There's a good reason Britons are losing faith in their politicians.
- By Alex MassieAlex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.
Imagine a pedophile ring that, for years, abused and tormented young boys and girls at a string of VIP brothels. Then imagine that the members of this group were politicians, intelligence officers, diplomats, high-ranking police officers, and prominent civil servants. That this was, in other words, a pedophile ring at the very heart of power, operating with what appears, thanks to 30 years of thwarted investigations and cover-ups, something approaching impunity.
Then imagine that, in addition to what must, appallingly, be considered mere commonplace sexual abuse, it is alleged that this ring was responsible for the deaths — the murders, that is — of at least three teenage children. And no one has yet been prosecuted for playing a part in these alleged offenses.
This might sound like the premise for the next season of a gothic horror story like True Detective. It is, in fact, the long-festering, shattering, scandal that today haunts Westminster and the British government. Most, though not all, of those accused are now dead but the mere thought that powerful interests might have used their influence to thwart justice despite being accused of horrific crimes remains almost too hard to bear. Until recently it might have been thought the preserve of lurid fiction or paranoid conspiracy theory.
Although the primary concern for many lies with securing some form of belated justice for the alleged victims, the scandal also threatens to undermine public confidence in British politics itself. Parliament has suffered already, not least when a House of Commons expenses scandal in 2009 grievously tarnished the reputation of MPs. The public, cynical, and disillusioned need little in the way of fresh excuses for despising their representatives. A 30-year cover-up to protect powerful pedophiles is a different matter, however, and one so gruesome many people would, if only they could, like to ignore it. That’s no longer possible.
The allegations center on a number of children’s homes in London in the 1970s and upon a series of exclusive brothels as well as the Dolphin Square block of apartments in central London, popular with MPs who find it a convenient base for their lives at Westminster. It was there, according to an account broadcast on Australian television earlier this month, that senior politicians regularly attended pedophile parties. Among those named were Cyril Smith, a former Liberal MP, and Leon Brittan, who served as home secretary from 1983 to 1985.
What is clear is that the allegations were not taken as seriously as they would be today. In 1996, MI5 finally made a cursory investigation of fresh claims that a leading MP “has a penchant for small boys.” When this was denied by the MP in question, however, the inquiry was abandoned with no further questions asked. According to Sir Anthony Duff, then the head of Britain’s domestic security service, the guilt or innocence of the MP was rather beside the point. In any case, his report concluded, “The risks of political embarrassment is rather greater than the security danger.”
Brittan and Smith are hardly the only prominent figures implicated. They are only one part of a larger scandal in which, it is alleged, the pedophilia of a significant number of senior figures operating in the higher circles of British public life in the 1970s has been willfully suppressed. Among those implicated in the scandal, besides Brittan, are Margaret Thatcher’s former parliamentary private secretary, Sir Peter Morrison, former minister Sir William van Straubenzee, and Sir Peter Hayman, a former diplomat and deputy-director of MI6. All the men are now dead.
The Westminster allegations might be more easily dismissed as so much ancient history if it weren’t for the fact that case after case of historical instances of child abuse have been discovered in Britain in recent years. Most notoriously, it came out that Jimmy Savile, a popular children’s television presenter, was a sexual predator and abuser on an epic scale — a fact that was covered up by his employer, the BBC.
In the mid-1980s, a backbench MP, Geoffrey Dickens, passed the Home Office a “dossier” alleging the existence of a Westminster pedophile ring. Many of the documents in this package subsequently, it is claimed, disappeared. One review of the files concluded there was no evidence of a deliberate cover-up but, nevertheless, proving a negative is much more difficult than establishing its opposite. That helps explain why, last year, Theresa May, the home secretary, told parliament that claims there had been a cover-up would, for the time being, have to be considered “not proven.”
“There might have been a cover-up,” said May. “I cannot stand here and say the Home Office was not involved in a cover-up in the 1980s and that is why I am determined to get to the truth of this.”
May duly launched an inquiry into allegations of “historical child abuse” only to be embarrassed when the first two people appointed to the panel were forced to resign from the inquiry due to their close ties with establishment figures. It will now be chaired by Lowell Goddard, a judge from New Zealand untainted by links to the British elite. As Simon Danzcuk, a Labour MP and campaigner on the issue, told the BBC in March, “We are on the cusp of finding out exactly what went on in the 70s and 1980s and, I’m sorry to say, I think it will be shown that senior politicians were involved in abuse and there was a cover up. I think that’s inevitable now.”
The Independent Police Complaints Commission is now investigating no fewer than 14 different claims that officers covered-up or otherwise dropped past investigations into alleged child sexual abuse when it became clear powerful and prominent people — including, in some instances, senior police officers — were liable to be implicated in the allegations.
Senior officers have no doubt that at least some of the allegations are credible. Last year, police officers investigating the allegations said that the account given by one witness, named “Nick,” were compelling. “Nick has been spoken to by experienced officers from the child abuse team and experienced officers from the murder investigation team. They and I believe what Nick is saying is credible and true.”
Another alleged victim, Elspeth Baker, who claims to have been abused as a child by an MP and a member of the House of Lords while uniformed police stood guard outside, observes that attitudes have changed. ”People are now not taken by surprise when these allegations come to light. Once they would have been shocked and would not have believed it. Now people have come to terms with this and those who come forward are more likely to be taken serious. That is welcome.”
And yet, for every member of the public who is horrified by the idea that powerful men could have taken advantage of their positions in this fashion, there’s another who, while certainly appalled by this sordidness, also seems to all but relish in it. It confirms their low opinion of the Westminster “elite” and provides an outlet for incandescent indignation. Why, they ask, is the British press so timid about exploring these issues? Why are the guilty men not being exposed?
In part, of course, it is because many of the suspects are now dead but also because, unavoidably, establishing the true facts about child abuse is difficult at the best of times — and vastly more complicated when the alleged offences took place more than 30 years ago. In such circumstances, a full reckoning may be hard to find which, in turn, can only fuel further protests and suspicions that, yet again, the establishment is covering-up the sins of the rich and powerful. The less these inquiries discover, the more this will prove that the cover-up continues.
Either way, Britain’s political elite is liable to be found guilty in the court of public opinion. If it conspired to protect its own members, despite their crimes, then the reputation of politicians will sink even further. But even if the accusations against the establishment were proven exaggerated, it’s hard to imagine this satisfying those citizens convinced the House of Commons once harbored a pedophile ring. The establishment would cover it up, wouldn’t it?
Even so, a full accounting and reckoning of what may, or may not, have happened is as necessary as it is overdue. It cannot restore public confidence but it is the least that can be demanded after so many years of rumor and confusion. It would also, at long last, provide some delayed justice for the victims.
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