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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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.