David Steel, Cyril Smith and how the establishment still looks after its own
Scottish Review, March 4th 2020
Last week, as Harvey Weinstein finally faced justice in America, the UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse gave its verdict on David Steel. It damned him for his years of silence and inaction on the child sex abuse of Cyril Smith, Liberal, then Lib Dem, MP for Rochdale from 1972 to 1992; saying that Steel had ‘abdicated his responsibility’ and had not been motivated by ‘the lens of child protection but through the lens of political expediency’.
The backstory to this is that in 1979 Cyril Smith informed Liberal leader David Steel about child sex allegations against himself – and that they were true. These had been published at the time in the local Rochdale press and picked up by ‘Private Eye.’
Steel not only did nothing then, but subsequently maintained a defence of falsehoods and evasions for the next forty years, including successfully recommending Cyril Smith for a knighthood in 1988. When challenged over the years about the allegations against Smith – particularly by a dodged ‘Private Eye’ who pursued Steel through the decades – Steel acted as if he was morally innocent and the injured party.
And when Steel finally admitted last year to what he knew and the confection of deception that he had held in public for forty years, in evidence to the Independent Child Abuse Inquiry, he was not exactly filled with remorse.
Steel’s moral debasement became obvious with this revelation of knowledge of Cyril Smith’s abuse and his own inertia. He was immediately suspended from the Lib Dems while the party launched their own inquiry into Steel and found no grounds for not giving him back the party whip.
Last week as the inquiry savaged Steel and what reputation he had left he immediately resigned from the Lib Dems and said he was standing down from the House of Lords. If anyone thought Steel had suddenly had a realisation of his lack of moral compass his resignation letter gave no hint of it, declaring he was being used as ‘a proxy for Cyril Smith’. It contained not one genuine word of apology or regret for the numerous victims of Cyril Smith’s abuse – some of whom would most likely not have been abused had Steel acted on the information he had in 1979.
Steel should have no one defending him in this, yet that is not the situation we find ourselves in. Rather some supposedly liberal-minded men who see themselves as standing against injustice and the many wrongs in the world have either stood by Steel, defended him, or refused to condemn him.
Step forward Magnus Linklater, former editor of ‘The Scotsman’ and ex-editor of ‘The Times Scotland’ edition. Linklater felt so strongly about the issue that he wrote an extra column on the subject last Friday in ‘The Times’. In an extraordinary defence of Steel and his actions Linklater wrote: ‘Does one contentious decision, dating back 40 years, determine a man’s reputation for ever?’ And he answered his own question: ‘Of course not’.
Linklater tried to create a defence of Steel by resurrecting the culture of the late 1970s, saying that: ‘Back then, however, things were less clear.’ This doesn’t take us far, so he tried to explain historical events and facts: ‘Allegations had surfaced in ‘Private Eye’ but had not been substantiated; the police inquiry in Rochdale had been stopped; Smith had not ‘confessed’ to Lord Steel but merely confirmed there had been a police inquiry.’
This inaccurate reading of events carried by ‘The Times’ last week is a loose distortion of the truth to create the impression there was widespread uncertainty ago. This is not what the situation was in 1979 and years following. Rather we know that Cyril Smith told Steel that the allegations were true because Steel admitted it last year when he was asked during the Inquiry by lawyer Brian Altman if it was his understanding that Smith had ‘actually committed these offences from what he said to you?’ to which Steel replied ‘I assumed that.’
Having presented an inaccurate picture of the past forty years Linklater does not stop there but reaches even further to fully exonerate his friend, writing: ‘The charge is that Lord Steel did nothing, to protect his party from embarrassment. I very much doubt that. Knowing him as a friend, I suspect he thought it was none of his business.’
These are revealing comments by Linklater about how he sees the world. This is a value-free place where power, public life and being part of a select elite means that you can operate on a different code from the masses. Not one of honour, duty or having a care and compassion for the vulnerable, but instead about looking out for your fellow privileged chums even when they behave abominably.
Linklater’s defence of Steel is that the then leader of the Liberal Party, when confronted by child sex allegations, thought it none of his business to do anything. This was actually what Steel said last year, stating with no sense of shame that ‘It had nothing to do with me’ – shockingly when he was leading a political party and hearing an admission of criminal behavior by one of his senior parliamentarians. One year on Linklater unconditionally stands by his friend irrespective of events, what is publicly know and the actual truth.
Linklater is an outlier in his defence of Steel but he is not the only one who needs to take a good look at their conscience. Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, was evasive last week when asked to condemn Steel and the decision of the party inquiry which gave him back the party whip last year.
Rennie tried to claim that the Lib Dems and Steel knew nothing about the allegations against Smith when he was awarded a knighthood on Steel’s recommendation, saying: ‘The Liberal Democrats did not know. David did not know at that time when those decisions were made. All of that became public later.’ This dissembling is not good enough.
Post-Weinstein, in the age of Me Too, we continually hear the conceit that we have changed and live in a different, more sensitive age – one more attuned and responsive to the voices of victims of abuse.
Then there is the contrast between the present age of supposed enlightenment and the dark age of repression where the voices of those abused were not heard. This is to assure us that whatever past injustices happened, processes have been put in place to prevent them happening again. We have theoretically learned from the cases of Jimmy Savile, Gary Glitter, Cyril Smith and many other prominent men who serially abused – and were hiding in plain sight.
David Steel will never ever live down his deception and the falsehoods he peddled for four decades. But we have to learn more from such episodes than treating the now elderly ex-Lord Steel of Aikwood as a social and political pariah.
We need to learn that silence, inaction and covering up the truth is part of how abuse happens. People like David Steel turned away from helping those in need when they most needed abusers to be challenged and to face the full force of the authorities, and instead decided to put his head in the sand.
We should have no truck with those who offer duplicitous, distortive readings of the past because they align with personal or political loyalties. Magnus Linklater and Willie Rennie should have the grace and humanity to apologise for their moral evasions and culpability in not standing up for victims – and be prepared to condemn those who made abuse possible on a terrifying scale.
The rest of us should learn we can never be complacent or think we have somehow become completely enlightened on such difficult and sensitive areas. And we should never forgot that the establishment – whether in the UK or Scotland – always likes to protect its own and close ranks, no matter the seriousness of the charges or scale of evidence.