Wednesday, 25 April 2018

John Walker challenges Les May's analysis


I defer to nobody in my admiration for your dogged and forensic analysis of Danczuk and his book. Were others more aware of it, we could have been spared the adulation that he received as he dragged his collecting tin around TV studios and newspaper offices promoting both it and himself.

However, I would disagree with your analysis in this article - and, for once, think that Danczuk called it right about the role of prominent Liberals, nationally and locally - in their silence over the matters that the Child Abuse inquiry examined.  Indeed, the inquiry itself was critical of the role of later LibDem MP Paul Rowen, when he was leader of Rochdale council.

Where I think Danczuk hit the nail on the head, in particular, is about David (now Lord) Steel.

Steel was leader of the Liberal Party at the time RAP published its allegations about Smith in May 1979.  We (I was co-editor of the paper), on legal advice, wrote to Steel for his comments on the story, prior to publication.  We published the response of his press secretary - 'nothing much to see here - move on' was a paraphrase of that response.

I have challenged Steel about this publicly, over recent years - on the airwaves (World At One) and in print (Private Eye).  His responses have wavered between: 'I didn't know', to 'nobody else took the matter up, so it couldn't have been important', to it 'it was just tittle tattle that didn't merit investigation'.

Well, clearly all three of those explanations can't be right.

At the time RAP published the story, the Liberals former leader Jeremy Thorpe was facing trial on conspiracy to murder (a docu-drama on this will be shown by the BBC soon), and another of the handful of Liberal MPs (Peter Bessel) was in severe financial and other difficulties, on both sides of the Atlantic, that eventually caused him to stand down from Parliament.  There was not a national political journalist in Westminster who was not aware of the RAP story.

It is inconceivable that the leader of a party with only a dozen or so MPs, with two of them up to their neck in serious trouble would not have taken rumours about a third very seriously and attempted to establish what was going on.  Either that, or Steel was a seriously deficient party leader - and few people have accused him of that.

Two postumous biographies of Jeremy Thorpe have made it very clear that Thorpe's solicitor was very aware of the RAP/Smith story and were fearful that it would adversely impact on their client at his trial.  They went to considerable ends to ensure that Fleet Street did not touch the story - including using the considerable weight and influence of Harold Wilson's then 'Lord - fixit' Arnold Goodman to keep the papers quiet.

So in in a calculated gamble - Steel just braved it out.  Nobody picked up the story, and his party was saved further embarrassment.

One result of no action being taken against Smith is that others with deviant interests in under age boys would have been emboldend to think that they too could get away with inappropriate behaviour. The terrible trail of abuse at Knowl View is one possible outcome.

To return to David Steel. The Child Abuse inquiry is critical of the process by which Smith was knighted in 1988, and is critical of Thatcher (the awarding Prime Minister), and the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee - PHSC - (the body responsible for vetting the appropriateness of nominees)for allowing his name to go forward to the queen, to appoint.

I have written elsewhere ('The Queen Has Been Pleased - 500 years of corruption in the British Honours System' - Secker and Warburg 1986) of the supine, establishment white-washing nature of the Committee.  So their turning a blind eye to the Smith knighthood was simply par for the course for them at the time.

The Child Abuse Inquiry rather missed the point about Smith's knighthood.  The nomination for a political honour - for that is what it was - would have had to have come from the recipient's party leader. In this case - David Steel. Despite what was known in the Liberal Party about Smith and Cambridge House - Steel was still prepared to nominate Smith.  The inquiry's opprobrium about Smith's knighthood should have been directed at Steel and not Thatcher or the PHSC.

Why should Steel have nominated Smith at that time, for that award? Well, his party was in a delicate stage of negotiations with the SDP about a merger - Smith was always a loud mouthed maverick.  The offer and award of a knighthood could be used to shut him up and get one potential obstacle our of the way for Steel, as he sought to cement the merger.  And as we know: Smith got his knighthood, his silence was achieved and the Liberal Democratic Party was born.

David Steel was the teflon man as far as the Child Abuse Inquiry was concerned - not a witness, nor a feature of its report.

I think the report had many deficiencies - and the void around Steel was one of them.

For once - I agree with Danczuk on the Liberals escaping blame. But I won't be taking up his offer of a drink, to celebrate!

John Walker:  former joint editor of Rochdale's Alternative Paper (RAP)

No comments: