Cyril Smith, the MP for Rochdale, whose genial public persona hid a dark secret.
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Child abuse at Westminster: We haven't even begun to awaken from the nightmare

Some politicians are finally beginning to realise that they can't bury these scandals under the carpet. But real action is needed, and fast.

“The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken,” warned the eminent social thinker Lloyd Demause back in 1974. Over forty years later this nightmare is not only still with us but is arguably more vivid. Barely a week passes these days without further revelations about endemic child abuse.

Demause’s seminal essay on the evolution of childhood is a reminder that children have always been cruelly exploited. In ancient Greece boy brothels flourished and men kept slave boys for abuse. In the literature of the time, Petronius describes the rape of a seven-year-old girl with women clapping in a long line around the bed. And infants in imperial Rome were castrated in the cradle to be used in brothels by men who liked buggering young castrated boys.

These horrors quite rightly sound like chilling tales from centuries ago. But like the heads of the Hydra, once one monstrous horror is cut off at the source another springs up, manifesting itself differently throughout the ages. What remains constant over the centuries is a kind of droit de seigneur; the right of powerful people to sexually exploit vulnerable children from lower social classes.  Historians of the future will undoubtedly look back at our age as a time when MPs like Cyril Smith and other powerful figures abused children in care. When paedophile gangs in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxfordshire abused poor working class children on an industrial level. And when famous personalities like Gary Glitter, Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile used their celebrity to cruelly trap and abuse vulnerable young fans.

Despite huge amounts of media coverage and outraged social commentary around these crimes, politicians have shown a remarkable tin ear to growing public concern over child abuse. Political leaders don’t tend to make speeches on tackling this problem. It still feels as though the political will to get to grips with this crime is lagging a long way behind the public view. There’s far too much unease and discomfort about approaching the subject. There is simply no appetite to grasp the nettle. Or as one MP put it to me: “The people running the show here did not come into politics to deal with a subject like this.” But deal with it they must, because it’s not going away and the more the public sees indecision and a lack of action on such a serious crime the more likely they will conclude that MPs don’t care about protecting children from rape. In which case the expenses nadir will be considered respectable compared to the depths to which the reputation of politicians will suddenly plummet.

That consequence is starting to sink in and recently there’s been a sense that Westminster is beginning to grasp the seriousness of the problem. One such moment took place last week at a Downing Street summit I attended on child sexual exploitation.

As politicians, chief constables, leaders from local authorities and child protection experts filed into Number 10, a sense of united purpose filled the room. The Prime Minister reflected this, talking about making the first step to dealing with this problem much better than the past. “We are going to produce better policies,” he promised, and everyone from local government, the police and child protection services agreed. We all know there have been too many failings and the social cost is extremely high. Things have to change. Fast. We can’t keep letting children down.

What followed was a lively and extremely encouraging policy discussion where ideas were shared to create a more protective environment. A hard-hitting Government information campaign was suggested, aiming to change attitudes like drink-driving adverts did. So too was the idea that police could get the location of children vulnerable to child sexual exploitation by sharing information from phone companies. A glossy brochure entitled ‘Tackling child sexual exploitation’ was handed out. It was impressive stuff.

But until such meetings translate into real frontline action there’s a danger they represent little more than public relations exercises. That danger was brought home to me a few days later when the latest development in a long running battle with the Cabinet Office over disclosure of files relating to historic abuse in Westminster was revealed. After officials spent a year trying to prevent files become public, it now emerges that Margaret Thatcher was warned about Cyril Smith’s child abusing past before she awarded him a knighthood.

The Cabinet Office has form here. They’ve tried to prevent the publication of previous documents on the British diplomat and intelligence operative Sir Peter Hayman being known to government for being a member of the Paedophile Information Exchange. And they tried to prevent it being made public that David Steel nominated Cyril Smith for a knighthood too. As I write they are currently refusing to reveal the titles of four more files relating to child abuse.

This combines to give the impression of officials frantically trying to cover up any evidence that implicates politicians. It suggests there’s a reason why the government’s inquiry into child abuse has only just managed to finally find a chair and still hasn’t got out of the starting blocks. Because too many people in Parliament don’t want to see the day of reckoning that inevitably lies ahead for parliamentarians who abused children with impunity.

And as long as this battle to keep hidden any evidence of parliamentary wrong-doing continues, it presents politicians with a major headache as we face up to the challenges of successive scandals like Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxfordshire. Unless Parliament can get its own house in order and tackle child abusing law makers, how can the public possibly trust us to deal with a growing child abuse problem in the country?

Confronted with a growing child abuse epidemic politicians have a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the culture of complacency that allowed this crime to flourish. It’s no exaggeration to say we stand at a crossroads where child protection is concerned. But politicians won’t be able to embark on the path of reforming child protection services until we’ve faced up to Westminster’s shameful secrets first.

 

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories