The Liberals in 1979


IMG_5975In 1979, the Liberals faced a general election that wasn’t going to be good news for the ruling Labour government. And that mattered because the Liberals under leader David Steel had been in a semi-official coalition with Labour since 1978 – the so-called Lib-Lab Pact.

Prime Minister James Callaghan had been expected to go for an election in late 1978 but changed his mind, deciding to hold out till the following year. Bad mistake. That winter saw major industrial unrest – the “winter of discontent” – and Labour’s hopes of winning another general election began to sink.

The Liberals struggled to distance themselves from the horse trading with the Labour leadership. They’d also been dogged in the late 70s by the Jeremy Thorpe affair. Their former leader, Thorpe, had been accused in court of being gay and plotting to kill his secret male lover. In 70s Britain, a far less tolerant place, this was toxic stuff. It still hung over the Liberals in 79.

IMG_5967Within the Liberal Party, their youth wing positioned themselves as a radical libertarian movement – even influenced by anarchist philosophy. Meanwhile, the Tories youth wing was veering rightwards while the Labour Party Young Socialists was under the control of the Marxist Militant Tendency. The Young Liberals published a magazine called Liberator pictured in this blog post.

Anyway, the election happened and the Liberals took a pounding helping Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party surge to power. Steel campaigned on rejecting the “Punch and Judy” politics of Labour and Tories saying the public was tired of swings leftwards and rightwards at every election. But the public decided otherwise – voting in the most right-wing Conservative government of the post-war era.

In the years that followed, the Liberals formed a new party – the Lib Dems – by allying with right of centre Labour politicians who deserted their party to form the Social Democrats.

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The political end of Jeremy Thorpe – 1979


Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976.  He stepped down after an extraordinary scandal that gripped Britain at the time over allegations he had a gay relationship with a man called Norman Scott – and was then involved in a conspiracy to have Scott murdered.

The allegations had seeped out during the trial of Andrew Newton, a man who’d driven Scott out on to Exmoor and shot his dog – Rinka – a Great Dane. He then tried to shoot Scott but the gun was said to have jammed.

Scott used his appearance in court to reveal his relationship with Thorpe – claiming it happened in the early 1960s when homosexuality was still illegal. That was bad enough in the homophobic 1970s but worse came when Newton emerged from prison in 1977 to claim he had been hired to kill Scott.

There was then the hideous spectacle for the Liberal Party of its leader and deputy Treasurer David Holmes being put on trial with two others – just weeks before the general election of 1979. Thorpe had already stepped down as leader before Newton’s release – replaced by David Steel.

The electors of Devon North didn’t return Thorpe to parliament and as you can see in the video below, he cuts a miserable figure behind the victorious Tory. It’s not inconceivable that he might have lost in the Thatcherite tide but the trial certainly didn’t help.

A week after losing his seat, Thorpe and the others were put on trial for attempted murder and conspiracy to murder. A former Liberal MP testified against Thorpe claiming Scott had been a target. But on the 22nd June, 1979 – the ex-leader and the rest were acquitted.