Standing Up to Child Sex Abuse: The Story of David Steel and Cyril Smith

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, March 27th 2019

The mantra of the current age is that we take child sex abuse seriously. We listen to victims, we respect them, and we act on allegations, knowing how difficult and painful it is for people to come forward.

This is a comforting account on an important and sensitive issue. But in the light of recent events we have to ask whether we really take child sex abuse that seriously? Have we really changed that much as a society from that of the past? Are we still looking for excuses to not confront abuse and abusers? And do we really listen to, and respect, victims and their testimony?

Two examples in the last couple of weeks suggest we have not changed as much as we claim – here in the UK and across the West. Both throw unedifying light on our attitudes and that of many prominent people in public life. Firstly is the case of how former Liberal leader David Steel dealt with historic allegations of child sex abuse made against then Liberal MP Cyril Smith. And then there are the continued allegations against pop star and mega celebrity, Michael Jackson, in light of the documentary ‘Leaving Neverland’.

Two weeks ago at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse, headed up by Professor Alexis Jay, Steel was called to give evidence about Cyril Smith. A short reminder of the backstory is that Smith was Liberal MP from Rochdale from 1972-92, first winning the seat in a high profile by-election from Labour. He was a larger than life character, having been Liberal, then Labour, then Liberal again, and a local councillor and Mayor of the town.

Smith was as an MP independent minded, constantly taking up campaigning issues and positions against the Liberal leadership. He was anti-abortion, pro-hanging and anti-gay rights, and locally had influence and standing which he used to gain access to care homes and institutions and to abuse a huge number of young, vulnerable boys. This was systemic industrial scale abuse and like many such cases entered the public domain in the 1970s as it was still going on. First it was taken up by a local paper, the ‘Rochdale Alternative Paper’, and subsequently, by ‘Private Eye’, the latter from 1979.

Steel for years dismissed allegations against Smith, as recently as June 2018 on ‘BBC Newsnight’ calling them ‘tittle tattle’ and ‘scurrilous hearsay’. If anyone thinks that was somehow out of character check the back issues of ‘Private Eye’ as Steel regularly complained about being pursued by the magazine over Cyril Smith – for example writing in June 2014: ‘Hindsight is a wonderful thing, which I freely admit I do not possess’. It was clear in these interventions that Steel felt he was the victim and unfairly treated by ‘Private Eye’.

Yet Steel, in a volte face from this position of denial, recently gained hindsight because all of a sudden he remembered that Cyril Smith confessed to him in 1979 of his actions. Steel told the inquiry into child sex abuse that he suddenly seemed to remember a conversation he had with Smith in 1979, asking: ‘What’s all this about you in ‘Private Eye’?’ and he said, rather to my surprise, ‘It is correct’’.

Explaining his subsequent inaction he told the inquiry: ‘It was before he was an MP, before he was even a member of my party. It had nothing to do with me.’ The inquiry’s top lawyer, Brian Altman QC, commented to Steel: “He could, for all you knew, still be offending’, to which Steel replied: ‘I have to admit, that never occurred to me, and I’m not sure it would occur to me even today.’

Steel was in a position of power and privilege in 1979 and could have acted. We now know that Smith’s long track record of abuse continued for years and years, and that defenceless, innocent boys were abused when they could have been protected: all thanks to Steel’s indefensible inaction, which even now he seems to have no idea of the cost and consequences of.

Yet for the most part of the next forty years Steel pretended that this was nothing to do with him. Most media outlets kept well away from it as an issue, ‘Private Eye’ being a rare national exception. The break in this blanket silence came, as it often does, with the death of Cyril Smith in 2010, and the investigative work of the Rochdale Labour MP at the time, Simon Danczuk, who co-wrote a book about the scale of Smith’s abuse and the cover-up by local and national authorities. He uncovered 144 complaints by victims against Smith, with the police apologising and concluding that he should have been charged on three separate occasions from the 1960s to 1990s.

Steel’s inaction did not hold him back. He remained Liberal leader from 1976 until 1988, and in one of his last acts as leader nominated Smith for a knighthood in full knowledge of his behaviour. Steel said to the inquiry: ‘It never occurred to me to tell the honours committee about it. It was all, in a sense, in the public domain through ‘Private Eye’’.

The public profile of Steel over this period, with the exception of ‘Private Eye’ was of a principled, upstanding, public servant, with the moral stain of his tolerance of Cyril Smith rarely spoken about. Thus, when we get to a biography of the man – ‘David Steel: Rising Hope to Elder Statesman’ – written by David Torrance and published in 2012 we get a detailed picture of a man who was MP for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles from 1965 at the age of 26. But we get no mention of the Cyril Smith scandal and of Steel’s inactive role and acquiescence.

Similarly, Magnus Linklater, writing in ‘The Times’ last year about the acclaimed TV dramatisation of former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe’s failed attempt to have his lover Norman Scott killed, states that such a high profile scandal as Thorpe’s long-term affair could not be kept quiet today with the explosion of social media and decline in authority. But this is a poorly judged argument on every level, for despite social media and the incessant noise of public life, we are still surrounded by secrets, aided by D-notices and Non-Disclosure Agreements.

Yet there are more to what are secrets than legal parameters with the Steel case, illustrating that in public life lots of explosive controversies and examples of wrong doing are either known or semi-known, but not brought fully into the focus of full public glare. So it proved to be the case with David Steel and his forty years of denial on Cyril Smith.

There are some similarities between this and the much bigger public scandal of the child abuse allegations against the late Michael Jackson. These first came into the public domain as a result of 1993 abuse allegations which were settled out of court. As with Cyril Smith, the evidence and warning signs were all around for anyone who wanted to see them. There were the first public allegations that emerged, then Martin Bashir’s 2003 documentary in which Jackson admitted he slept with boys in his bed, alongside his continued presentation of himself as not fully adult, as asexual and an innocent in a world portrayed as unworthy of him.

To this day many Michael Jackson fans protest his innocence and this stance extends into the most exalted corridors of celebrity culture. Barbra Streisand said last week about the latest allegations against Jackson that he had ‘sexual needs’, no one forced the children into his bed, and that the real guilty parties were the parents of the afore-mentioned children. She subsequently apologised when faced with an avalanche of criticism, but the original meaning was clear: Jackson was my friend and uber-celebrities live by a different moral code from the rest of us.

Where do the Steel-Smith and Michael Jackson episodes take us and what do they say about our attitudes towards child sex abuse? Belatedly, the Liberal Democrats have acted against Steel in light of criticism of his nonchalant arrogance to the child sex abuse inquiry, but that is several years after they should have done.

These cases along with many more do not present our societies in a good light. We need to take a hard look at how we react to such cases, both high profile and the less high profile, and call out abusers and their numerous apologists and defenders. There has to be some major comeback for the views articulated for decades by people like David Steel who could have acted against someone he knew to be an abuser and stopped his abusing.

The wider denialism is nearly as damaging and disabling. It is seen in the likes of such academics as Frank Furedi who dispute that there is any widespread child sex abuse in British society, and that this is the result of an illiberal ‘moral panic’ and kind of mass hysteria. That was the position Furedi took on Jimmy Savile after it was revealed beyond any doubt that over decades he groomed and seriously abused hundreds of young boys and girls including ill and disabled children in NHS settings to which he was given unmonitored access.

Most of all we have to listen to victims who make allegations of child sex abuse, whoever they are and whoever are the perpetrators. There should be no exceptions for prominent people or celebrities. If we don’t change the way we act as society and individuals, we will in the future be judged harshly, as an age of hyper-sexualisation where we let those with power and status do what they like to young boys and girls, while we stood idly by. Is this really how we want to be seen, or can we decide to challenge abusers and their apologists?