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The Thorpe Affair – What if?

June 18, 2018 1:41 PM
By John Marriott in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

John MarriottI am one of those with a fascination for history, who sometimes indulge in the practice of 'What if?'. Some of you may know what I mean; but, if not, here are a few examples. Let's start with 1066. What if King Harald had actually defeated Duke William of Normandy at the battle of Hastings? Scroll forward some eight hundred years and ask yourself what if President Abraham Lincoln had not attended Ford's Theatre on that fateful night in April 1865? What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand's driver hadn't taken a detour in Sarajevo in June 1914 or what if Adolf Hitler hadn't shortened his speech at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich in November 1939 and left early? And finally, more recently and perhaps nearer to home, what if Nick Clegg hadn't accepted David Cameron's 'generous offer' in May 2010? I'm sure you get the idea.

So, you might say, what has this got to do with Jeremy Thorpe and the Liberal Party? Well, what if, following a massive surge in support (around 20% of the popular vote) which, thanks to FPTP, resulted in only a derisory 14 MPs, he had managed to win over his colleagues and the party grassroots and accept the offer of Ted Heath to join a coalition government following the 'Who governs Britain' general election of February 1974?

The 'baby boomers' will surely remember the early 1970s, which started out with Heath's surprise victory in the '70 General Election, when his government embarked upon a race for growth with the infamous 'Barber Boom', that, despite the inflation it eventually unleashed, especially in the housing market, appeared to many, even up to the summer of 1973, to be bearing fruit in economic terms, despite storm clouds on the horizon.

What really derailed the 'project', besides the Heath government's inability to deal effectively with Trades Union militancy and ineffective management, was the OPEC oil embargo following the Yom Kippur War between the Arab states and Israel in October 1973 which saw oil prices quadruple in a matter of months, thus presenting unions such as the NUM with an open goal. Just to think that, only a few years earlier, the Economic Minister of the booming West German economy, Karl Schiller, had confidently claimed that "the future belongs to oil".

I must admit that I was living and working abroad when these events took place; but I couldn't help but notice the difference that the events of the Autumn and Winter of 1973/4 wrought on the British economy when stopping off in the UK in the Summer of '73 on my way from Canada to a new job in West Germany, when optimism still appeared to dominate and coming back for Christmas and later for job interviews in early '74 when the 'Three Day' week was in full swing. In West Germany at the time the only obvious manifestation of the 'Ölkrise' was the temporary imposition of speed limits on motorways and the banning of all but essential car journeys on Sundays.

The point I am attempting to make is that, had Thorpe and Heath got together, they might just have weathered the storm, especially as the Tories, albeit with four fewer MPs than Labour, had slightly outscored the latter in terms of the popular vote. Even if Thorpe may not have survived (for reasons outlined later) it is quite possible that Heath would have, and, if the economy continued to improve (with North Sea oil waiting to come on stream), inflation contained and more sensible voices in the TUC coming forward, we might just have avoided some of the disasters that eventually bedevilled the rest of the decade, including the visit from the IMF and the 'Winter of Discontent', which culminated in the election of Margaret Thatcher as PM and the abandonment of the last vestiges of 'Butskellism', which had been a feature of the post war consensus. Instead of the North Sea Oil 'bonanza' being used to finance unemployment it might have actually been used to drag the bulk of British industry from the 19th into the latter quarter of the 20th century and beyond.

Of course, such an 'alliance' would have been fraught with dangers, the most obvious being Thorpe's private life; but, even if he had had to fall on his sword, the Parliamentary Liberal Party at the time had such talented members as Emlyn Hooson, David Steel, John Pardoe, and recently elected Alan Beith, to name just four, to pick up the reins, with later stars such as David Penhaligon, Paddy Ashdown and Ming Campbell waiting in the wings. But, of course, the risk that the Liberals would have been 'rewarded' by the great British electorate for their willingness to put national interest first, like their successors, the Lib Dems, were a generation or so later cannot be ruled out.

All that is possible. Who knows? With the experience gained in government back then, the Liberals may have become like Germany's FDP, a coalition partner to parties of the right and left, over many revolutions of the political cycle, bringing a bit of common sense to politics. Perhaps, perish the thought, there would have been no need to 'invent' the SDP!

A LDV contributor recently accused me of wanting to have "20/20 hindsight". Very well, I'll plead guilty to that one. What if I hadn't used a few idle moments to write this article? But it's worth a thought, isn't it? There might just be a lesson to be learned here.

May your days be merry and bright and may all your Brexits be soft!

* John Marriott is a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Lincolnshire.

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