“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.