When I was at school, education could go hang. As long as a boy could hit a six, sing the school song very loud and take hot crumpet from behind without blubbing. (Lieutenant George in Blackadder Goes Forth)
Today’s Observer contains an incredibly powerful article by Alex Renton on the culture of abuse and brutality in Britain’s boarding schools, focusing on his own experiences at Ashdown House. I have blogged at length on the case of Alan Doggett at Colet Court school, as well as of course of abuse in specialist music schools; I would most strongly recommend for anyone interested in the subject looking through the range of articles collected on the Spotlight blog, and especially the reports by Andrew Norfolk at The Times alleging that teachers at a whole 130 of Britain’s independent schools have been implicated in sex crimes; at Colet Court and St Paul’s Schools alone eighteen teachers are being investigated (including some from recent times).
But beyond the obviously wrong phenomenon of sexual abuse of pupils by teachers, these schools facilitate and nurture a culture of abuse, vicious bullying, violence, and ruthless determination to get to the top and trample on whoever might get in one’s ways, with little place for empathy, compassion, collectivity and much else. Whilst it may be harder today for schools to cover up sexual abuse, I have seen little reason to believe all the other types of abuse and cruelty, whether from teachers towards pupils, or pupils towards other pupils, are necessarily much diminished. Alex Renton captures some of this culture; I plan to blog more on this subject, and the insidious effect upon British society of the public school system and the apartheid-like model of education it entails when time permits.
For now, though I want to offer one thought for consideration: the majority of those who study or have studied at these schools, two options are available, those of perpetrator or victim. Either (a) one can assume upon oneself the values of those schools and their associated cultures, and become a type of neo-fascist oneself, or (b) hold out personally against them, and end up becoming a victim and fucked-up for life. There will be a few who manage to eschew either option, but for many, the choice is stark. The advantages of (a) enable the brutalising culture of the public schools to be passed down from generation to generation, and to inform the workings of many of the higher echelons of society, most of them dominated by public school pupils. Some people who have served in the military might naturally have absorbed some ruthless and dehumanising values as well, but often linked to a sense of camaraderie and understanding of the importance of collective purpose. In my experience, those latter qualities are mostly absent from those who have absorbed the lessons of public schools. This very educational system serves to enshrine and perpetuate the callousness and brutalism of the British ruling classes; I can see it in written in the faces of more than a few leading politicians.
Abuse in Britain’s boarding schools: why I decided to confront my demons
For generations of boys, sexual abuse was part of the everyday cruelty of boarding school. In this painfully honest report, writer Alex Renton confronts the demons of his past at Ashdown House, where some of Britain’s most powerful men were also educated – and reveals the scale of the outrage about to engulf the private education system
The Observer, Sunday 4 May 2014
If Ashdown House’s pretty Georgian facade reminds you of Washington’s Capitol and the White House that’s because the architect, Benjamin Latrobe, had a hand in those, too. It is an excellent look for the entrance to a temple of education: it speaks of classical wisdom and the rule of reason. We boys weren’t allowed to go in that way, of course.
Today, 40 years since I last saw the school, we step in through Latrobe’s columned porch as though entitled. Nothing can touch us: we’re parents. Ruth, my wife, grips my hand. A friend who works in post-traumatic stress disorder warned us, quite gravely, of the risks when people visit scenes of past troubles; of hyper-arousal – sweats, nausea, high heart-rate. Or the opposite, hypo-arousal: a state of lethargy, a feeling of unreality. But I’m fine. Pulse steady. People hurt you, not places.
There were no ghosts, no shocks as we toured the corridors and classrooms. I have not been looking forward to the smell. I could summon the brew: disinfectant, boy sweat, meat stew, chalk dust. An incense of misery. But it is gone. There is no chalk these days.
It is the details from other senses that clamour. The give of a floorboard in a corridor, the sunlight through a window, the shape of a wooden refectory bench, an echo of children’s voices. We enter a cosy girls’ dormitory where the low black beams were, suddenly, shockingly familiar. And the brick fireplace. This used to be headmaster “Billy” Williamson’s study. I’d scrutinised those bricks, the way they sat upon each other, many times over those five years. Waiting for his flap-jowled face to stop shouting and get to business: detail the punishment or the beating.
Just down the corridor, two worn wooden steps led to the tiny dormitory where I slept in my first term at the school. I and the other eight-year-olds would turn our faces into our mattresses, pull pillows over our heads. If you wept out loud, the 10-year-old dormitory captain and his deputy threatened to whip you with a belt. That was their prerogative, they told us on the first night, a few hours after our mothers had extracted promises from them to look after their little ones.
The last seems such a cliché of boarding school life – surely the tearful mummy pleading with the bullies is in Tom Brown’s School Days? Or a Michael Palin sketch? – I wonder if I’ve made it up. The memories are blurred. I’m shocked how few of them there are. And telling and retelling the few stories that stand out in bright light carries risks – they gather accretions. Now when I meet men who were at the school I tend to check detail obsessively – He was called what? That happened when? – as if without reaffirmation what was real might slip into the darkness. Old Ashdownians sometimes tell me things that make my jaw drop.
But I do know that after the half-term break that first autumn we came back to a terrifying dressing-down, delivered under those low beams in the headmaster’s study. One of us new boys – I still don’t know who – had complained about the regime in Dormitory V to his parents. This was the cardinal sin. What happened in school stayed in school. Billy punished us all. We didn’t tell tales again.
Some of the key locations have shrunk absurdly small: the brick chapel where Billy gripped the Bible and harangued us with the backing of his three trustiest prefects: Jesus, the Holy Ghost and God. Just as tiny now is the assembly room where, daily, 120 boys aged seven to 13 were ranked on wooden benches. Here the diatribes, the mass punishments and public humiliations happened. This was where he would detail who had cried under the cane the previous night: “Jones and Smith took it like gentlemen. But Renton blubbed like a baby.”
That was then. Now the site is the “play-room”, with a cushioned chill-out area adjoining. The larky 12-year-olds playing pool round a table seem to take up half the space. In the corridor I find a familiar picture, a print of the Pietro Annigoni portrait of the Queen, done after her coronation. She is young, beautiful and brave. I remember I used to watch her during assembly. I would wonder what she would do if she knew how unjustly we, her young subjects, were being treated. I’d will her to descend, glorious like the first Queen Elizabeth, and order Billy and his staff to the Tower. Or, like Boudica, ride down on the teachers and the prefects, slashing them to bits with the spinning swords on her chariot wheels.
The school has prospered since, as has the whole industry: now there are 22 full-time teaching staff. In my time there were only 10 or 12, some of them just graduated, and I wonder how many of them had any qualification at all. There’s a new teaching block, a purpose-built canteen, a swimming pool and a kindergarten.
Lost in this warren is the classroom where, one afternoon when I was nine or 10, a hated and violent young teacher I will call Mr X slipped his hand into my corduroy shorts and tugged at my penis. This was a known hazard – in return Mr X gave you a Rowntree’s fruit gum. Mine was a green one, nobody’s favourite. Is this a memory I can trust? No doubt. I can feel my face against the rough tweed of his jacket, scratchy.
As the visit goes on, corridor after corridor, a sadness grows in my chest. Afterwards, utter exhaustion. I’m very glad, though, to see these rooms now full of light and character.
Especially that. Where our walls were bare and the only softness the identical candlewick bedspreads, now there are teddy bears and family photos; posters of ponies and Chelsea footballers. Peering into classrooms, the children are lively – unnaturally polite, compared with the ones at my daughter’s state primary – but no one looks unhappy. As if they would. I realised I’d sort of expected that. Little rooms full of children with faces like The Scream.
After the tour, there are coffee and biscuits – we’ve come posing as prospective parents – with the headmaster and his wife, a couple in their 40s. They seem kind and practical. We chat about how boarding schools have changed and who from my days stays in touch. Who sends their own children to Ashdown. This stiff conversation is interrupted by a dazed little child who has brought a letter to be sent to his parents.
The headmaster calls him “my dear boy”: when the child stammers what he wants and leaves, the headmaster explains a little, adding that winter is a bad time of year in a new school. We make sympathetic faces. I say that if my daughter comes to the school, she would like not to board immediately. The headmaster nods. That’s fine. Weekly boarding is good, though an initial period of no contact with parents is for the best. One of the boarders, he tells us, is just six years old. That’s been fine, too. His wife nods. At Ashdown now there is, the brochure reassures you, a “warm, kind and trusting home-from-home environment”. No hugs, though.
The little boy’s letter to Mummy, the scrawled envelope barely legible, lies between us on the coffee table among the porcelain like something raw. I remember how the teachers would inspect our letters home, and how we were punished if found to have complained to our parents. In a school of endless rules, offences against omerta were perhaps the most seriously policed of all. Of the platitudes from the current headmaster, only one impresses me: the school likes to encourage “independent thought”. That is a change. This is a very different place altogether.
The last time I set foot in the school was the day I left, aged 13. In the 40 years since, Ashdown has loomed large – it was, as they say, “the making of me”, for better and for worse. But I had not thought of revisiting. Except once, aged 15. Then a group of boys at Eton and I had discussed whether we might charter a mini-bus and visit the grave of the newly deceased Billy Williamson, to dance on it. It never happened. But the thought was good.
With the headmaster’s death, Ashdown House and its demons began to fade. A young teacher, one of the decent ones, became headmaster, introduced girls and abolished the cane. The stories of baroque cruelty and insane adult behaviour became jokes, used to bond with people who’d been through the system at other schools. There was a time when the stories were fun to use to horrify girls, and another when they could serve to excuse your own emotional screw-ups. They were war stories: they made us feel special.
Sympathy in the wider world was limited. It still is. We were toffs whose parents had paid for the luxury of having their children abused – we were hardly the survivors of the care homes of north Wales or Catholic church vestries. We were not noisy: we kept calm and carried on, as trained. Some of us would later untangle the memories in therapy.
There has clearly been some demand for that. By the 1990s this odd corner of the British ruling class’s mechanisms had become a subject of academic study and the grounds of psychiatric careers. Now Boarding School Syndrome has a symptomology, “survivors’ groups” and it’s a thriving area for counsellors and psychotherapists. Private, of course. Money buys you entry: a friend who works in psychological trauma in the NHS says she’s never come across this particular field.
The story of the British boarding school and its experiences have been widely written, as one might expect. Reading the raw accounts in the recent press and on abuse survivors’ web fora I find myself flinching a little at how nicely turned some of the accounts are: like the lesser poets of the First World War, the emotional effects are just a touch self-conscious, the result, probably, of too much Wordsworth and Keats in the Fourth Form. Strange, to educate people to go out and be cannon fodder, but also to describe the experience like a Romantic.
Most of the professional memoirists seem to have ended up accommodating their boarding school experience: “Hell, but it made me the man/woman I am.” Some who loathed their school days end up endorsing the system. Among these are Winston Churchill and Richard Dawkins. In his new autobiography, the scientist reckons the “mild paedophilia” he encountered was of its time and thus acceptable. ‘I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours,” he has said.
Far from condemning, others acknowledge they owe their careers to the emotional catastrophe of their education. Generations of male, middle-class British comedians’ currency is the dry, dark humour that comes straight from the coping mechanisms of upper-class suffering. The other day, Eddie Izzard spoke of how he was sent to board at seven, shortly after his mother’ death. He “cried relentlessly for a year… My housemaster would help me along with beatings when he could fit them in.”
That brand of wry fatalism is characteristic. My wife Ruth did not go to boarding school. She says she cannot stand it when people who did talk through their experiences in “endless infantile grim jokes”. But modern British culture has swallowed the boarding school story and digested it, caring not very much. It was an anachronism, a hangover of the imperial age, and in the 1990s, it looked as though the boarding schools were dying out. Numbers of boarders were collapsing.
Then new money and changing fashion brought about a curious revival. Another generation of the rich started sending their children away again. Once again, the little ones demanded it, they said, because of the books they had been reading. Only this time, the propaganda wasn’t Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers or Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings but JK Rowling (who did not go to boarding school and doesn’t send her own children to one). Perhaps Harry Potter revived the English boarding school: numbers of boarding children have stayed stable since 2000 and through the recession. There’s about 70,000 of them. As far as I can work out, around 4,000 of those are 10 or younger.
Now, of course, the country has had four years of its own experience of the effects of boarding school. The majority of the 2010 coalition cabinet were privately educated, most of them as boarders. Boris Johnson went to my schools – Ashdown and then Eton, and Andrew Mitchell, the former chief whip, went to Ashdown before going to Rugby. Of course, there’s never been a government, even a Labour one, in which privately educated people were not among the major players. But, as critics like to point out, this clutch of male ruling politicians embodies the grand Victorian public school virtues – or failings – more than most: suppression of emotion, devotion to the team, distrust of women and minimal empathy for the weak and ordinary.
And so it is interesting that so many senior politicians in government went to boarding schools, places that, by definition, practise on young children the techniques of “attachment fracture” – a psychiatrist’s phrase – that are key to removing early emotional ties and building esprit de corps. Of those politicians quite a few – including the chancellor, the prime minister and deputy prime minister, the Mayor of London and the Attorney General – were at private schools where teachers from their era have been accused or convicted of sexual abuse. The coalition is quite an advert for the old way.
For two decades there has been talk of an enormous abuse scandal brewing behind the facade of the 20th-century British private education system. Last December the story sprang to life. A long-running case against Peter Wright, the 83-year-old former headmaster of a school in Buckinghamshire called Caldicott, came to an end. Wright was found guilty of 12 counts of sexual abuse: one of the piquant details was that Nick Clegg had been joint head-boy at the school; his colleague, the other head boy, was one of the principal witnesses against Wright.
He had first been charged 10 years’ earlier. A judge threw out the case because the offences were “historical”. When the trial that finally went ahead in 2013, some of the 1960s allegations were not admitted. (Wright has now been jailed for eight years, having been found guilty of 10 indecent assaults and two counts of gross indecency, between 1959 and 1970). At least 30 pupils were involved, according to one newspaper. Five other teachers were implicated, one of whom threw himself under a tube train before the trial. One Caldicott teacher, sacked in 1972, went on to teach and abuse at the Harrodian School: the law did not catch up with him until 2003. Another abused children at Caldicott and a school in Shropshire in the 1970s and 1980s and was finally jailed this February. There is, not for the first time, talk of a “ring” of paedophile teachers operating in the 1970s in prep schools and public schools.
With the Wright case done, the principle that ancient allegations could be successfully prosecuted was established. It was certain more would follow. In mid-January the Times’s hard-working reporter of child abuse scandals, Andrew Norfolk, wrote of a “surge in criminal prosecutions” and named 130 private schools who have been or are now subject to similar allegations. That was 5% of all in the UK. It included 50 in the independent schools’ premier league, the Headmaster’s Conference. Twenty of them were feeders to Eton. In the same story, Norfolk pointed out that teachers from 62 different private schools had been convicted of sex crimes against children in the past 20 years – 18 convictions since 2012. Norfolk called it “stealing their childhoods”.
This all passed me by, until, last December, a story appeared in the Times naming Ashdown House under the headline “Prep school faces claims of physical and sexual abuse.” The Daily Mail was gripped, because Ashdown in the 70s had not just been the school of Boris Johnson but also the actor Damian Lewis and the Queen’s nephew David Linley. Linley was my contemporary – in the Mail he was quoted reminiscing without any affection about the “Dickensian” school. He remembered Billy Williamson caning his whole class for one child’s “fairly petty” offence.
The old man did like a big gesture. I remember him – huge, red-faced, ranting – threatening to cane the entire school unless a boy owned up to some particularly infuriating crime. I think it was a broken window. An older Ashdownian told me Billy had actually once attempted that feat – giving 120 boys “six of the best” in one afternoon. Despite being a keen golfer with a good swing, which he practised on the Royal Ashdown course most weekends, Williamson ran out of steam. He gave up having got through hardly half of them.
But the new allegations were about more than caning, which was a legal practice in independent schools in England and Wales until 1999. (About the same time, the independent schools for the first time became subject to full state inspection.) The Mail story talked of “horrific attacks” by two teachers in the early and mid-70s. The paper had been leaked details of a campaign for compensation started by former pupils, in part because they were infuriated that a complaint about abuse made in 2003 had been brushed aside. This group had been taken on as no-win-no-fee clients by the solicitors representing some victims of Jimmy Savile.
Through friends who had also been at Ashdown, I got more detail. The complaints, from a group a few years younger than me, were indeed horrific: sexual acts much more intrusive than Mr X’s pathetic bribe and fumblings. There was talk of blackmail and predatory older pupils encouraged by abusive teachers. That chimed with my adult perception of the bizarre sexualisation of life at Ashdown, especially the system of reward and discipline. At least two children I knew who had been given authority over younger kids used it to force sexual contact – Williamson seemed to have turned a blind eye. There was talk of connections with house masters at Eton, to which Ashdown fed pupils. There had been at least one suicide. There were more teachers in the complaint.
The Mail’s story quoted from an email that the former Ashdown pupils were passing around: “The abuse that occurred continues to have a dramatic effect on a number of lives, with regards to ongoing relationships, career and treatment for dealing with the psychological damage it has caused. Therefore we are seeking compensation with regards to a civil case against the school.”
I was very shocked when I read this – more than I could easily understand. Ashdown had had a dramatic effect on my life, too, but I had thought it was done. I didn’t feel any need for revenge or compensation for what had happened 40 years ago. I didn’t think I needed catharsis, either – I had long ago let light onto what I experienced at Ashdown. I was open about it with lovers, friends and family. I was, as much as I could hope to be, at peace.
But I realised I owed support to others who might need revenge, relief from the history – or money. There was another pressing need. The abusers had all been young men, if my memory could be trusted. They could still be teaching. Why hadn’t I acted on Mr X years ago? I could not explain that.
The first thing I did, though, was to email the Daily Mail story to my parents. This was not revenge. That my career at Ashdown was a mistake that they deeply regretted was something we had established a long time ago. If there was anything to forgive, I had forgiven it. I know they loved me. They were victims of a terrible fraud.
Besides, the sexual abuses were, in my version of the story, just detail: the real narrative was of five years of deliberate crushing of our individuality, the suppression of emotional freedom. Sexual bullying seemed just a part of the violence and cruelty that was the basic currency of the school and hundreds like it; the tools with which it squashed our little forms into the mould. Out of it would come upper-class Englishmen and women – ready to go and run an Empire or, at least, take charge of lesser mortals with normal feelings.
So went my thinking. Nothing unfamiliar: it has been said by British liberals from George Orwell onwards. Psychiatrists I have spoken to agree that, yes, while sexual and physical abuse is the headline grabber (and what makes criminal cases), real damage is done to children and adults by long-term psychological abuse. A child may recover from a blow, but not from the withdrawal of love and the denial of safety – the “complex trauma” child psychologists talk of. Comfy with my understanding, I was someone who had dealt with his schooldays.
But then I got an email back from my mother. What she wrote stripped away my reading and intellectualising, like so many useless bandages. She said I had told her about Mr X.
Then I cried. Because that summoned a picture: a small boy, nervous, excited in his new clothes and tie, ready to drive to Ashdown House on a September morning in 1969. My little brother and sisters gathered round to wave me off. A few weeks before I’d sat up late to watch the astronauts land on the moon on the TV. I wanted to be an adventurer, too. This journey seemed like the beginning. I was as brave and trusting as only the innocent can be. I never really trusted an adult again, not until I was one myself.
My mother’s email upended my 52-year-old’s view of my Ashdown self. I’d thought that September day was the last of my bravery. That I had been crushed, totally. In a privately published book of appreciation given to Billy Williamson for some anniversary shortly before his death in 1976, there is a selection of some pupils’ prize-winning work. It includes a story I wrote when I was 12.
It’s a plain account of a self-centred little boy who is given a rabbit for his birthday. The novelty wears off, the boy, careless and cruel, fails to clean the hutch or feed the rabbit. His mother warns him to look after it better; he punishes the rabbit by throwing mud and stones at it. When eventually it dies, he weeps as he buries it. But then a few days later, when a fox digs up the rabbit’s corpse, he doesn’t notice. “Nor were the flowers on its grave ever renewed,” is the last phrase.
That story of the selfish little boy and the all-knowing adults has long seemed to me as good a totem as any to show that the school had done the job it was paid for. Ashdown had broken me, as you do when you train an animal, and then drilled me until I was a suitable citizen. But my mother’s revelation showed I had kicked back. In fact, I had broken the most important of all of Billy’s rules. I had told tales out of school. l specifically said a teacher was touching me in a way I didn’t like and that I “hated” him. And she had gone straight to the school to raise hell with the headmaster’s wife.
That may explain Mr X’s disappearance shortly after (to teach at another school, according to the Ashdown School Bulletin of that year). It may explain the way the headmaster targeted me in the following years, singling me out in front of the school as a fraud, a failure and a perpetrator of “filthy behaviour”. But it gave me a new vision of the brave little boy who wouldn’t be cowed by Billy Williamson: the boy who spoke out.
And so I thought of those others, today and in the past, at Ashdown and all the other schools who wanted to speak up. I thought of the children in council care homes, in borstals and mental institutions, who over the years were left in thrall to adults without protection. I thought of the ruined marriages, the let-down kids, the suicides, the stunted and miserable lives – the great swathe of collateral damage that psychological trauma leaves. I thought of all the kids taken from their homes too early and thus denied, as the writer David Thomas once put it, the chance to love.
I thought particularly of the 45,000 under-10s in the UK who are in local authority care today. Of the 2,000 or so kids nine or younger – too young, according to any child psychologist – whose parents are now sending them to boarding school. For convenience, or notions of status, or just because they did not love them enough, to taking a mad gamble with their children’s emotional health, with their lives. And I thought of all the head-teachers who have protested that schools risk being closed by the legal actions, that that was then and this is now, that the abuses of the old boarding schools could not possibly happen today. I decided to go and see Ashdown. And I decided to talk to the police.
If you have a story you would like to share anonymously, email Alex Renton (firstname.lastname@example.org) in total confidence. If you have been affected by the issues in this story, call the National Association for People Abused in Childhood free on 0800 085 3330 from landlines, 3, EE, Vodafone and Virgin mobile phones, or 0808 801 0331 from O2, EE and Vodafone mobile phones.
Here is the transcript of this interview – in no way should police investigations be held back because they involve prominent politicians.
TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:
SIMON DANCZUK – RADIO INTERVIEW – MAY 3rd 2014
Simon Danczuk: Within a day or two of that book being published, a detective from one of the polices forces in the UK got in touch with us to say could they meet to discuss an investigation that they’re involved in. We responded to that and arranged to meet on Friday afternoon in my constituency office. Three officers came up to see us – quite senior officers – detectives.
Inerviewer: We can’t name anyone but are you able to give me an indication of what kind of case it was and who … what type of person was involved?
SD: It involved a senior Labour figure and I would decribe it as very ‘aggressive abuse of boys’; you know, quite clearly predatory – they are the allegations. They are of extreme significance and I know from speaking to the officers that they are taking them extremely seriously and want to pursue a case.
Interviewer: It is important to point out that these are allegations.
Interviewer: It’s an on-going investigation. Can you just tell me why you think that those police officers came to you.
SD: I think they came to see us to see whether there were any connections between these two senior politicians but also to discuss the politics of dealing with a case like this. Errr….. so I think they had some concerns, and quite undertandable ones. As you get to know the police – as a politician myself – you understand that they are (quite rightly) cautious about dealing with anything that has a political dimension. And I think they are cautious about this particular case that they are investigating because it IS because it is someone who has been involved in politics for a long time and they’re …… they’re probably worried about rocking the boat to some extent.
Interviewer: Obviously the police officers discussed with you these allegations.
Interviewer: We can’t talk about those. But I want to ask what you rreaction was when you heard them.
SD: I anticipated that we would write this book and we were conscious that it may have an impact in terms of what Smith had done and everything around it … and probably some fall-out from the Liberal Party. But I didn’t anticipate quite this sort of response where we end up speaking to a number of police officers from different forces across the country about allegations against other Parliamentarians. And I think we are getting to a stage where a number of disparate police investigations, going on, up and down the United Kingdom which I would have thought now need bringing into a more sophisticated way because, surely, if we are talking about a number of Parliamentarians across political parties, surely, it should be investigated in a smarter way and it should be well resourced I would think.
I am working with a number of politicians, Parliamentarians, MPs… errr.. on a letter that is going to the Home Secretary, which is urging her to make all evidence available in relation to some of these allegations.
Interviewer: How many MPs are involved in that group?
SD: Well, well, there are four of us and we’ve met as a group. It is a cross-party group. Everyone in the group is keen to …errr… to ensure that, you know, that the authorities cooperate with these types of investigations. So we are writing to the Home Secretary to urge her and to publish and make available all the documentation that relates to all the allgations agains all the Parliamentarians and others that are being accused of these terrible abuses.
Interviewer: You seem to have opened a can of worms. At least you seem to have heard more than you probably bargained for haven’t you?
SD: Yeh. Well…. I never came into politics to examine the issue of child abuse. It’s sort of been pushed upon me. It has quite a strong… quite a strong… impact. One of the other Officers asked a few days ago if we receive any support. Psychological support for the sort of stuff we examine – and the answer is that we DON’T. But [laughter] perhaps that would be useful, I don’t know. But it is harrowing listening to some of the stories. But I make this point – it is never as harrowing as what the victims have been through. We have regulat conversations with people who have ended up on drugs – yer know – it’s really, really ruined their lives. We hear about people who have committed suicide. So when people say, “Oh these…….errr……. victims are coming forward to try to get some sort of compensation”, let me tell yer… [SD breaks down in tears completely] …. all the money in the world – err – wouldn’t – err [sorry]
Interviewer: That’s alright Simon. I know it is really harrowing. Are you okay?
Many different stories involving alleged organised or institutionalised abuse of children have been prominent in the press during since February: about the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), and their links to the National Council of Civil Liberties, about abuse in a range of top private schools (especially Colet Court and St Paul’s), about the hideous range of abuse carried out by late Liberal MP Cyril Smith and then further in special schools in Rochdale, trials (with both convictions and acquittals) of celebrities as a result of Operation Yewtree, further information concerning the shocking abuse cases in children’s homes run by Islington Council, and new stories relating to abuse in Lambeth, with suggestions that a detective was taken off the case after a cabinet minister from the Blair era became a suspect (see also here, here, here and here, whilst the inquiry into historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland (the largest inquiry of its type in the UK) opened at the beginning of the year. Other investigations continue, most notably Operations Fairbank, Fernbridge and Cayacos, resulting from the questions put to the House of Commons by Tom Watson MP in October 2012, and dealing in particular with suggestions of a VIP paedophile ring, involving senior politicians from various parties, and centered upon the terrible abuse scandal at the Elm Guest House in Barnes (see also the various links here), and the possibility that children may have even been trafficked to this place from a children’s home in Grafton Close in nearby Richmond to service VIP guests. Cyril Smith and the late Sir Anthony Blunt, former Master of the Queen’s Pictures and Soviet spy, have been named as visitors to Elm Guest House.
The courage of a few good politicians
The Labour MP for Rochdale, Simon Danczuk, co-author with Matthew Baker of the excellent Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith (London: Biteback Publishing, 2014) has reiterated the claims that Smith was not working alone, and was part of a wider VIP ring; indeed Danczuk has gone so far as to argue that if charges had been brought against Smith, he would have named others and the resulting scandal could have toppled a government. Certainly the same possibility would have applied for the Blair government if a serving minister there had been charged with the abuse of children.
Danczuk has indicated that he is considering using Parliamentary Privilege to name one especially prominent former cabinet minister who was part of a ring with Smith and involved at Elm Guest House. This is almost certainly a figure from the Thatcher era whose identity is well-known on the internet, but has not been otherwise made public in the mainstream media in this context, though he was named when such allegations were dismissed thirty years ago. Various reports from Exaro News and The People newspaper (see links above) have indicated that a former cabinet minister was involved, with stories of videos and the possibility of some survivors being able to identify this figure . I hope that if Danczuk is secure in his conviction here that he will indeed name this figure, as unfortunately there is reason (on the basis of precedent) to have doubts as to the possibility of full investigations being able to proceed without external interference. This name, if made public, may cause shockwaves both in the UK and wider afield, and in such a context it would be very hard to resist the call for a proper public inquiry (and, perhaps more importantly, it would be harder for darker forces to try and prevent the police investigating this figure properly).
Danczuk and Watson are heroic politicians for our time, both risking huge amounts of approbrium and antipathy from colleagues and others (as Watson has detailed in his tribute to Danczuk). As a campaigner and independent researcher into abuse in musical education and also into PIE (about which numerous earlier blog posts give primary source information) I have had the pleasure to meet with Watson. No words can praise highly enough his complete dedication to these issues, as demostrated earlier with the allegations about the media and phone hacking. A few other MPs have shown courage and determination with these issues: Lucy Powell, Labour MP for Manchester Central, has continued to pursue the issue of abuse in music education and safeguarding (with Chetham’s and the Royal Northern College of Music both lying within her constituency), whilst Conservative MP Tim Loughton, former Children’s Minister, also speaking out about the scale of organised abuse as can be read in a speech he made to Parliament last September detailed here in Hansard.
But these politicians (and a few others) are relatively few and far between. Others have tried to fudge or ignore the issues, perhaps knowing of the fact that a full inquiry could uncover information deeply unsettling for all the three major British political parties (and maybe several others as well). As the late Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens found, pursuing the issue of organised child abuse involving prominent individuals is a lonely cause. When Dickens claimed that children were being abused on a council estate in Islington, the Labour MP for Islington North (my own MP), Jeremy Corbyn, claimed that Dickens was ‘getting cheap publicity at the expense of innocent children’ (see here for more on this story). When Dickens tried in 1984 to introduce a bill proscribing organisations like PIE, Labour MP Clare Short claimed the reason for the bill was ‘publicity for the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens)’ and spoke of ‘cheap publicity stunts’.
The left, paedophile organisations, and organised abuse
During this period, as has been amply chronicled recently, there were sections of the left, even the far left. Investigation of pro-paedophile literature (which I have done extensively, finding an alarming amount of this in mainstream publications, including scholarly literature, which I will document at a later date) shows no shortage of individuals (even including several prominent feminists) who sought to link the issue of paedophilia to supposedly progressive attitudes towards gender and sexuality. NCCL were affiliated to PIE for an extended period, and took out advertisements in PIE publications Understanding Paedophilia and Magpie, whilst their 1976 evidence to the Criminal Law Revision Committee (some of which reads almost exactly in the manner of a good deal of pro-paedophile literature) included the astonishing claim that ‘Childhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in, with an adult result in no identifiable damage’. It is clear that for a period NCCL (and also various gay rights organisations) were influenced, possibly even infiltrated, by paedophile campaigners, a process Christian Wolmar has traced (drawing in part upon first-hand experience of encountering paedophile groups) over a range of leftist organisations in the 1970s (this is also documented in Lucy Robinson’s book Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain: How the Personal got Political (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011)).
Current Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman MP was Legal Officer for the NCCL from 1978 to 1982; she joined the organisation two years after the Criminal Law Revision Committee submission, but no evidence has yet been provided of her – or her husband, Jack Dromey (who was on the committee of NCCL from 1970 to 1979, and has claimed to have opposed PIE but given no evidence for this) opposing the influence of PIE at the organisation.
How has Harman responded to the latest flurry of press attention? After the story was re-hashed in the Daily Mail in mid-February (having appeared sporadically for several years previously); it had become clearer how deeply PIE were involved with a wide range of abuse scandals, an involvement which has become even clearer in the subsequent months. In particular, the sinister figure of the late Peter Righton (files relating to whom provided the impetus for the police investigations which opened in 2012 – see also this 1994 documentary), who weaned his way to influential positions in the social work profession, was a high-up member of PIE, and has been linked to a network of abusers in public schools and to a range of cases of abuse in children’s homes; one victim has linked Righton to Cyril Smith (Smith may have met Righton when he was Liberal spokesperson on social services from 1976 to 1977). The journalist Eileen Fairweather, who broke the story of widespread abuse in Islington children’s homes for the Evening Standard, wrote of how one woman recalled being told openly by Righton at a social function in the 1970s how he enjoyed having sex with boys in children’s homes; Righton apparently assumed that as a lesbian she ‘wouldn’t break ranks’, and the woman went along with what she called ‘a typical gay man’s excuse – that he didn’t use force’ (she later gave a statement to the investigators) (cited in Christian Wolmar, Forgotten Children: The Secret Abuse Scandal in Children’s Homes (London: Vision Paperbacks, 2000)). Righton also wrote an endorsement which was used on the cover of Tom O’Carroll’s book Paedophilia: The Radical Case (ibid). Elsewhere, Fairweather has written of the deep links between Islington Council and PIE.
Harman’s first response was completely defensive: in a statement which was printed in the Mail on February 24th, she referred to the allegations as a ‘smear campaign’, and denied any connection with NCCL policy on lowering the age of consent to ten, or opposing the law on incest, as in the 1976 submission, pointing out that she did not work for NCCL until two years later, and denying that her involvement with NCCL implied any further support for PIE. However, as the paper pointed out, the 1976 submissions remained policy in 1978, when Harman joined, and she does not appear to have raised any objections then; furthermore, the affiliation continued throughout her time as Legal Officer. In a statement published together with Harman’s, Dromey argued that he was ‘at the forefront of repeated public condemnations of PIE and their despicable views’
As the media response grew louder, Harman appears to have realised that this would not be enough, and gave an interview with Laura Kuenssberg for Newsnight, again denying this amounted to anything more than a smear. She pointed out that PIE were one of a thousand organisations affiliated to NCCL, and that any organisation could affiliate. Ed Miliband (in what appears to have been his only statement on the whole controversy) backed Harman absolutely on the same day, reiterating her claim that the story amounted purely to a smear (Sam Coates, ‘Miliband backs Harman over ‘paedophile smears’, The Times, February 25th, 2014). It was later revealed that Harman and Dromey may not have been so confident about what journalists might find, and they trawled the NCCL archives in Hull themselves (their names can be found in the ledgers) on February 24th, five days after the story broke, and on the same day as the Newsnight interview. The Mail responded by pointing out that in the year when Harman joined the organisation, PIE was listed in the book The NCCL Guide to Your Rights as one of eighteen organisations which ‘may be helpful’ to readers, alongside the likes of the Family Planning Association and Rape Crisis Centre, and also that by 1982, the constitution of an affiliated institution had to be ‘approved by the Committee’ (PIE continued to be affiliated for a further year). The Telegraph also viewed other internal documents that cast serious doubts upon Harman’s claims that PIE had been ‘pushed to the margins’ back in 1976, before she went to NCCL, revealing that NCCL gay-rights spokesperson Nettie Pollard (probably the key link between NCCL and PIE, who has elsewhere herself been named as a member (#70) of PIE) had sat on a fourteen-strong NCCL gay rights committee with PIE chairman Tom O’Carroll (O’Carroll later thanked Pollard for her help in the foreword to his 1980 book Paedophilia: The Radical Case), and printed a letter from Harman forwarding a query from Pollard as to how to table amendments to the Protection of Children Bill in the Lords in 1978; this story was also pursued briefly in The Guardian. At this stage a spokesman for Harman had to concede that Pollard had promoted paedophilia and exploited the gay rights committee. Most damningly, the Mail printed a copy of the NCCL advert taken out in PIE journal Magpie in 1979 (which I had earlier revealed, though omitted at this stage to mention the earlier 1977 advert in Understanding Paedophilia).
Various of these articles drew attention in particular to how Harman herself urged changes to the 1978 Protection of Children Bill by saying that ‘images of children should only be considered pornographic if it could be proven the subject suffered’; this is perhaps the most crucial piece of information, and which comes dangerously close to PIE-style thinking, by positing that something only becomes pornographic if the child considers it as such (rather than in a statutory fashion). Though Harman protested that this was to stop parents being criminalised for taking beach or bathing pictures of their children (which would in itself be fair), these proposed amendments went further than that, as a lawyer would surely know.
As the furore continued, Patricia Hewitt made a reasonably decent and measured statement (after a period when she was uncontactable), claiming that NCCL was ‘naive and wrong to accept PIE’s claim to be a ‘campaigning and counselling organisation’ that ‘does not promote unlawful acts’, accepting responsibility and apologising, saying she ‘should have urged the executive committee to take stronger measures to protect NCCL’s integrity from the activities of PIE members and sympathisers’, though disclaiming any part in the ‘proposal to reduce the age of consent’, and saying nothing about the 1976 Criminal Law Revision Committee submission. Hewitt’s retirement from her position as a non-executive director of BT was also announced a few weeks later, though it is not clear whether this was related.
But there was no such humility from Harman, whose public school haughtiness deserves consideration just as does that of David Cameron or George Osborne; in an interview for The Times in early March, she adopted a contemptuous tone, continuing to refuse to apologise, talked about intending to be Deputy Prime Minister, and even talking about how she was ‘spending a lot of money on my hair, which is the same colour as when I was 33 [….] I’m not quite sufficiently politically correct to be able to stop it’, giving the impression that this mattered more than the ongoing stories about abuse (Sam Coates, ‘I want to be deputy PM, says Harman as she stands firm over paedophiles’, The Times, March 8th, 2014).
Former Head of the Obscene Publications Squad Michael Hames (author of The Dirty Squad (The Inside Story of the Obscene Publications Squad)) argued that ‘the NCCL legitimised the Paedophile Information Exchange’, and that Harman, Dromey and Hewitt ‘made a huge mistake. At the very least they should acknowledge, publicly, that they got it wrong’. But this would not be forthcoming from either Harman or Dromey. The current director of Liberty (the renamed NCCL), said that past paedophile infiltration of the organisation was a matter of ‘continuing disgust and horror’, statement endorsed by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.
A civil liberties organisation should defend the civil liberties of all people, including those whose views they might otherwise despise and reject. The American Civil Liberties Union has defended the right to free speech of the Klu Klux Klan; in my view, they are absolutely right to do so, for using fascistic techniques of censorship is no way to combat fascist ideology and organisations. Paedophiles have rights and civil liberties as well (and I have no interest in debating with those people who would deny that they do); were the NCCL simply to be defending these, or indeed fighting against the rather archaic law of ‘Conspiracy to Corrupt Public Morals’, then their actions should be applauded. Furthermore, it would be rash to censor even a debate on the precise age of consent, which varies slightly between different Western countries.
But NCCL’s support for PIE went further than this. I do not believe Harman, Dromey or Hewitt to have been active supporters of the abuse of children themselves; however, at a time when PIE was at its height, they were all intimately involved with an organisation which not only allowed PIE to affiliate (would Harman have been so happy with a group which advocated that a man can beat his wife if she is disobedient, or a fundamentalist Christian anti-gay organisation?), but also advertised in its own deeply unpleasant publications (see the ample amount of material I have published on this blog here, here and here) and appear to have been influenced by aspects of PIE thinking in their policy, as well as having PIE members on their own committees. No clear evidence has been provided for any of these three figures having opposed this, unlike with Peter Hain, say. PIE’s strategy was to infiltrate and influence mainstream gay rights and civil liberties organisations towards their own ends; Harman, Dromey and Hewitt stand as appearing culpable in allowing this to happen, and in the process adding a degree of respectability to that very paedophile movement which looks to have been involved in the worst cases of organised abuse.
As further investigations into the latter continue, it would be a miracle if the involvement of leading PIE members is not evoked on many future occasions, and many more questions asked about just how this organisation and the ideologies it espoused came to win a degree of acceptance especially on the liberal left (two very thoughtful articles on this question have recently been published by Eileen Fairweather and Christian Wolmar). However, all figures associated with the Labour leadership appear to have treated this as an issue primarily of the reputations of Harman and Dromey (Hewitt is less active in politics today and no longer in Parliament). Harman’s own self-centered attitudes and absolute refusal to concede that this might be about more than her, has precluded the leadership from really commenting at all on the many other stories which have been further illuminated, an intolerable state of affairs. I would personally have difficulty campaigning for Labour if this situation continues.
The need for a decisive lead from Labour and Ed Miliband
The potential situation for Labour is grave: senior figures such as Harman, Dromey or Margaret Hodge (in charge of Islington Council during the period when paedophiles manage to infiltrate their children’s homes, and who tried to dismiss newspaper reports claiming this – but amazingly went on to become Children’s Minister under Tony Blair) stand likely to be found to have been at least complacent if not complicit in a situation which enabled PIE, and as a result widespread abuse, to flourish. If coupled with revelations about a Blairite cabinet minister, this could cast an unremovable shadow over the whole Blair era. Danczuk has written of how ‘it seemed that a fair few on the Left, including some who have subsequently become key figures in the Labour Party were fooled into giving this hideous group [PIE] shelter’, part of the situation which enabled Cyril Smith to act with relative impunity – he does not name the figures in question, but there is little question that he is referring to Hewitt, Harman and Dromey. The dismissive statements of Corbyn and Short, at a time when Dickens was fighting practically a one-man campaign against PIE, look like a form of petty tribalism which in this context could be dangerous; more ominously, some other Labour names have been mooted in terms of visitors to the Elm Guest House. Eileen Fairweather has described the type of Stalinist thinking to be encountered on the left when there are abuse allegations involving gay men, whilst some researchers into abuse committed by women, such as Michelle Elliott or Jackie Turton, have encountered similar resistance to any investigation of the subject. It would seem as if for some on the left, child abuse only matters when it can be exploited to serve a particular type of gender/sexuality politics; when the perpetrators are women or gay men, some might prefer that the abuse go unchecked*.
All of this remains at the level of allegations, for sure, but it seems unlikely that an investigation would not do damage to the Labour Party. But this is equally true for the Liberal Democrats because of Cyril Smith, and very much so for the Conservative Party, with a serious of prominent figures also having been mooted as Elm Guest House visitors (one of them still in the House of Commons today), not to mention the as yet far-from-clarified situation involving the late Peter Morrison, about whom I have blogged at length, involving allegations (based upon accounts by Conservative politicians) of cover-up and even bribery, and that Morrison was linked to the North Wales abuse scandals.
I am a member of the Labour Party; I was unable to stay supporting them following the Iraq War, but rejoined after Tony Blair left the leadership and have had high hopes of Ed Miliband, who I voted for as leader. I look to the Labour Party to protect the interests of ordinary citizens against powerful forms of exploitation, and can hardly imagine an issue Labour should be opposing and attacking more strongly than the existence of networks of VIPs using their position to exploit and abuse children sexually, protected through friends in high places. Miliband showed great resolve over the issue of Murdoch and hacking; now he needs to do the same of the issue of organised and institutional abuse. His silence (and that of most other senior Labour politicians) to date on the issue, save to defend Harman as mentioned earlier, is no response befitting of a Prime-Minister- and government-in-waiting; as with other party leaders, the impression given is of one more concerned about protecting the reputation of a few of his colleagues than in investigating extremely serious allegations of abuse (just as has been seen in numerous other institutions facing abuse or cover-up allegations relating to some of their members).
This should not be a partisan issue, and attempts by all sides to exploit it for party political advantage are crass in the extreme. Ed Miliband has the opportunity to change this and call for an all-purpose public inquiry with which he and his party will fully co-operate, which would put real pressure on the other parties to do the same, as he should also demand. This would require a similar level of commitment from his senior colleagues; if some are not prepared to give this commitment, then Miliband must make clear that he is no longer in a position to lend them support.
[*As for example in the case of the American feminist Kate Millett, who when asked in an interview (originally published in Loving Boys (New York: Semiotext(e), 1980), pp. 80-83) ‘Do you think that a tender loving erotic relationship can exist between a boy and a man?’ she replied ‘Of course, or between a female child and an older woman’ and also said that ‘ part of a free society would be that you could choose whomever you fancied, and children should be able to freely choose as well’. Millett’s book Sexual Politics (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1969) remains a standard feminist text, but I believe on the basis of this interview anything she says about sexual politics should be considered suspect. ]