He was 85.

Thorpe's death was announced by his son, Rupert, and was mourned by current party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and other party stalwarts.

Clegg praised Thorpe's "leadership and resolve" in reviving the party, now called the Liberal Democrats, but the former party leader -- once a familiar, dapper figure in Parliament -- had largely stayed out of the public eye since he was cleared of serious criminal charges in 1979. He had suffered from Parkinson's disease for more than 30 years.

Widely admired as a speaker and organizer, Thorpe had enjoyed a successful career that was cut short by scandal after he was accused of conspiracy and incitement to murder a former model, Norman Scott.

Thorpe was leader of Britain's venerable third political party from 1967 until 1976, when he stepped down from that post following allegations by Scott that they had had a sexual relationship in the early 1960s, when homosexuality was still a criminal offense in Britain.

Thorpe repeatedly denied Scott's allegations, first made in the early 1970s.

In 1976, Scott made the allegations public in a magistrate's court in the case of a man -- Andrew Newton -- accused of shooting Scott's dog.

Thorpe stepped down on May 10, 1976, saying he could no longer stand what he called "a sustained press witch hunt and campaign of denigration." He said, "No man can effectively lead a party if the greater part of his time has to be devoted to answering allegations and countering plots and intrigues."

In 1977, when Newton was released from jail for illegal possession of a firearm and intent to endanger life, he said he had been hired to kill Scott and implicated Thorpe and three other men in the plot.

Police investigated and arrested Thorpe, who was still a member of Parliament. After a trial during which Scott testified, a jury acquitted Thorpe and the three others, but Thorpe's career was finished. He lost his seat in the 1979 election.

In Thorpe's 1999 memoirs, "In My Own Time," he called Scott "a victim of delusions." Later he suggested that the scandal would not have been as damaging if it had taken place in modern times.

"If it happened now I think . . . the public would be kinder. Back then they were very troubled by it. It offended their set of values," he said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper in 2008.

SB235,90,120>John Jeremy Thorpe was born April 29, 1929, the youngest child of a leading lawyer and former Conservative member of Parliament, Sir John Henry Thorpe. His maternal grandfather, Sir John Norton-Griffiths, also had been a Conservative member of Parliament.

During the perilous days of World War II, Jeremy and one of his sisters were sent to safety in the United States, living with an aunt, Lady Norton-Griffiths, in West Newton, Massachusetts, and attending the Rectory School in Pomfret, Connecticut.

He returned to Britain in 1943, and attended the elite Eton College before going to study law at Trinity College, Oxford University, where he displayed his growing skills as an orator.

He became president of the Liberal Club at Oxford, president of the Law Society, and in 1951 president of the noted Oxford Union debating society. Thorpe, who opposed the rigid class system that underpinned his privileged upbringing, rejected the Conservative Party of his ancestors and embraced the Liberal Party.

The Liberals had been one of the two main British political parties for more than half a century until 1922, when the Labor Party emerged as the main party of the left.

The Liberal Party survived until 1988, when it merged with the new Social Democratic Party to create the Liberal Democrat Party.

Thorpe won a parliamentary seat in 1959, representing North Devon. He was elected Liberal Party leader in 1967 at the age of 38.

In 1974 the party won a record 19 percent of the vote, and Thorpe was invited by Prime Minister Ted Heath to talks about a potential coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberals. Thorpe said the parties had too many differences and that such a coalition would not work.

Sir David Steel, who succeeded Thorpe as party leader, described him in 1999 as "a natural showman, with style." "He also was a considerable orator," Steel said. "He drew and enthused large crowds with a mixture of passion and humor."

Thorpe married Caroline Allpass in 1968, and they had their son Rupert the following year. She was killed in a car accident in June 1970.

Thorpe married again in 1973, to the former Countess of Harewood, who was born Marion Stein, of Vienna. She died earlier this year.


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