St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney, 1910. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: the Orkney case prefigured our acknowledgement of abuse today

The idea we might be the repositories of buried traumatic memories is integral to psychoanalysis – so the SRA panic had a ready-made audience in people primed to accept notions of repression.

I’m in Orkney again: it’s a micro-society up here off the north coast of Scotland, where the preoccupations are farming, fishing and the sort of intense human interactions that often occur when folk are compelled to rub along together a little too vigorously. True, there is the annual “Ba”, or town football game, wherein a benighted bit of leather is fought the length of Kirkwall’s main street by snorting, roiling gangs of islanders, but overall these sparsely populated islands are not where you would expect to find evidence of the odd delusions that grip humanity en masse.

Except that when I first came here in the early 1990s, Orkney was at the centre of a particularly virulent example of just this. For younger readers, the satanic ritual abuse (SRA) panic of the early 1990s may seem bizarre: over a period of two or three years large numbers of people – mostly here and in the US, although also worldwide – became convinced that there was a network of satanist cults operating among us. In many cases the leaders of these evil organisations were local worthies – priests, doctors, teachers – who put on horned headdresses in order to conduct unspeakable rites. When described by victims, these rites proved remarkably similar: nude dancing in a circle around bonfires, accompanied by ceremonies involving “broodmares”, young girls and women who had been impregnated by the cult leaders and forced to bear babies that were then sacrificed horribly.

The evidence for SRA was threefold: the direct testimony of children who had been abused; the “recovered memories” of adult victims who had been subjected to hypno- or regression therapy; and – in Britain at least – the application of something called the “reflex anal dilatation” test, a method of establishing that a child had been anally penetrated that I don’t need to describe here in detail because it’s all in the name. The SRA panic spoke to deep-seated anxieties that we all possess: the idea that society as it appears to be constituted is in fact a grotesque sham, and that power of a sinister sort is being wielded behind the scenes, is the staple fare of every conspiracy theorist. The specifics of SRA – the child abuse, the devil-worshipping – in my view, articulated very real disjunctions between what we can think of, synthesising Freudian and Jungian terminology, as the latent and the manifest content of the collective unconscious.

In Orkney social workers took 15 children of the “W” family off the island and into care; nine children from four other families were later removed from their homes. Tests were done, statements taken. The picture emerged of a cult operating on South Ronaldsay that held ceremonies in an abandoned quarry. These allegations got out and became grist to the panicky rumour mill, catalysing with the unsettling tales of adults throughout the land who, on the couch, realised that the parents they had thought of as loving had in fact subjected them to grotesque abuse when they were small.

The idea that we might be the repositories of buried traumatic memories is integral to psychoanalysis – so the SRA panic had a ready-made audience in people primed to accept notions of repression and catharsis. For a while, we all were wandering around wondering whether our own histories of abuse were about to bob up from the murky depths of our psyches; it became quite common to have conversations of the form: “I think I might’ve been abused as a child . . .” as a background explanation for whichever current neurotic behaviour was plaguing us.

The bromides that calmed the whole frenzy down were, when they came, quite prosaic: the reflex anal dilatation test was discredited (most anuses dilate when a speculum is pressed against them); both professionals and abuse victims came forward to nix the idea that such memories were repressed – they recalled every element of their suffering; and in the particular case of Orkney, it was pointed out that certain critical elements of the children’s testimony were impossibilities. South Ronaldsay is a notably exposed island; there really isn’t anywhere you could hold a Walpurgisnacht-style gig without it being noticeable from everywhere else.

A local woman told me that some of the children of the “W” family had indeed been abused physically. But any satanic components of most stories by victims of child abuse in general are very obviously confabulated from horror movies they’ve seen. This tallies with something that the person at the NSPCC responsible for investigating child sex abuse tells me: it is, he says, far more widespread than we fear, but the ritual component is always vanishingly small.

So, with the curse of hindsight, it is now possible to view the whole SRA panic as part of the first tentative steps society was taking towards acknowledgement of two distinct but not unrelated phenomena: widespread sexual abuse being perpetrated on children both in institutional settings and in the home by allegedly responsible adults; and a burgeoning culture of febrile emotional lability, stimulated by cod-psychotherapy and hyperreal depictions of sex and violence in film.

In a world in which the old verities are ever crumbling before our eyes, it’s nice to be able to validate an old adage: there is indeed no smoke without fire.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.