Sole-searching: Theresa May has launched an enquiry into child abuse allegations. Photo: Getty
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A very British “cover-up”, the truth about the Isis crisis and the Tour de France in Essex

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

Many institutions – the Catholic Church, elite fee-paying schools, the BBC, children’s homes – have covered up instances of sexual abuse among their own. So it is hardly surprising that Westminster and Whitehall are now accused of doing just that. It’s hard to shop people you’ve worked with most of your life and all the more so when you believe, as most priests, schoolteachers, BBC employees, politicians and civil servants do, that they need to maintain collective moral authority.

“Cover-up” isn’t quite the right term. It’s a matter of casually brushing things under the carpet – or more precisely shoving them to the back of the filing cabinet – and trusting to the old British practices of secrecy, discretion, quiet words here and there and believing that chaps who went to the right school wouldn’t do anything truly wicked. That was how Soviet spies such as Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt got away with it and so, it now seems, did child abusers in high positions.

 

No slice for Pie

Nowadays, the mere mention of paedophiles, even if they’re mostly dead, causes everyone to lose their head. As Theresa May announced what the Guardian called “a soul-searching national inquiry” into how public authorities handled child abuse allegations, the Home Office released a report on media claims that it provided direct funding to the Paedophile Information Exchange (Pie) in the 1970s. We learn that its voluntary services unit gave £65,750 over five years to the Albany Trust, a charity for sexual minorities, which reportedly held a series of “meetings” with Pie in 1975 and, in 1970, arranged the translation of a Dutch report on lowering the age of homosexual consent to 16. The same Home Office unit (through another charity, the Princedale Trust) gave £410,000 over ten years to Release, the drug users’ charity, whose address was also used by Pie for correspondence. Incredibly, civil servants spent three months investigating this non-story.

 

Simple twist of caliphate

Sir Richard Dearlove, the ex-head of MI6, now Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, says that members of Isis are “misguided young men, rather pathetic figures”, who present little threat to Britain.

This is a refreshing change from the credulous consensus that has emerged after Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed he was the new caliph. If you believed most politicians and journalists, you’d think the caliphate was already a done job. In reality, Isis has an awful lot of Shias and rival Sunni factions to win over – or, more likely, behead – before one is established in the Middle East, never mind Europe.

The last widely acknowledged caliphate was the Ottoman empire, where in 1914 the sultan-caliph declared jihad against western imperialism (that is, the British and French) and rumours later spread that the German kaiser had converted to Islam. It didn’t end well. Empire and caliphate collapsed during the war and were succeeded by a determinedly secular Turkish state.

 

Two wheels good

To Epping in Essex to see the Tour de France on its way to the Olympic Park and the Mall in London. A friend observed that it is one of the few great sporting events free to watch. Given that you see the cyclists for no more than about 30 seconds, it would be poor value if it charged. Moreover, long before anyone on a bicycle appears, you endure about 20 minutes of marketing – cars, vans and floats tear past, all blaring horns and throwing free samples – for just about every brand you’ve ever heard of.

Even the police seemed to be in on the act, riding motorbikes in advance of the race, waving as though they were conquering heroes and, in one case, slapping the hands of spectators lining the route.

The Tour de France was never just a cycle race. It started in 1903 as a promotion for a French sports newspaper that, since the paper’s circulation rose from 25,000 to 854,000 in 30 years, probably counts as the most successful sponsorship in history.

 

Call me Peter

Npower, which is reported to have the worst customer relations of any energy company, sent me an “annual summary”, saying that I was more than £1,200 in credit. I rang and asked if I could have the money back. No, I was told, the credit existed only because I hadn’t been sent a bill for six months. The next day, the company emailed me: “Thank you for contacting us . . . We’ll change the name on your account to PETER.” That must be its solution to the customer relations problem: to put us all on Christian-name terms.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.