The sexual norms of the 1970s now look like the casual rules of a paedophile playground

What went on? Anthony Devlin/PA

So it begins: two inquiries, both with the blessing of home secretary Theresa May, have been charged with getting to the bottom of how horrific allegations of child abuse by the elite and powerful were stonewalled and covered up for decades.

Peter Wanless, the head of the NSPCC, is to review the Home Office’s own internal investigation into 114 missing files on child abuse, including at least one dossier on a supposed Westminster-based paedophile ring delivered to the then home secretary Leon Brittan in the 1980s. This will be complemented by a wider review, led by Baroness Butler-Sloss, of all public and private organisations implicated in harbouring and covering up child abuse.

The week before these inquiries were launched, the psychopathology of Rolf Harris was being unpicked in the wake of his trial and sentencing for historic child abuse and sexual assault. This was on top of the other psychological post-mortems we are becoming accustomed to. These larger-than-life characters – former MP Cyril Smith, Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford – were “hiding in our midst”.

Will the rogues’ gallery expand to include others who were hiding instead in the corridors of Westminster? This represents genuine political and analytical progress.

Changed norms

Society’s norms have changed, as Norman Tebbit noted in the run-up to the home secretary’s announcement:

“You didn’t talk about those things.”

In the 1980s, “incidents involving small boys” were apparently just part of the rich tapestry of life for a few senior political patriarchs. Everyone sort of knew some senior figures might have behaved in this way, and everyone turned a blind eye.

The same is now widely accepted about some people working or appearing at BBC in the 1970s and 1980s, when boys and girls were targeted with apparent impunity by men such as Jonathan King and Gary Glitter. Meanwhile, the idea of the “groupie” – the adolescent girl hungrily seeking out (and finding) each and every boozed-up band member she could - was a taken-for-granted cliché of stardom.

All in all, by today’s standards, the sexual norms of the 1970s are now starting to look like the casual rules of a paedophile playground. As for the safeguarding of public institutions it is surely now inconceivable, given the professionalisation of the lumbering “new public management” model, for a totally unqualified bullying serial abuser such as Savile to be given free reign at and oversight of a high-security psychiatric hospital.

Beyond perpetrators

But if the shift from an amused tolerance of sexual exploitation to sheer outrage counts as a major transition, we are also embarked on another. We are now, albeit grudgingly in many quarters, going beyond a narrow, almost obsessive interest with evil perpetrators.

There is a necessary line of inquiry still to be followed about the minds of these men (and occasional women). Forensic psychologists, moral philosophers and theologians who spend their careers debating evil is born or made should still be listened to.

But whether this is about the collaboration of bureaucrats and torturers (what Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, called the “banality of evil”) or predictable personal distress wrought by well-known sexual psychopaths in our midst, we must now to some extent “park” the perpetrators and look beyond them to their contexts.

It must be a major political and academic priority to understand the permissive conditions that prolific perpetrators will all too gladly inhabit. What we need to address now is not their evil acts, but the matrix of complicity surrounding them.

Power always corrupts

The “wide ranging” and “no-stone-unturned” inquiries just launched by May will have to unpick some very complex mechanics of power and protection embedded in the very fabric of the state, and operating in actions of its agents.

Why were complaints from the relatively powerless ignored by the “powers that be” so casually and so often, and to what extent does this still happen? Why did the police in England slow-walk, dismiss or ignore reports about Savile’s crimes, as with the police in Ireland about the cruelty of men and women of the cloth?

Power, at some point, always corrupts – and yet we are still surprised whenever this truism is demonstrated. Adults have power over children, which can be abused. Celebrities have power over their fawning, gullible audiences (namely all of us). Large organisations in society enshrine and structure power in their management arrangements, with those at the top simply having more resources to protect themselves from full scrutiny and accountability.

When looters are reported by citizens, they can expect to be “brought to justice” – but when politicians are accused of raping children, even by the children themselves, our reflex is to worry about a “witch hunt”. We elect our politicians and rarely ask why they crave power, and we are habitually fobbed off by their clichéd rhetoric of “wanting to make a difference”.

As for organised religion, the avalanche of evidence of decades of clerical abuse tells us that the most pious and sanctimonious in our midst are often those we should distrust the most.

Good luck to Butler-Sloss and Wanless. Let us hope that they do their onerous jobs as thoroughly as possible, so that some light can at last be shone on the contexts of complicity that fostered such evil acts.


Next, read: As child abuse investigations take shape, old crimes are transforming British society

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