There are some things you have to read with a sick-bucket beside you, and the latest report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is one of them. The commission was established on the basis of a fraud, but it has revealed true tales of depravity and cover-up which should cause shock beyond the easy headlines.
It cuts two ways. Firstly there is the damage caused by Tom Watson in his politically driven idiocy, which is breath-taking. We always knew him for what he is and this confirms our worst assessment.
However the report also looks at genuine cases and the culture of impunity which allowed them to go on. There are very few, but even one would be too many, of powerful men getting away with evil behaviour because of their political connections. I would hope that these cases, in the 1970s and early 1980s, were a symptom of its time, but what we saw of police inaction in Rochdale and Telford is the same disease in another guise.
The cases are not all in one party. The most shocking is the case of Cyril Smith. He was a very distinctive politician who became a media star. He was morbidly obese, dangerously so but somehow keeping respect from his colleagues in the Liberal Party. He climbed to prominence through local politics in Rochdale. Just being elected was enough to make him a Liberal star, and his massive presence made him formidable. If stories filtered down, they wanted to protect their own.
We had been here before: an attempted murder on Exmoor organised by someone to protect the Liberal Party when their man was about to be exposed, a man who deserved no reputation, who used his power to abuse a vulnerable young man in his employ. The dog died, the gun jammed before the second shot, and the abuser went free, comment being limited to whether he arranged the murder, not the behaviour which brought it about.
Here in the report we read of police officers ordered by their superiors not to investigate politicians. We hear of Smith, secure in his connections, bursting into a local newspaper office, the Bury Messenger, and demanding that the editor hand over the damning evidence he held, and Special Branch following that up, seizing the papers and so doing the abuser’s work for him. It is hard to imagine that happening without the newspaper publishing a front-page account of everything that happened, but somehow Cyril Smith, just an ordinary MP with no office of state but a celebrity, knew he could get away with it, and with police threats against the paper under the Official Secrets Act, he did. I would like to know why the newspaper did not shame the monster at once and challenge any jury to convict them for handling those papers. It is incomprehensible.
It is a principle of our idea of democracy and the rule of law that politicians, howsoever high they may be, have no immunity from the law. They are just men and women doing a job like the rest of us and the police may put a foot in their door as with anyone. The police must be careful not to take every allegation against a politician at face value as there must be malicious complaints made all the time as a way to shift the political balance and public opinion, but actually to stop enquiries because a man is famous or political, that is infamous.
The 1970s were a notoriously corrupt time. This is when scandals were hidden to protect the reputations of celebrities, as we found out after Jimmy Saville died, and in the many trials of living celebrities which followed. We should hardly be surprised if politicians used the same privilege. It might not happen today, we hope, but we just do not know. How many more dogs will be shot on Exmoor to defend the Liberal Party or senior police officers be terrified for their pensions if they embarrass someone who really does not want to be embarrassed. Had there been a scandal involving a criminal MP during the Zombie Parliament, with every vote teetering on a knife-edge and the polls rolling like a storm-tossed sea, would there not have been pressure felt not to upset the balance? It was with just that effect in mind that Tom Watson made his fake allegations.
It could certainly happen today, and does, but in a different way. We have read of how the police in Rochdale and in Telford, and in Oxford, deliberately ignored what they knew was happening in order to avoid the embarrassment of being accused of racism. It seems that is a more serious accusation than one of aiding and abetting rape and child abuse.
Another common aspect is the way that the police dehumanised the victims, from the ‘meat rack’ of the 1970s to the ‘little slags’ of today’s failed process. It just took one officer to make it work, but from the top there were orders to leave it alone which seeped down through the ranks as a blind-eye attitude, and all to save a senior officer being embarrassed at an allegation of racism.
The things we will do to avoid embarrassment – literature is full of it, and it makes for a good novel when Beau Geste can cross continents in exile and fight armies of bandits single-handed when a simple explanation would have sufficed, but those are fiction: the police must get a grip.
The microcosm is seen in the way the police seem willing to persecute bloggers and twitterists for things which are not even crimes at the behest of serial complainers, or to arrest innocent Christian street preachers on false testimony, and yet they do not arrest the informants for attempting to pervert the course of justice, because they are frightened of embarrassment. If police forces are unable to say ‘no’ in even these petty cases, how can they be trusted to take anything major on?
There are arrests of MPs on occasion for perverting the course of justice over driving offences or even such minor things as overstating their expense claims, so you might think that fear of political embarrassment has passed and there are no lessons to be learned from the failures of the 1970s and early 1980s, but there are too many indications that the sickness is still there, and that there will be more atrocities swept under the carpet for nothing more than embarrassment.