Friday, 25 April 2014

Easter Monday's Times' Editorial on Cyril Smith!

Clegg must explain the Lib Dems’failure to act against the paedophile Cyril Smith


When Sir Cyril Smith, the 29-stone Liberal and then Liberal Democrat MP for Rochdale, died in 2010, Nick Clegg described him as “one of the most likeable politicians of his day”. That depended on where you sat. Vulnerable children whom Smith sexually abused over 40 years at hostels and residential schools are unlikely to have shared Mr Clegg’s judgment. What the Liberal Democrats knew and when they knew it about Smith’s assaults is a matter of urgent public interest and a gathering scandal. Mr Clegg’s answers have so far been legalistic and unconvincing.

Smith’s covert life as a paedophile has emerged into the public spotlight in the past week owing to a new book co-authored by Simon Danczuk, the current Labour MP for Rochdale. It expands upon allegations that Mr Danczuk made in the House of Commons in 2012. Yet it is literally incredible that the party in which Smith was a huge figure should have been uniformly unaware of them.

The Times today publishes disturbing testimony by John Walker, who broke the story of Smith’s crimes 35 years ago. Mr Walker, a college lecturer, was co-editor of a magazine called Rochdale’s Alternative Paper. The magazine published in 1979 an account, based on sworn statements, of how Smith had repeatedly administered spankings on teenage boys and fondled their genitals during bogus“medical examinations” at Cambridge House boys’ hostel in Rochdale.

Mr Clegg said last week that his party had been unaware of this appalling history, and added: “Many of the actions, the repugnant actions, which we now learn about took place well before the party I now lead even existed — in fact, took place before I even existed.”

That is a casuistical distinction between the Liberal Democrats and the old Liberal party. Nor is the claim of ignorance plausible. Smith had been chief whip of the Liberals’ very small parliamentary presence in the 1970s. As part of the original article, Mr Walker had contacted the office of David Steel, then Liberal leader. A spokesman had replied: “All [Smith] seems to have done is spanked a few bare bottoms.”

Mr Walker’s findings were reported by Francis Wheen in the New Statesman and Paul Foot in Private Eye. Despite a mass of corroborating evidence, these did not curtail Smith’s public prominence. He was knighted in 1988 and retired as an MP in 1992. He continued to abuse children at a school in Rochdale as late as the 1990s. Since Smith’s death, the Crown Prosecution Service has admitted culpability in failing to prosecute him.

Mr Clegg correctly says that the police will need to investigate what happened. He and his colleagues also need to exercise historical accountability, however, and explain how Smith got away with a catalogue of depravity.

There is a terrible parallel with the activities of Jimmy Savile, the television entertainer now known to have been a prolific child abuser. In both cases, a populist personality created a public image of concern for disadvantaged children, which provided the perfect cover and opportunity to perpetrate grotesque crimes against them.

Savile and Smith operated in, respectively, the BBC and the Liberal Democrats, which celebrated their fame till their deaths and afterwards. Mr Clegg must account for how this happened. It is not good enough, for it is demonstrably not true, to maintain that nobody knew.

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