As essay titles go, ‘On losing an argument with Tim Loughton MP’ may fail to catch the imagination; but there we are: I don’t need to be re-elected.
You know before you start when you’re on a losing wicket, and I had fully expected to lose this argument, which was on live television with Adam Boulton. But I thought the attempt might be interesting. I’d been inspired by a thoroughly sensible contribution to the subject on the Today programme, by Peter Bottomley MP.
The subject was whether we really needed an ‘overarching’ public inquiry to fill the gaps left by allegedly deficient previous inquiries into allegations of the (historic) sexual abuse of children by public figures. The Home Secretary was about to announce such an inquiry, but I had an impotent proposal to make: that we might at least press the equivalent of a ‘pause’ button while media and political excitement died down, and resume discussion more calmly in four weeks’ time.
It was the Monday after a weekend’s frenzy of slurs and whispers following the alleged loss by the Home Office (a loss reported by a previous inquiry in 2013) of a ‘dossier’ which the late Geoffrey Dickens MP had apparently handed the then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, in the 1980s, containing allegations about child abuse perpetrated by leading figures in public life.
Mr Dickens was a lovely man, regarded affectionately at Westminster, but a sometimes preposterous figure, who once called a press conference and told surprised journalists he was about to telephone his wife with the news he was leaving her, having fallen for a lady he met at afternoon tea dances in Soho. In the 1990s I sent his widow the draft of a chapter on her late husband for my book Great Parliamentary Scandals, to check my facts. She came to see me, did not query the facts, but begged me not to publish because it had all happened years ago and publication would cause her family great pain. Softening, I binned the whole chapter, never expecting Geoffrey to lead the news again.
Now he does. I keep up with the news and, if you must know, I don’t believe the news. Or, rather, I suspect it’s a hugely overheated and distorted conspiracy theory based on a couple of probable facts and, imposed upon them, a great superstructure of improbable ones, laced with rumour, invention, sensation-seeking and the allure of compensation. I know at least one of the central figures around whom gossip has swirled for decades, and think the gossip to be false. I remember with what credulousness a bizarre story was believed about two Tory cabinet ministers who had (it was said) engaged in oral sex at Conservative Central Office on the night of Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 (or was it 1987?) election victory. Complete rubbish.
Tim Loughton is a former children’s minister who has been one of the most vociferous leaders of the campaign to secure a big new inquiry into alleged cover-ups of paedophilia involving prominent public figures. So when Sky News invited me to joust with him my heart said tally-ho. My head was saying whoa. My heart won.
Let me take you through the tussle that took place in my mind, will have taken place in many MPs’ and editors’ minds, and may well have taken place in the mind of Theresa May, the Home Secretary, before she acceded to the request of Mr Loughton and others, and ordered another inquiry.
Heart (to self): We don’t really believe that X was a secret pederast, do we? Or that there was a ring of them at the top, at Westminster in the 1980s? Or that they conspired to protect each other? Or that they ordered civil servants to suppress or destroy evidence of their pederasty? Or that any civil servant would have done this? Or that such a conspiracy could long have been hidden from the light?
Head: No, we don’t. But what if we’re wrong? We kept an open mind about Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith for too long, didn’t we? What if some killer fact emerges, incriminating individuals in a major way? We’re going to look worse than gullible, we’re going to look cruel and irresponsible, if we had argued against further inquiry. Remember Hillsborough.
Heart: Yes but the chances are greater that the whole thing will fizzle out. Wouldn’t we be given credit for opposing the hysteria — and the cost to the public purse?
Head: No, we wouldn’t. Nobody will remember or care. They’ll say it was important anyway to establish the truth and clear this matter up once and for all. That’s all Loughton’s saying now — and we’re hardly going to get a round of applause for saying that the truth should not be established.
Heart: Isn’t that an argument for agreeing to every public inquiry anyone ever proposes?
Head: Not your problem. Your concern’s to protect your own professional and personal reputation. And if you put your head above the parapet, some people are always going to say that you’ve got guilty secrets of your own to protect. They’ll say as much if you duck the issue too.
Heart: But I’ve never had the remotest sexual interest in children. I just hate the lynch mob.
Head: That’s what they all say. Join the mob, matey.
But there was no time on Sky News for Socratic dialogue. Mr Loughton was all crisp command, wise precaution, appropriate moral horror, and dark hints of knowing more than he could say. I was all ambiguity, hesitation and doubt. I appeared like a crumpled and compromised old roué, burbling legalisms as innocent children were carted away to their despoilation.
In short, I lost. But what the hell, eh? This national panic about paedophilia is careering right out of control, and somebody has to say so.