The British Establishment has at last faced up to the likelihood that some politicians have been involved in the sexual abuse of children. On July 7th, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, came to the House of Commons to make a statement on charges that her own department had for many years helped to cover up accusations against Members of Parliament and other senior public figures.
May said the Government has now adopted “a presumption of maximum transparency”, and announced two inquiries. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, had earlier insisted that “we’re going to leave no stone unturned to find out the truth about what happened”.
Fortunately for Cameron, he was still at school in 1983, when Geoffrey Dickens, a Conservative MP who is now dead, compiled a dossier containing details of eight high-profile people who were allegedly involved in child abuse.
Dickens handed this evidence to the then home secretary, Leon Brittan, who has recently explained how he handed it to officials after earlier saying he could not remember what had happened to it. The Home Office is now quite unable to say what became of the dossier, leading to the suspicion that it was deliberately destroyed.
On July 7th, May made the surprising assertion that there had never been a dossier. Dickens had instead written letters. She added that an earlier investigator had found “no evidence” that the 114 files relating to allegations of child sex abuse committed between 1979 and 1999, which the Home Office has since managed to lose, had been “removed or destroyed inappropriately”.
So the language of bureaucratic obfuscation has not vanished from this area. If an official or politician wished to destroy a file that contained embarrassing material, they would naturally try to cover up any tracks, in order to ensure that no one could ever show that they had behaved “inappropriately”.
Lord Tebbit, a close ally of the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, has in recent days taken to the airwaves to explain how different things looked in the 1980s: “At that time I think most people would have thought the Establishment, the system, was to be protected, and that if a few things had gone wrong here and there, it was more important to protect the system than to delve too far into them.”
As Tebbit went on to say, this refusal to investigate allegations was completely wrong, but was “almost unconscious”: it was just “the thing that people did at that time”.
The significance of recent events is that the Establishment, a word used to signify the network of the most powerful people in Britain, has finally admitted the sexual abuse of children is so dreadful that to cover it up is unacceptable. In the past, to make such matters public was considered too embarrassing, but now it has become more embarrassing to attempt to conceal them.
Such a tide of openness has already swept through other institutions. The Roman Catholic Church was one of the first in which the conspiracy of silence about offences committed against children broke down. More recently, horrific cases involving the British Broadcasting Corporation and Britain’s National Health Service have come to light: BBC stars including Jimmy Savile (now dead) and Rolf Harris (starting a prison sentence this month) are found to have engaged in decades of predatory behaviour.
It is now the turn of the politicians to experience the exposure of past misdeeds. The process has already begun. In November 2012, Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, alleged that one of his predecessors, Cyril Smith, who died in September 2010 and held Rochdale for the Liberals, was a “29-stone bully” who sexually abused boys.
Danczuk said that as a result of the Savile scandal, new victims of Smith had come forward. Prosecutors then admitted that they had considered bringing charges against Smith in 1970, 1998 and 1999, and had mistakenly decided not to do so.
It is the far greater willingness of victims to speak out, and of MPs and others to listen to what they have to say, which has transformed the situation. The British Establishment may still be good at losing files, but it can no longer stop people who suffered terrible sexual abuse from relating what happened to them, and from gaining a sympathetic hearing.
Most people agree that this new situation is a vast improvement on what went before. But it also carries the danger that credence will be given to horrible allegations that turn out to be false. Public figures who are innocent could find themselves pilloried.
The MPs who have demanded progress in this field have so far been admirably restrained about naming the public figures whom they suspect of committing abominable acts against children. These are ultimately questions for the police to investigate, after which the Crown Prosecution Service has to decide whether or not to bring charges, and the courts have to determine whether the accused is innocent or guilty.
In December 1983, after he had submitted his first evidence to the Home Office, Dickens told his family: “That’s it now. Let it all begin. This is going to blow it all apart.”
But it didn’t and Dickens died in May 1995 without any action having been taken on the basis of his evidence. Only in October 2012, after the Savile scandal had broken, did Tom Watson, a Labour MP who has helped make the running in this area, assert in the Commons that there is “clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and to Number 10”.
In December 2012, the police confirmed that they had established Operation Fairbank in order to investigate allegations that politicians and other public figures had abused young boys at Elm Guest House in Barnes, south-west London, in the 1970s and 1980s.
Thirty years ago, a wall of silence surrounded this kind of crime. That wall has collapsed. It is now likely that the cries of at least some of the victims will be heard, and that they will obtain the justice for which they have waited so long.