20 Thorpe & Brass

Laurence Brass with Jeremy Thorpe in 1970

By Laurence Brass, Treasurer, Board of Deputies

Former Liberal Party Leader Jeremy Thorpe, who died last week aged 85, described himself as an unashamed Zionist.

He lost no opportunity to speak up for Israel, which he visited frequently.

There has been no party leader before or since who was a more loyal friend of the Jewish state.

I was a candidate at three General Elections under Thorpe’s leadership and came to value him as an astute political figure whose tremendous contribution in re-establishing the Liberal Party as a national entity has been too easily forgotten.

When I was adopted in 1972 to contest the Finchley constituency, I was concerned at the negative impact that certain Young Liberals at the time were having on the Jewish vote by virtue of their outspoken views on the Middle East.

Thorpe appreciated my concerns and personally slapped down the Young Liberals and wrote a letter which he asked me to distribute in the constituency reaffirming his commitment and unwavering support for Israel.

It is no coincidence that in the 1974 General Election there were more than three dozen Jewish Liberal candidates. He insisted on the need for Britain to join the European community and was a factor in persuading me to become a lifelong supporter of European Union.

His passionate advocacy of the anti-apartheid cause was not always popular but he never shied away from joining the demonstrations that his younger candidates, like me, organised in those days against the South African regime.

I remember a visit Thorpe made to my constituency of Hornsey just prior to the 1970 General Election.

I introduced him to my late mother and he admired her rather unusual coat which absolutely thrilled her. He was quite a charmer. He had a quite astonishing memory which didn’t fail him in later years.

I remember attending his 80th birthday party in London when he was at that stage wheelchair bound and ravaged by Parkinson’s disease which affected his speaking voice. I went up to him and thanked him for the support he had given to Israel during his time as leader and I was astonished to discover that he immediately remembered my name, even though we had not met for 35 years.

Thorpe had extraordinary powers of mimicry and I recall how he used to entertain small gatherings at party conferences with wonderful stories of the political figures of the day, imitating them with accurate but always affectionate impersonation.

To hear him regale a room with stories about his Devonian constituents using the broad accents he employed was a treat never forgotten.

Harold Wilson was correctly perceived as a strong supporter of Israel at the time. His son, Giles, spent several years at a Kibbutz in Israel in the 1970s. But it was Thorpe who was the most outspoken Zionist of all the party leaders of the period.

It was Edward Heath’s Tories who were the most critical of Israel and Thorpe regularly raised issues of Israel’s security in Prime Minister Questions. The speech he made in the House of Commons at the time of the Yom Kippur War caused Israel’s then Ambassador to the UK, Michael Cornay, to declare Jeremy Thorpe was “Israel’s best friend in British politics”.

In addition, Thorpe’s second wife, Marion Stein, formerly Countess of Harewood, was from a prominent Viennese Jewish family. Although Marion doubtless preferred playing the piano to baking challah (she was a distinguished concert pianist), she was fiercely proud of her Jewish heritage and Thorpe often referred to it as well.

His greatest quality was his courage. He needed daring to attempt the revival of Liberalism; sustained determination to win his North Devon seat against the odds; and stoicism when faced with personal disaster and physical decline.

It is easy to concentrate on the scandals that beset Thorpe in later years and ignore the massive contribution he made to the political world of the 1970s.

He was a huge influence on me personally and I shall always treasure his memory with respect and affection.