The question now is not whether it happened, but how much of it went on. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on the Westminster child abuse inquiry: corruption at the heart of the state?

Will the child victims of powerful abusers ever get justice – or just another cover-up?

What’s the price of political stability? Over the past week, long-standing rumours that senior members of the political establishment abused children in the 1980s have finally been broadcast in the public domain, and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has announced an inquiry. “Frightened survivors of child abuse deserve the truth,” said Tom Watson, a Labour MP who has spoken up for those survivors, addressing the House of Commons.

So do the rest of us. If it is true that, at the highest levels of Westminster, the abuse of young people has been covered up by those who might have helped the victims see justice, it will go beyond scandal and will demand a response beyond outrage. It will demand that we examine, as a nation, what has become of our political culture and who it exists to protect.

It is already beyond question that powerful politicians such as the late Cyril Smith MP and well-connected celebrities such as Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile – who was close to the royal family and to Margaret Thatcher, lunching with the then prime minister at Chequers – were allowed to abuse young people with impunity for decades. It is plain fact that Smith raped young boys in establishments to which he had access, including the Knowl View special school in Rochdale. Efforts by staff members to bring the matter to police attention were repeatedly frustrated.

It is known, too, that Savile, Harris and other once-respected public figures preyed on children for many years and that their victims were too frightened to come forward until recently. It is becoming clear that the rape and abuse of boys and girls was a tacit privilege of the elite in the Heath, Wilson, Callaghan and Thatcher years, enabled by the silence of those invested in their success and those intimidated by their power.

The question now is not whether it happened, but how much of it went on. The question is who knew about it, and who helped to ensure that survivors were not
believed, that evidence was suppressed. The question is: if abandoning children to rape, violence and abuse is the price of preserving public faith in the establishment, what sort of establishment have we got, and what is our faith worth?

It is also known that in 1983, a batch of files pertaining to child sex abuse at the highest levels of state, now known as the Dickens dossier, was handed to Leon Brittan, then home secretary. That dossier has gone missing, along with 114 other relevant files, shown to various home secretaries. I have been told that other papers may have been removed from files that are still available.

Where is that dossier? Where are those 114 missing files? And, most importantly, how can a state that prides itself on operating one of the most efficient and invasive surveillance networks in the world manage to lose seemingly every scrap of evidence that might have implicated its own leaders in sex crimes against children?

I spoke to a politician close to the case. It was confirmed to me that allegations of child abuse by Cyril Smith and many others had circulated for decades. With every such story, more of the same pattern emerges: public-sector and care workers bring their concerns to the authorities and they are ignored or turned away. Evidence goes missing. Cases are brought forward but then dropped by prosecutors without explanation. Frightened child victims grow up into traumatised adults. Peter Hatton-Bornshin, abused at the Grafton Close Children’s Home in Richmond, which has been linked to the current inquiry, took his own life in 1994 at the age of 28.

The long list of abuses and obfuscation is part of a mosaic of corruption that has been exposed over the past half-decade, brushstroke by brushstroke, lying under the solid floor of the Palace of Westminster.

The broader pattern takes in the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009 to 2011 as well as the Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking and other press abuses by the Murdoch media group. As decades of dust and selective amnesia are scraped away, a picture begins to emerge. It is one of a political culture that accepts corruption and abuse as the price of stability. It is a picture of a political culture that would rather harbour criminals than hold itself to account.

What happened at Grafton Close? What happened at the nearby Elm guest house in Barnes, south-west London, that notorious “boy brothel” patronised by diplomats and spies? Most of all, what makes a person feel that his power entitles him to abuse children, to assault young girls and boys, not just
with impunity, but with the luxury of access to the very institutions designed to protect the vulnerable – hospitals, care homes, orphanages? What kind of culture harbours politicians who believe the privilege of office extends to privilege over the bodies of the young, poor and powerless?

The public deserves the answers to all of these questions – not out of lewd fascination, but because if a political class cannot and will not hold itself to account, then its mandate to rule disintegrates. If justice is to be served, there must be a full public inquiry, similar to those overseen by Lord Hutton and Lord Justice Leveson. We deserve to know what was done by members of the establishment of the 1980s that created the society in which we live today, just as the victims of historic abuse deserve justice.

Unfortunately, a full inquiry would bring headlines associating the Conservative Party – on whose watch, in the 1980s, all of these allegations first came to light – with paedophilia and subterfuge in an election year. Is the integrity of the establishment worth that much? The answer will determine what sort of nation we are, and what sort of nation we wish to become.

Laurie Penny's Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution is available now. She will also be in conversation with classicist and author Mary Beard on 30 July at Conway Hall, London. More details and tickets here. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era