A French friend, in town for a couple of days recently, was suitably and stereotypically bemused by our latest bad news about terrible crimes: Justice Lowell Goddard’s resignation as the head of the inquiry into historical child abuse was closely preceded by new results from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, according to which 11 per cent of the women questioned, and 3 per cent of the men, said they had been sexually assaulted during childhood.
“What is it with you British!” he exclaimed. “Of course we have such scandals in France, but they’re largely confined to the Catholic Church.” Then he predictably went on about “the English vice”, and how the old British establishment is composed of upper- and upper-middle-class men riven by sexual frustration because of their single-sex boarding-school educations. Under such circumstances was it any wonder they all ended up becoming paedophiles?
I bristled at this bowdlerisation; yet when I came to consider the matter, it did seem as if some explanation was in order. I concede I haven’t researched the matter exhaustively, but I am unaware of any other country in which a statistically significant sample implies that 7% of the adult population are survivors of serious abuse.
The Panglossian view would be that, as British society has liberalised, becoming more open and therapeutically aware, so victims of historical abuse have felt able to come forward; concurrently, the police have become better trained in such matters, and more committed to seeking justice.
But unfortunately we have no evidence whatsoever that we are living in the best of all possible worlds – on the contrary, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this is a pretty scuzzy world. After all, what could be more morally dubious than announcing a great clearing of the Augean stables and then proceeding to dump a whole load more ordure on the heads of those who have already suffered?
The idea that a Kiwi lawyer can swan over here and pick up rather more than £300,000 for rather less than a year of futile “inquiries” is infuriating even if you have no personal stake. At least the criticism Lowell Goddard was facing related to personal rather than institutional peccancy: those that preceded her – Elizabeth Butler-Sloss and Fiona Woolf – were compelled to go because they were personifications of the very knotted establishment they sought to unpick. Their first investigation needed to be into themselves.
Which leads us back to the high prevalence of child abuse in Britain. I was a child in the 1970s, and have, in recent years, watched as the sunny uplands of my recall are darkened by successive revelations of widespread, institutionally engrafted child abuse. If I want to infuriate my own children, I have only to summon up this redundant cliché about the recent past: “It was an innocent era.”
But I do still think the Seventies were innocent in this sense: the seismic waves were rippling out from the sexy Sixties, but people were completely naive when it came to both the politics and the morals of greater promiscuity. Second-wave feminism had hardly any traction on sexual discourse, and liberals and socialists alike made a specious equivalence between free collective love and free collective bargaining.
We were young idealists in a culture that dinned this into us: more sex = good sex. No wonder we were easy pickings for the Saviles and the Smiths. Though not as easy as the boys and girls who were in care, at boarding schools, or otherwise at the mercy of the men in authority, and the women who were complicit in their crimes.
The picture that emerges from the survivors’ evidence is of an organisational culture, in businesses, the BBC, local government and even hospitals, typified by a sort of surly yet fawning subservience. The famous disc jockey is visiting; give him a key and the run of the place. The local MP wants to come by late at night to talk to some of the boys; fine, let’s leave him to his own devices. It wasn’t necessary for anyone to turn a blind eye, because the corridors in these establishments were so labyrinthine that no one could see clearly for more than a few feet: minding-your-own-business was the shibboleth sealing everyone’s lips.
In a way, the pattern of institutional child abuse, with powerful individuals who bestrode the national stage being allowed unrestricted underage footsie at a local level, seems like a bizarre analogue of Britain’s equally labyrinthine local government finances. Ever unwilling to cede its tax-raising powers, Westminster retains a whip hand over councils, such that even the lowliest lobby fodder becomes a veritable nabob once he’s dealing with the little people, whether they be metaphorically or literally little.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has tried to steamroller its way into public acceptance by its appellation alone; but its capacity to interrogate Westminster meaningfully remains utterly unproven. For victims, this can’t help but seem like some deranged repetition: the first time they were sexually abused it was a local tragedy; since then, they’ve been abused again and again, and now it’s a national farce.
I wish I could have consoled my friend by complimenting him on his native system of devolved tax-raising powers, but in point of fact the system in France is just as Byzantine and centralised as our own; which is why, I suspect, there are a good many fonctionnaires out there still minding the business of powerful French paedophiles.
In a post-Brexit world, one in which we are supposedly committed to mending the fabric of our civil society, it seems to me the Prime Minister’s priority must be to make the inquiry she herself announced in 2014 truly fit for purpose – and if that entails some siphoning off of power from the centre, so much the better.