The UK EU Referendum and the decline of democracy in a time of social media, safe spaces and postmodern relativismPosted: June 19, 2016
The 2016 UK referendum campaign on EU membership has not been a happy time for democracy, even before the tragic murder of Jo Cox. There have certainly been decent and principled protagonists involved with both the Remain and Leave campaign who have drawn upon issues and data to form solid arguments (and I think here the role of Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps the ultimate politician driven solely by issues, has been underestimated). But to a very high degree, the campaign has not been like this, and has been saturated with cheap populist pandering, lies and misinformation, conflation of the EU with only tangentially-related issues (such as that of refugees from the Middle East), and above all, a type of campaigning which appeals on an emotional rather than rational level, by stoking fear, playing to tribal identity (including racism and xenophobia), crudely dismissing opponents’ positions without proper argument, and so on.’Experts’ have been summarily dismissed and denigrated, facts have been little-appreciated and understood, and the whole campaign has played out in sitting rooms, offices, bars and cafés amongst large numbers of voters who I would wager know very little about the actual nature or workings of the EU, the policies and voting records of their democratically elected MEPs, which of the EU horror stories reported by the tabloid press are fact, which fiction or gross distortion, and so on.
This is all a very great shame, as this campaign should have provided an opportunity for a new level of public education about the EU, its history, and operations, and indeed about Britain’s relationship to continental Europe as a whole. I realise that it is over-idealistic to expect all or even most of the population to make highly intelligent, rational and educated decisions based on issues rather than personalities, but the referendum campaign has sunk to new lows in this respect.
Many have not unreasonably questioned the wisdom of holding a referendum at all on such an issue, in the knowledge that it would likely be determined more by prejudice than any more mature politics. I have little doubt that it was called because of David Cameron’s needing to temper a split down the middle of the Conservative Party, just as Harold Wilson did the same in 1975 when his own party and cabinet were deeply split on the same issue. But I am hesitant about saying that referenda on major constitutional issues are wrong; if one accepts the validity of those referenda on devolution (and independence) in Scotland and Wales, for example, it is hard to argue against giving the British people a chance to vote on this.
However, I think we are now living in the worst possible time for such a campaign, and a low point for cynical dismissal of all politicians (at least those who have ever held any power or office) and democratic debate in general. And I wish to suggest a few hypotheses about some factors which have brought about this situation.
The last decade has seen the growth of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. As a regular user of both, I would be the last person in a position to start arguing that these are a bad things, but I do see some major problems they engender. Facebook is ubiquitous, especially amongst younger generations; Twitter is particularly favoured by journalists, media types, many politicians, and others, which gives it a different general political complexion. Online communications are not so new – many used online messageboards and chatrooms before either Facebook or Twitter were created – but these more recent sites create a means by which many people’s whole lives are partially spent, and documented, online, to be seen by others, who often provide solace by expressing their approval. But of course, on Facebook in particular, one gets to choose who is in one’s circle (Twitter is much more public, a likely reason why it is used less often by those who simply wish to communicate with their friends). That in itself is not so different from some of the wider world, though it is hard to avoid coming into contact with strangers and those who might look at the world in a quite different way, unless one lives a relatively hermetic existence. That is not the case on Facebook; one can inhabit a realm entirely populated by like-minded people. In the face of cyber-bullying (much easier from the safety of a computer screen or smartphone than face-to-face bullying), many increasingly choose to do this. This is more than understandable, but with it comes the problems of creating an ‘echo chamber‘, whereby one puts out views and opinions mostly in order to have them echoed by others (at least this can be the result, if not the intention), and gain self-esteem by being regularly ‘liked’.
In itself, this phenomenon might not be so bad, except for when it blinds some to the possibility that the wider world might be quite unlike the comfort zone they inhabit on social media. Worse, it can generate a good deal of in-group/out-group hostility, leading to disdain, dismissal or even hatred towards anyone who breaks with a narrow consensus. This is how group bullying works in general (and mirrors wider prejudice and ostracisation of minority groups), but the relative safety of social media makes the bullying easier for the bullies, and arguably even more devastating for the victims (perhaps especially in the case of Twitter storms against those who have made some careless, ignorant, or mildly bigoted remarks there).
As the new Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Louise Richardson, recently argued on a radio interview, a new generation of students have grown up spending their formative years within the echo chambers of social media, and these are the ones now demanding trigger warning, safe spaces and the likes (I would extend Richardson’s arguments to include many older adults too). Whilst it is perfectly reasonable for individuals to ask for some protection from hatred, highly personalised attacks, harassment and bullying, I fear many have lost a sense of the distinction between these and proper argument and robust debate, or rational critique (even if severe) of work, when applied fairly (i.e. not applying radically different standards to different work or individuals because of other motivations).
In many ways I do believe that many students and academics are attempting to demand that their working lives resemble the type of pampered realm to which they have become accustomed on social media, or simply from surrounding themselves with crowds of acolytes and other true believers. This is especially detrimental to academia and education in general, which should provide spaces where all types of positions and arguments can be presented and properly debated, and which can militate against easy complacency and unexamined positions. Lecturers should challenge students, students should challenge lecturers, members of each group should regularly challenge each other, and the frameworks of the institutions should ensure that this can happen. Safe spaces and trigger warnings are the very opposite of this, as are highly emotive or rhetorical modes of argument or teaching. Obviously not all students, or lecturers, necessarily have the emotional or intellectual maturity to cope with proper debate and challenge when they start out in these places, but I believe it is imperative that they learn to develop such maturity. Other factors can work against this though; one is the simple narcissism of some students and lecturers, in the latter case countenancing no dissenting viewpoints or literature, and seeking to personally demean or undermine anyone who thinks otherwise; such individuals are invariably extremely poor teachers, rarely interested in learning, only in being adored. Another is the growth of corporate academic culture, by which top-down directives are issued for management, and the wider culture rewards all types of conformity, in flagrant contradiction of the principles of academic freedom. Also, I see many academics organising into narrow factions, only containing those who agree or at least share a range of basic assumptions, with the same techniques of ostracisation of dissenters to be found in social media. This is another form of bullying which I have experienced and witnessed far too often.
This may seem a big tangent, from an academic too focused upon the type of environment in which they work. This may be the case (I would mention that I do also inhabit a very different – if equally problematic – realm as a professional musician), but I think when even the most hallowed spaces for free debate and argument are becoming corrupted in this manner, then this bodes very ill for other areas of public life. If those in academic life cannot separate issues and personalities, what are the chances of the wider public being able to do the same?
But the type of ideal democratic debate I have been outlining does require a belief in the very possibility of facts and rational debate; a belief which some who identify as ‘postmodern’ do not hold. On a feature earlier this year on BBC Newsnight, the reporter suggested that US Republicans had been having a ‘postmodern moment’ with the rise of Donald Trump, who ultimately does not care that much about facts, nor really hides the fact. It may seem very surprising to link a right-wing demagogue like Trump to postmodernism, and I would hesitate to do so, but I do see reasons why the phenomena may not be unrelated.
In the postmodern realm (about which inevitably I generalise a little), truth says more about the power held by those proclaiming it, ‘subject positions’ (which, as Terry Eagleton has argued, are the nearest contemporary thing to older ideals of ‘authenticity’) matter more than the cogency of arguments presented, ‘facts’ are mostly an illusion, rational debate is little more than an ideological conceit of the privileged, and ultimately arguments are better judged on political allegiance than any supposedly more disinterested criteria. These are the extreme positions, for sure, not all of which are held (or held in such a fundamentalist fashion) by all of those identifying as postmodern, but they are not imaginary. In certain modified forms, I would not disagree that some of these positions have value; some ‘facts’ are somewhat spurious, but have been accepted because certain people have propagated them, whilst certain narrowly ‘rational’ approaches to debate can have a dehumanising effect through the ways in which they are framed (with associated rhetoric, for example that of ‘collateral damage’). But I would challenge these in the name of better conceptions of facts, rationality, and so on, not in order to dismiss the concepts in general. Experts should be challenged, including by political campaigners in a referendum such as this one, but in order that they are required to substantiate and explain their expert views and conclusions, not because anyone else can lay an equal claim to expertise.
As Richard Evans pointed out in his book In Defence of History, when a position appeals purely on the basis of the politics it espouses, there is little if any chance of ever being able to convince someone of a different political persuasion, for that requires some appeal to wider knowledge beyond allegiances. I would say the same applies to appeals to identity; most fatally, the very legitimation of identity as a criterion of political value has ultimately emboldened most the right-wing Leave campaign, enabling them to appeal to a sense of national belonging and identity, with a concomitant fear of and hostility towards foreigners, amongst white working-class and older people (see this pertinent article by John Harris).
Modern democracy is a deeply flawed system in many ways. It has developed in line with the modern Western nation state, and no-one has yet really found a workable system which is not enclosed within the borders of such nation states (ironically, the European Parliament might be one of the better attempts at so doing). The late historian Tony Judt (in interview in the volume Thinking the Twentieth Century) pointed out that with the fall of the Hapsburg monarchy, Jewish people in Austria faced a new threat as a minority within mass democratic society, after having received some degree of protection Emperor Franz Joseph II. Democracy within a nation state will always be problematic for minority groups within that nation state, for simple numerical reasons, when there is some degree of conflict. And beyond this, it is no easy task to convince an electorate, especially one undergoing difficult economic and other conditions, to factor in the interests of other non-citizens (here including other Europeans, migrants and refugees) when this is presented as being against their own self-interest.
But I do not believe these problems cannot be at least mitigated, with a properly operative media representing a genuine plurality of opinion, a high degree of education about the political process and issues at schools, a functioning public sphere (for which a different type of social media can play an important role), and an acceptance that ‘democracy’ is a wider concept than simply putting some Xs in boxes from time to time, and involves a degree of engagement and respect for all types of groups in society. I wish I could say I see this happening in the UK, but am currently pessimistic. There is a growing level of generalised disenchantment with the political process and politicians in general, declining turnout at elections, especially amongst the young (though the Scottish Referendum was a marked exception), and a wider culture which is increasingly anti-intellectual and even tribal. Unelected and unaccountable celebrities, media personalities and even industry leaders seem to garner more respect than those who regularly submit themselves to electoral ratification.
The writer Edward Bernays, father of modern propaganda and public relations, realised the much greater potency of campaigns which operate on an emotive or atavistic level than those involving rational decisions (Bertold Brecht would have agreed, but drawn very different conclusions). Bernays’ ideas, and their application in PR, advertising, politics and more have been explored and chronicled in Adam Curtis’s documentary The Century of the Self. In the process, powerful tools have been developed which feed into an increasingly irrationalist political sphere. Extreme relativists, those cocooned in social media and echo chambers, and many of the advocates of safe spaces, should all consider whether they are playing a part in forfeiting the possibility of any alternative.
Call for All Political Leaders and Leadership Candidates to Pledge Full Co-operation with Abuse InquiryPosted: July 9, 2015
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is now underway. Despite two previous chairs rightly standing down due to some of their connections, and unpleasant politics between some other panel members and other individuals, resulting in the loss of several very good people, nonetheless what is now in place is strong, focused, and has real powers. I am very pleased at the access to intelligence files and also the pledge that no-one who comes forward will face prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. And personally, I am especially pleased that the Terms of Reference make clear that music tuition will be an area of investigation, for which I have campaigned qnd lobbied for several years. The website is at:
Some survivors and campaigners have unfortunately expressed grave reservations about the inquiry. I would implore them to at least try engaging with it, difficult though this might be, in full recognition of the fact that they have more reason than anyone to be distrustful of any such venture. But I believe the chair and panel do wish to get to the bottom of this terrible factor afflicting our society for so long, and help to build a better society in its place.
In an interview I gave earlier today for Sky News:
I called for the leaders of all the major political parties to pledge full co-operation with this inquiry (and make all relevant documentation available) and want to repeat this now, and hope others will help with urging publicly not only current leaders, but also leadership and deputy leadership candidates, to do so. Much evidence has come to light suggesting that abuse by senior politicians in many parties was either ignored or actively covered up, and that other politicians had connections to paedophile organisations. It is paramount that this is fully investigated in order to understand better how high-level abuse could go on for so long with apparent impunity.
So I ask people, journalists, campaigners, bloggers, tweeters and others to help keep the pressure on the following politicians in England and Wales to give such a pledge, and if not, explain not.
Leader: David Cameron
Future Leadership Candidates: Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Theresa May
Leader: Nick Clegg
Leadership Candidates: Tim Farron, Norman Lamb
Leader: Harriet Harman
Leadership Candidates: Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn
Deputy Leadership Candidates: Tom Watson, Stella Creasey, Ben Bradshaw, Angela Eagle, Caroline Flint
Leader: Nigel Farage
Leader: Natalie Bennett
Leader: Leanne Wood
My predictions from January for the election results turned out to be significantly out; but then so did almost everyone else’s, including those of Iain Dale and Peter Kellner which I cite in the above link. One small consolation, in predictive terms, is having forecast a bigger collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote than many others did; it always appeared to me that with the loss of the major tactical vote which had doubled the Liberal Democrat representation in Parliament in 1997 from what it had previously been, the party would fall away to less than 20 seats, though it is still shocking to see them fall to 8.
But in the midst of an emotional aftermath and a large amount of disappointment and disillusionment for many on the left following the unexpected result, have a look at the actual results in terms of votes and percentages, compared to 2010:
Conservatives: 10,806,015, 36.4% in 2010; 11,334,920, 36.8% in 2015.
Labour: 8,609,527, 29.0% in 2010; 9,344,328, 30.4% in 2015.
Liberal Democrats: 6,836,824, 23.0% in 2010; 2,415,888, 7.9% in 2015.
UKIP: 919,471, 3.1% in 2010; 3,881,129, 12.6% in 2015.
SNP: 491,386, 1.7% in 2010; 1,454,436, 4.7% in 2015.
Greens: 265,243, 0.9% in 2010; 1,154,562, 3.8% in 2015.
Plaid Cymru: 165,394, 0.4% in 2010; 181,694, 0.6% in 2015.
Turnout: 29,687,604, 65.1% in 2010; 30,691,680, 66.1% in 2015.
So in 2015 there was a very small increase in both Conservative and Labour votes. UKIP and the Greens had the biggest success in votes terms, both quadrupling their numbers (though UKIP started out from a much bigger base and are a very much more significant force); the SNP trebled theirs. The Liberal Democrats had by far the worst result of the above, falling to almost one-third of what they had before. Plaid Cymru achieved a very small increase.
But then look at the results in Scotland:
Conservatives: 412,655, 16.7% in 2010; 434,097, 14.9% in 2015.
Labour: 1,035,526, 42.0% in 2010; 707,147, 24.3% in 2015.
Liberal Democrats: 465,471, 18.9% in 2010; 219,675, 7.5% in 2015.
SNP: 491,386, 19.9% in 2010; 1,454,436, 50.0% in 2015.
UKIP: 17,223, 0.7% in 2010; 47,078, 1.6% in 2015.
Greens (Scottish Greens): 16,827, 0.7% in 2010, 39,205, 1.3% in 2015.
Turnout: 2,465,722, 63.8% in 2010; 2,910,465, 71.1% in 2015.
The Conservatives slightly upped their number of votes, but fell in terms of proportions by about one-eighth; Labour fell drastically, to almost half of their percentage votes, and the Liberal Democrats even more so. The SNP had a massive rise to two-and-a-half times the percentage their received in 2010, and interestingly the Greens doubled their vote, and UKIP did even better (doing better than the Greens by all measures in Scotland).
So if we therefore look at the votes for the five major national parties in England and Wales alone, we get the following figures:
Conservatives: 10,393,360, 38.2% in 2010; 10,900,823, 39.2% in 2015.
Labour: 7,574,001, 27.8% in 2010; 8,637,181, 31.1% in 2015.
Liberal Democrats: 6,371,353, 23,4% in 2010; 2,196,213, 7.9% in 2015.
UKIP: 902,248, 3.3% in 2010; 3,834,051, 13.8% in 2015.
Greens: 248,416, 0.9% in 2010; 1,115,357, 4.0% in 2015.
Turnout: 27,221,882, 65.2% in 2010; 27,781,215, 65.6% in 2015.
So here the patterns are similar to those for the UK as a whole, except for the fact that Labour gained 3.3% in England and Wales (compared to just 1.4% in the whole UK) and the Conservatives 1% (0.4% in the UK). UKIP and the Greens’ increases were both larger in England and Wales compared to the UK as a whole.
In terms of seats, in 2015 Labour gained 10 seats from the Conservatives, but the Conservatives in turn gained 8 from them, a net gain for Labour of just 2. Labour won 12 from the Liberal Democrats, but the Conservatives won 27 (their net gain in the election of seats from any other parties was 29). The Liberal Democrats had previously had a strong presence in Scotland with 11 seats; with all but one of these falling away.
Without the loss of 40 seats in Scotland, Labour would have a total of 272, 16 more than in 2010; without the huge gains from the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives would have had 304, just 2 more than in 2010. Labour fell because its gains from the Liberal Democrats (12 seats) and Conservatives (2 net) were too modest to match their losses to the SNP (40 seats). The Conservatives lost no seats to the SNP at all and scraped a majority primarily through winning seats from the Liberal Democrats.
So the pattern appears as follows: in England and Wales Labour upped its vote by 3.3%, respectable but nothing like enough to make a real difference, largely through the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, but this benefited the Tories much more, either through directly taking votes or the collapse of an anti-Tory tactical vote. Labour were thrown back immensely above all by their drastic fall in Scotland. The Conservatives are very far from having won over a decisive section of the UK population; they have around 8% more than Labour in England and Wales, but have not hit 40% of those who vote. They are in a similar position to Harold Wilson after the October 1974 election, and a worse one than John Major after the 1992 election.
But for Labour, consider the percentages of the vote they have received in elections since 1964:
After the massive losses in 1983, Neil Kinnock was able to get the party almost to their 1979 levels by 1992. Ed Miliband has achieved considerably less than this. Tony Blair did not achieve the share of the vote of Harold Wilson in the 1960s (or even when Labour lost to the Conservatives in 1970) but benefited from a Conservative Party which had moved considerably to the right and lost a significant vote to the Liberal Democrats, who were also prepared to help Labour defeat the Conservatives through tactical voting. These factors have now changed; few would now appear to vote Liberal Democrat tactically against the Conservatives, and David Cameron has just about managed to convince wavering voters that the party is less toxic than it was during the Blair years.
Labour have not lost their key base of around 30% of the vote which translates into somewhere between 200 and 250 seats – though inevitable boundary changes will hurt the number of seats they can gain with the same votes. To win again, they need to regain a significant amount of their seats in Scotland (which may be the biggest challenge) and also make some inroads into that Conservative 8% lead in England and Wales. The apparent difficulty seems to lie in the fact that these aims seem mutually incompatible. However, I do not believe that the Scottish vote represents a significant move to the left and would ask how many would have voted for the SNP if they had the same programme except for the demand for independence, or any other rhetoric about being ‘Scottish’ or ‘national’; their performance might then be more comparable to that of the Greens. A situation of full financial autonomy, and its economic consequences (let alone those of full independence) might change the view of a great many Scottish people towards nationalism, though either such move would be very difficult to undo. Personally I find it extremely sinister when 50% of the people of an area unite under a flag, and find ludicrous suggestions that Labour would surge forth to victory if they became more like the SNP; they might find themselves closer to the position of the Greens.
Without the charismatic figure of Farage at the helm, the UKIP vote may wither away, but the consequences of this remain to be unseen. It will take a great deal for the Liberal Democrats to rebuild themselves; their decline may be terminal. Nick Clegg has returned them to their situation under Clement Davies in the 1950s, and completely undone the efforts of Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy to make them into a major third party force (see this post for a wider analysis of the results for the Liberal Democrats in historical perspective). But this just might offer an opportunity for Labour to reclaim some of the previous centre ground, but this would take a major cultural shift in the party such as they have only taken previously under Blair (and would have done under Gaitskell had he survived) in times of desperation following successive defeats. I will always resent deeply much of Blair’s foreign policy, but still acknowledge that New Labour did make possible some genuinely progressive social policies on the home front (as much because of others around him as Blair himself) and made the UK into a more internationally-minded and European country than that to which it has slipped back since. To achieve what Labour achieved under Blair, at least in the first term, may be as much as Labour could hope for now. This would still be a good deal better than what we have now.
1. Scotland made the right decision.
2. Labour under Ed Miliband is looking considerably weaker than before the referendum. Cameron probably ended up being a more persuasive advocate for the union than Miliband. Miliband has neither a ‘heartland’, a community who would identify with him, as did Wilson, Callaghan, Smith and Brown, nor the personality to build a wider English following, as did Blair. I do believe Sadiq Khan, Tom Watson (who has written an interesting response to the referendum) or Simon Danczuk would all make stronger leaders (if they would want the position).
3. Never have the Liberal Democrats looked more insignificant, despite the fact that they are the second largest party at Westminster representing Scottish seats.
4. Two people to have come out reasonably well from the campaign, and who have been underestimated, are Gordon Brown and George Galloway. Brown should attempt a come-back as First Minister of Scotland, and more widely his legacy should be re-assessed.
5. ‘Scottish workers have more in common with London dockers, Durham miners & Sheffield engineers than they have with Scottish barons & landlords’ – Scottish miners’ leader Mick McGahey in 1968 on Scottish separatism vs working class solidarity (as quoted = by Ken Livingstone).
6. I don’t see why the unemployed and those on low pay in devastated communities in the North of England – or in inner city London – are any less worthy of special treatment than the Scots. Trying to divide these communities on grounds of ‘nation’, as Salmond + co do, is cynical and pathetic.
7. The whole devo max package was a last minute panicked reaction to one poll showing the ‘Yes’ camp in the lead. Major legislation like this should not be rushed through without all the consequences being considered. This will now utterly dominate the legislative agenda up until the election, and will have a major effect upon the election itself.
8. The West Lothian question will not go away, nor should it. Labour are burying their heads in the sand over this, retreating to their comfort zone when they need more English votes to win an election. They could trump Cameron by giving a firm commitment to a German-style federal system, which would utterly transform British politics.
9. A new variety of the West Lothian question: why should those in Glasgow be able to be exempt from various aspects of policies determined in Westminster, but those in Newcastle not?
10. The borders between England, Scotland and Wales are pretty meaningless anyhow, as are most nation states. There is however some logic in the whole of Great Britain being a unified entity because of its geographical nature.
11. One of the worst elements of the campaign was the presenting of a Manichean struggle between ‘Scotland’ and ‘London’. London is simply the capital city, where MPs meet. Many Londoners are just as much the victim of successive governments’ policies as those in Scotland. In an independent Scotland, would it be any more fair to attack the people of Edinburgh, because Hollyrood is there? The article linked to earlier by Tom Watson makes much of the chasm between the City of London and Scotland – and the rest of the UK, and how that chasm was allowed to increase during the Thatcher years. But this is about capital and its concentration, not about Londoners in general. Hating people because they happen to come from or live in the most international city in Europe, London (I don’t come from the city originally, but have lived here for 21 years), is the worst type of politics.
On June 13th, 2014, Peter McKelvie – who was the source for Tom Watson’s October 2012 question on high-level abuse based upon evidence from the investigation into Peter Righton – wrote to his local MP Sir Tony Baldry MP (Conservative, North Oxfordshire). The letter was reproduced on Spotlight, and I reproduce it here:
Dear Sir Tony,
You will no doubt be aware of the growing clamour, now joined by a cross-party group of over 40 MPs, for an Independent Hillsborough type Inquiry in to decades of organised abuse by networks that have infiltrated both the care system and the boarding school institutions of this country.
These networks include politicians, both national and local, from all political parties as well as residential social workers,police officers, teachers, judges, civil servants to name but a few.
You will no doubt be aware of the PMQ yesterday, 11th June, by Duncan Hames, until recently PPS to the Deputy Prime Minister, in which Mr.Hames asked for the Prime Minister’s support for such an Inquiry but Mr. Cameron felt that the Home Office had the situation under control and no further measure was required.
I am the retired Child Protection Team Manager who approached MP, Tom Watson, in October 2012, as a result of which Mr. Watson also asked a PMQ, on 24th October 2012 which subsequently led to the setting up of Operation Fernbridge by the Metropolitan Police.
You may recall that the PMQ involved the allegation that an elite paedophile ring had a link with No.10.
As you will know Operation Fernbridge is ongoing and I receive regular feedback on the progress of that investigation.
I would like to ask for your support as my local MP for an Independent Inquiry and would like an appointment with you please to discuss my reasons in much more detail.
On a website called Spotlightonabuse:The Past on Trial you will see my Open Letter to David Cameron, with copies to Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband and also their responses.
I can forward you copies of all these documents at any point.
There are grounds to look closely at the behaviour of over 40 Members of the Commons and Lords, some living and some now dead, in connection with the actual abuse of very vulnerable children or with its cover up. This number is likely to grow during the course of a proper investigation.
I think the case against Cyril Smith and Peter Morrison is strong evidence of how easy it was for paedophiles to remain hidden within the corridors of power. Their cases are unfortunately the tip of the iceberg.
You are the ideal MP for me to approach not only because you are my constituent MP but because I understand that you are, according to your Wikipedia entry, “one of the last of those made a Minister by Margaret Thatcher still to be in the House of Commons”
The allegations I took to Tom Watson which resulted in the current Police investigations involve Mrs.Thatcher’s period as Prime Minister.
Many questions remain unanswered about a number of her key appointments and as her personal assistant in the 1974 General Election and, upon her becoming Leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, you joined her Private Office and so I must assume were very close to her and by definition some of the people I believe should be subject to an Independent Inquiry.
Your perspective could be extremely helpful.
The persistence of Mrs. Thatcher in pressing ahead with the Knighthood of Jimmy Savile despite opposition from her closest advisers, his alleged attendance at multiple private Chequers parties, his being granted the keys to Broadmoor in 1988, together with her appointment of Peter Morrison, a well known paedophile according to a number of fellow MPs, as her PPS raise many serious questions that need answering and only an Independent Inquiry on a Hillsborough based model will satisfy the electorate.
There are allegations against MPs of all parties under several different Governments and this is not a party political isue.
I can go in to much more detail in a face to face meeting but at this stage would ask for your support in joining the 40 plus MPs who have already pledged their support for an Independent Inquiry
Baldry sent a response to McKelvie, dated July 7th, 2014, and received today (July 9th), which is reproduced below:
Here is McKelvie’s reply sent today:
Dear Sir Tony
Thank you for your letter received today, by post on Wednesday 9th July 2014.
You state that you did not receive my letter via email.
I simply do not believe you. I have proof it was delivered.
Your reply to me is extremely rude, condescending and smacks of the arrogancy of a figure of the ruling classes that pays lip service to the electorate.
Let’s break down your reply.
1. I do not have a blog.
2. Your office would have received my email on 12th June 2014 ie 28 days ago
3. Why did the Banbury Guardian contact you to discuss an email you never received.
4. I note that you have taken the trouble to look at ” my blog ” ( I do not and never have had a blog ) on at least one occasion, but couldn’t reply to me until the 7th July, a significant date when you could sit back and think that your party had agreed entirely of it’s own volition to agree to a form of Independent Inquiry, and like the vast majority of your party’s MP’s could trot out the standard response.
5. ” You are clearly computer and email literate “. My family, friends and colleagues would find that very amusing.
I am of the generation, and a Luddite to boot, where IT skills have passed me by and am almost a one finger typist who wouldn’t know what an app was if it hit me in the face.
6. You state ” why if you didn’t get a response you didn’t subsequently get in touch to check I had received your email”.
I am actually computer literate enough to know if I send an email to the correct address and it isn’t returned undelivered with a failure message then I know it’s been received.
7. ” Indeed, given the seriousness of this issue I can’t imagine why you would think if I had received a letter or email from you that I wouldn’t want to respond straightaway “.
I assumed and I believe it to be the case with you, that you were one of the large majority of MP’s who failed to answer constituents letters re. the specific issues I raised with you, and were stalling and refusing to recognise the unprecedented surge of people power and anger until your leadership could instruct you on the party line, which in your case came remarkably on the very day that you decided to reply to me ie 7th July, when your hitherto resistant Government were forced in to a humiliating climbdown to agree to a shadow of the type of Inquiry that Survivors of child sexual abuse have been long demanding.
You enclose the Home Office Oral Statement Monday 7th July 2014 Child Abuse. I received a personal copy within an hour of it being released.
Your reply to someone who has campaigned for justice for survivors of child sexual abuse for over 30 years is as demeaning, insulting and condescending as the replies I have received for nearly 2 years from Mr. Cameron and the Home Office and shows the same level of disdain for a mere member of the public like myself as Mr. Norman Baker showed to me and a recognised child protection expert in a sham meeting with him earlier this year.
I refuse to believe that your office did not receive my email
I am attaching your letter for the attention of the people I am copying in to your reply
At the time of writing this (evening on Monday June 30th, 2014), it is the day before an important event in the House of Commons. Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk, co-author (with Matt Baker) of Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith (London: Biteback, 2014), is due (at 4:15 pm on Tuesday July 1st) to give evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee. Whilst the ostensible subject of this meeting is to do specifically with historical child abuse in Rochdale (Cyril Smith’s old constituency, now Danczuk’s), Danczuk has also written of how Smith was connected to the sinister figure of Peter Righton and a wider paedophile ring including prominent politicians (see this article by Watson in praise of Danczuk). In particular, this ring is thought to have frequented the notorious Elm Guest House in Barnes, South-West London, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and one name in particular of a very senior former cabinet minister from the Thatcher era (a name which I do not intend to share here) has been widely circulated around social media and the internet. This ex-minister has also been linked to a separate story concerning the rape of a woman known just as ‘Jane’ in 1967, but the police apparently have dropped any plans to prosecute (or even arrest or interview) the minister.
Back in April, Danczuk indicated to the Daily Mail that he might use Parliamentary Privilege to name the MP in question; in an interview given to The Independent a little over a week ago, he affirmed his intention to do so if asked, and may also name a further Labour politician involved in a separate abuse scandal (this is likely to be the former Blair-era cabinet minister alleged to have abused boys in a children’s home in Lambeth, run by paedophile Michael John Carroll, in which case experienced detective Clive Driscoll was taken off the case as he allegedly came to investigate the minister.
The Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) has eleven members; five Conservatives (Nicola Blackwood, James Clappison, Michael Ellis, Lorraine Fullbrook and Mark Reckless), one Liberal Democrat (Julian Huppert) and five Labour (Chair Keith Vaz, Ian Austin, Paul Flynn, Yasmin Qureshi and David Winnick). Vaz has a particular connection as he was Solicitor for Richmond Council, and a parliamentary candidate for Richmond & Barnes around the time when the alleged events at Elm Guest House occurred (see the account of his career with primary sources, ‘Keith Vaz and the Mystery of Barnes Common’ at Spotlight). Three members of the HASC – Huppert, Flynn and Qureshi – have declared their support for a national inquiry into organised abuse; one member of the HASC has confirmed that Danczuk will be asked about visitors to Elm Guest House (Leftly, ‘MP will name politician ‘involved in child abuse”). This will be an important occasion at the HASC which may change the whole climate of opinion concerning abuse and the urgent need for an inquiry.
Yet at the eleventh hour, the Exaro news website, who have attempted to claim control and credit for all matters relating to the call for an inquiry (with the help of a few people never described more specifically than ‘Exaro’s twitter followers’), are calling upon Danczuk not to name the minister(s) in question, as well as claiming on Twitter that they have now got some special information which changes things (which of course they are not prepared to share). I will return to this in a moment.
First I want to respond to a blog post by Eric Joyce, MP for Falkirk . In response to a lobbying campaign of MPs to support a national inquiry into organised abuse, started by seven MPs (Conservative Zac Goldsmith and Tim Loughton, Liberal Democrat John Hemming and Tessa Munt, Labour Tom Watson and Danczuk, and Green Caroline Lucas), which was indeed reported by David Hencke for Exaro (David Hencke, MPs call on Teresa May to set up inquiry into child sex abuse’), a relatively organic campaign was started around the same time (beginning with a draft letter from earlier by another campaigner on another forum) which came to be initially about encouraging all those who agree to write to their own MPs and ask them to join the original seven. Some took the decision instead to send Tweets to all MPs on Twitter, which has certainly led to positive responses from some. In most cases, it is likely that a combination of the reminders on Twitter, together with letters sent to all MPs from Tim Loughton, information about the campaign e-mailed by various of us to MPs requesting it, and private discussions between MPs (not least between Tory MPs and Loughton, and Labour MPs and Watson) has led many to support the campaign, which some have announced on Twitter; at the time of writing the number stands at 123, though there has been only minimal coverage in the mainstream media, even in the wake of the latest Savile reports (such as this article by Robert Mendick and Eileen Fairweather in the Telegraph). Mark Watts, Editor-in-Chief at Exaro, who tweets as @exaronews as well as under his personal handle, has certainly been urging people to simply keep asking MPs Yes or No. Sometimes the Twitter campaign has got rather hysterical, with tweets which appear to scream at both politicians and journalists, sometimes accusing them of being supporters of child rape if they don’t reply, or don’t support this precise campaign. This mode of argument allows for no discussion, no reasonable and intelligent debate about the exact nature, remit and purpose of an inquiry, nothing more than screaming emotional blackmail, and serves no good purpose other than to try and bully politicians into agreeing. It is certainly not something with which I want to be associated, and shows Twitter at its worst. But this is what appears to have provoked Eric Joyce’s blog post.
Joyce’s primary objections to the demands of the original seven campaigners can be summarised as follows:
(a) they would undermine the Crown Prosecution Service’s consideration of an important police report presently before it (he does not make clear exactly which report this refers to).
(b) the campaign does not mention Savile of the issues implied by this case, and would thus miss these.
(c) it is focused entirely on historical rumours about ‘senior politicians’.
(d) it would exclude adult victims of Savile.
Then he also lays out wider objections to the actions of other campaigners (i.e. beyond the original seven MPs):
(i) they routinely use abusive bullying tactics, which are hardly persuasive.
(ii) it all has a ‘really sickening “get the pedos/cops/politicians” feel about it’ and ‘looks like a campaign designed to catch public attention for its own sake rather than a genuine effort to get at important truths’.
(iii) names of politicians have routinely been published online, which could wreck the lives of innocent people and destroy the case put by the police to the CPS.
(iv) the whole campaign is really a self-aggrandising exercise by Exaro, who have recently found that they cannot pay their one way, and have become a ‘schlock merchant’ who only really have one story, cynically waiting until the names of alleged ‘politician paedophiles’ were all over the internet before asking campaigners not to post or tweet them.
(v) there is some confusion between calls for other types of wide inquiry and this specific one, differences between which are papered over by Exaro.
I cannot deny that (i) is true of some campaigners, though this is definitely not a style I want anything to do with – nor with campaigners associated with the BNP, those who are homophobes, man-haters, paranoid conspiracy theorists, unconcerned about the difference between truth and fiction, and so on. One reason for becoming involved in abuse campaigning (over and above knowing a good deal of survivors sometimes very close to me, and becoming convinced that this was an issue bigger than simply individual perpetrators, in classical music and elsewhere), was the hope that it might be possible to avoid and go beyond tabloid-style hysteria over this inevitably highly emotive subject. As far as I am concerned, though, those who support vigilante action, capital punishment or other forms of cruel and unusual punishment, are no better than abusers themselves. However, the medium of Twitter, allowing only for 140 characters per tweet, can hardly do justice to this nuanced and complex subject, nor do I imagine (whatever some might think) that many MPs’ minds were changed purely by receiving a tweet from someone using a pseudonym; rather used this prompt to announce something they had already decided. I disdain (ii) for the same reasons, but realise that only by identifying prominent names is it likely that the whole campaign will gain wider attention with a public otherwise seeing celebrity names such as Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Max Clifford and others. As things stand the campaign can resemble a cult, with various people frequenting small sub-sections of social media and Exaro, but unfortunately sometimes not realising how invisible this is to much of the wider public. Social media are certainly not the place to name names (coming to (iii)), but in light of the fact of many claims of failure of police to interview prominent figures, intelligence services sitting in on interviews, witnesses being threatened, important evidence going missing (including dossiers going to the Home Office), I do believe some more decisive action is needed now (more to follow on this in a moment).
I will come back to (iv) but will address (a)-(d) first. Objection (a) is unclearly specified and so cannot be responded to properly. There is no reason why the inquiry could not also look at Savile, certainly (there is plenty of reason to think there may be connections between his activities and those in other abuse scandals, not least his connections to senior politicians). And just because of the areas specified as requested to be included in the original letter from the seven MPs to Teresa May (which I have also posted below Joyce’s blog), such an inquiry could certainly be extended further. Re (c), The demands go well beyond historical cases involving politicians, dealing with a range of children’s homes, businessmen trafficking between countries, churches, public schools, and much more, so this criticism is wholly unfounded. The issue of adult victims is a serious one (also a big issue in the classical music world, abuse of all types in which is a particular area on which I have campaigned extensively), but I cannot believe an inquiry could not be adapted around this as well. I doubt many supporters have an absolutely clear idea of exactly the form the inquiry would take; rather it is the principle that this type of inquiry should happen which is being supported.
Returning to (iv); I do not really want to write too much about Exaro, as I certainly think some of their journalists – most notably David Hencke – do excellent work (see also Hencke’s blog), and do not share anything like as negative a view as does Joyce. I do have problems with the way in which Mark Watts, however, has attempted in a territorial fashion to claim complete control of the campaign as purely an Exaro initiative sustained through ‘Exaro’s twitter followers’, showing zero interest in a wider campaign involving e-mailing and constituents contacting their MPs (less ‘rapid-fire’ than anonymous tweets), whilst jealously guarding information for himself and trying to shore up a fledgling organisation, and tweeting with a rather boorish swagger which has unfortunate associations. Most posts or tweets by Watts try to steer the serious issues of organised abuse and urgent need for investigation into being self-promotion for Exaro, in a territorial manner which has perhaps dissuaded other media from taking an interest (most other journalists and broadcasters I have contacted have felt the story is not yet big enough to cover). When I first started being involved in abuse campaigning last year I was warned (not least by some senior journalists who I consulted) about two things in particular: (a) how some journalists will try and get you to do their work for them for free; and (b) how many people greatly exaggerate the importance of social media. Of both of these I am definitely convinced, but have known excellent journalists (including Hencke) with whom to work on stories and share information under fair conditions of confidence.
Sadly, with these lessons in mind, I do have reason for scepticism about Exaro on several fronts, which I would not bring up were it not for their eleventh-hour intervention. The Twitter campaign seems a typical example of their getting others to do their work for them (posing as campaigners rather than journalists) for free. Through the course of the last 18 months Exaro have promised major new developments, arrests, and built up to each new report in an extremely dramatic way. There have certainly been some important reports, for sure, not least those on ‘Jane’ (though this story does have its doubters) and also Mark Conrad’s earlier reports on links between Operations Fairbank and Fernbridge and the killings of Sydney Cooke, though much less coverage (or links to coverage by others) of issues involving Peter Righton and numerous networks involved in children’s homes, not to mention churches, schools and elsewhere, stories which are generally less spectacular. The sort of investigative journalism which grapples with the complexities of these other fields is done more successfully by a variety of other journalists at The Times (Andrew Norfolk’s work on Caldicott, Colet Court, St Paul’s and many other public schools, and Sean O’Neill on Robert Waddington and Manchester Cathedral), The Independent (Paul Gallagher on abuse in music schools and colleges), The Guardian (Helen Pidd’s important set of articles on Chetham’s and the RNCM), and sometimes at the Mail (Martin Beckford on PIE and their Labour links, and many earlier articles published here and in the Standard and Telegraph by Eileen Fairweather), Express (the latest work by Tim Tate and Ted Jeory on PIE and the Home Office), Mirror (Tom Pettifor on abuse in Lambeth and the Labour connection) and People (Keir Mudie and Nick Dorman on Operation Fernbridge and associated investigations, sometimes working together with Exaro). Exaro have certainly provided an important service, as one of various news organisations.
But now I fear that territorial attitudes could play a part in sabotaging an important opportunity. Watts has published a piece today aimed at dissuading Danczuk from naming, in which in a rather grandiose fashion he reports how ‘We have strongly advised him against naming the ex-minister tomorrow, and we are grateful that he has listened to us closely and is considering our points carefully’ and the same time as (almost comically) disparaging ‘Journalists on national newspapers, desperate for a splash story’, who allegedly have been arguing otherwise. Watts argues that ‘David Cameron is under intense pressure to agree to an overarching inquiry into child sex abuse in the UK’ which he doesn’t want. How big this pressure is is debatable; Cameron could brush off a question from Duncan Hames at Prime Minister’s Questions quite easily (see the bottom of here for the exchange), and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt did not seem particularly flustered at the debate in the Commons last week. The majority of MPs supporting an inquiry have been Labour – 73 at the current count, compared to 23 Conservatives. Many Conservatives have been copying and pasting stock replies which say nothing. Furthermore, most of the Labour MPs have been backbenchers without so many high profile figures; despite the support of Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham (who did not necessarily commit his party to support in the Commons, though, as I argued last week – this is a response to point (v) which I identify in Joyce’s blog), there has been only occasional support from other front bench figures. A proper inquiry would need to look at such matters as abuse which went on at children’s homes controlled by Islington Council when senior Labour figure Margaret Hodge was leader, of the role of the Paedophile Information Exchange, about whom I have written amply elsewhere, which embroils current Deputy Leader Harriet Harman and frontbench spokesman Jack Dromey; as argued earlier, Ed Miliband needs to take a lead on this, but it should not be so surprising that he has not yet done so. There are rumblings about Labour figures also visiting Elm Guest House, and of course the deeply serious issue of a senior Labour figure as a suspect for abuse in Lambeth, not to mention continuing investigations into Lord Janner, whose office at the House of Lords was raided earlier this year. Certainly any such inquiry would not be likely to be easy for Labour, nor for the Liberal Democrats, with the debacle of Cyril Smith still haunting them, and further rumbling about some other senior figures.
But at present mainstream media attention is very sporadic, and certainly in my experience (amongst generally educated people well-informed on news) very little of this has yet registered with a wider public. Cameron has in the last week had to deal with the conviction (and possible further retrial) of his former press secretary Andy Coulson, the charging of his former advisor on online pornography Patrick Rock for manufacturing images of child abuse, and now his failure to avoid Jean-Claude Juncker from being voted to be the next EU Commissioner. It is hard to see how a demand primarily from a group of Labour backbenchers would be obsessing him at such a time (though the campaign should definitely continue and hopefully grow). Watts claims that Danczuk’s naming of the ex-minister (he doesn’t mention the Labour minister) would serve as a ‘diversion from the inquiry call’, as front pages would be dominated by the ex-minister’s name. I think this is nonsense; such dissemination of the allegation that an extremely senior minister could themselves have been part of a ring-fenced VIP ring would cause outrage and anger, and the pressure for a proper inquiry would be irresistible. This very evening, Watts has also been tweeting that some new information has come to light which changes everything, but characteristically they will not even hint at what this is. Major developments have been promised before by the organisation, but these have rarely materialised. It is now looking more like a petty playground fight over who has the biggest amount of secret information.
Ultimately, as mentioned before, simple lists of MPs’ names are not that newsworthy, as various major journalists have had to point out to me. Only a major catalyst such as the revelation of a major name would be likely to get more attention. What this would also change is that the story would be taken up by all the major media, to such an extent that Exaro’s contributions would cease to be so central; I do wonder if this is what Watts is trying so hard to avoid. In the end, though, wider exposure for the many stories of abuse (which would follow upon the outrage caused by revelations that this extends to the very highest levels, and other figures were protected for this reason) is more important than the prestige of one website.
If Danczuk is certain that the ex-minister (and the ex Labour minister) are guilty, and the only reasons why they have not been brought to justice is through cover-ups, destruction of evidence, intimidation of witnesses, or simply stalling for convenience’s sake, then I hope very much he will name names tomorrow. If there is doubt about this, then it would only be wise not to do so – using Parliamentary Privilege in a way which would smear an innocent person would be reprehensible. I have faith in Danczuk to do the right thing, and hope the momentum which has been achieved will not be sacrificed for the short-term interests of any media organisation. If all of this is being covered in details in newspapers and on broadcast news programmes being read/watched by many of the country’s population (in some cases with stories written for these papers by Hencke, Conrad and others), it would be all for the better, even if many of the earlier campaigners (including myself) are quickly forgotten.
Today (Thursday June 19th) the Conservative MP and former Children’s Commissioner Tim Loughton asked the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrew Lansley, about the growing movement amongst MPs calling for a national inquiry into organised child abuse. The exchange was as follows (taken from Hansard):
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con):
The Leader of the House may be aware that together with our hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and five other colleagues across the Chamber, I have written to the Home Secretary to ask for an independent inquiry into historic child abuse. That call has already been taken up by more than 70 hon. Members from across the House. Given that new stories emerge almost daily of grotesque abuse of children going back to the ’60s, does the Leader of the House agree that it is time that such an inquiry was held, and will he give time for a debate in the House to set the scene for it?
Mr Andrew Lansley (Leader of the House of Commons):
My hon. Friend has done important work on tackling those issues. He will be aware of the range of inquiries that have taken place, some of which, I hope, are approaching a conclusion. As the Prime Minister has said and recently reiterated to the House, we have not been persuaded of the case for an overarching inquiry; indeed, we feel that there is a significant risk that such an inquiry might impede and delay the resolution of some of the issues in the separate inquiries that are taking place. As the Prime Minister rightly said, however, he will continue actively to keep the question under review.
The following exchange also took place at the House of Commons on June 11th, 2014:
Mr Duncan Hames (Liberal Democrat, Chippenham)
Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister will have heard calls from Honourable Members on all sides of this House for an independent inquiry on the Hillsborough model into organised child sexual abuse in this country. Can he truly be satisfied that current police investigations are sufficient for the public to have confidence that we are both willing and able to get to the truth?
The Right Hon David Cameron (Prime Minister)
I think my Honourable Friend makes a very important point and I have looked at this carefully with Ministerial colleagues, because of course we have a series of inquiries taking place into what happened in various hospitals and care homes and indeed media organisations, and I think it’s very important that Government keeps a clear view about how these are being co-ordinated and how the lessons are being learned. If there is a need for any more over-arching process to be put in place, I’m very happy to look at that, but at the moment, I think led by the Home Secretary and her colleagues, we do have a proper view of what’s happening at all these organisations.
In amongst these mealy-mouthed evasive answers, I would remind people of the original letter sent to Home Secretary Teresa May by the original seven MPs (Zac Goldsmith, Loughton, John Hemming, Tessa Munt, Tom Watson, Simon Danczuk and Caroline Lucas):
Dear Home Secretary,
We are writing to ask you to set up a full, properly resourced investigation into the failure of the Police to follow the evidence in a number of historical cases of child sexual abuse.
We would ask you to set up an independent panel, similar to the Inquiry you established into the Hillsborough tragedy, with powers to demand the release of all and any material from every agency involved.
We would like such a panel to work with the many victims of child sexual abuse from local authority care, the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches and schools, including public schools, to uncover the facts in cases including the following:
a. Operation Fernbridge – Richmond: Elm Guest House and Grafton Close Children’s Home, Norbiton, Weybridge & Petersham
b. Operation Orchid – Hackney and Islington
c. The Geoffrey Dickens’ dossiers – and Monkton Street home for Mentally Handicapped Children, Lambeth
d. Sir Cyril Smith – Rochdale, including Knowl View Special School
e. HM Customs & Excise – Russell Tricker videos
f. Trafficking involving British businessmen in Amsterdam
g. Warwick Spinks – Amsterdam & Prague
h. “Jane” alleged rape by a man who went on to become a Cabinet minister
We would ask that the panel examines:
i. why detailed dossiers – such as the documents submitted to the Home Office by the late Geoffrey Dickens – have disappeared
ii. why Police surveillance videos – said to be of prominent people who have been involved in paedophile rings – have gone missing
iii. why child pornography videos seized by HM Customs & Excise have been lost or destroyed
iv. why investigations appear repeatedly to have been stalled or abandoned over the last thirty years
We look forward to an early response
Amongst the most important issues they raise is to do with the unsatisfactory nature of existing police investigations.
The Prime Minister and the Government must not, and should not be allowed to, sweep this under the carpet – there are extremely serious questions to be answered.