In the great days of the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Simple column, when I was a youth, that acid but hilarious satire on contemporary Britain had a cast of imaginary characters of whom one of my favourites was the Very Reverend Dr Spacely-Trellis, the ‘go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon’. Spacely-Trellis was a ‘modern’ Anglican of the sort disposed to question the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Christ, and quite possibly the existence of a deity. Most of those interludes featuring the left-of-centre bishop ended with him in the pulpit and in full cry about the evils of the hour, concluding ‘We are all guilty!’ as his despairing flock dived for the nearest door or window.
This week we look back in horror at the incompetence of the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the ‘top people’s paedophile ring’ affair which dominated the news some five years ago. And I’m loth to defend either the Met or the Bishop of Bevindon. But I do have to remark that we’re all guilty. If the police were obviously stupid (and I think they were), then so was much of the news media, many politicians and commentators, and many ordinary citizens too.
Much of the nation was prey to the kind of moral panic that abandons all common sense and throws healthy scepticism to the winds. So were the news media, who for the most part broadcast or published the crazy fantasies of sick minds as straight reports of claims seriously made by serious people. There was a widespread belief that such stories might be true.
Let me remind you of just a few. You’ll remember that the late Leon Brittan, a former home secretary of unimpeachable integrity, was among the innocent people accused by the now disgraced and convicted liar Carl Beech, code-named ‘Nick’; as was the blameless Field Marshal Lord Bramall. You’ll perhaps remember the Elm guest house, said by Beech and others to be a venue for a network of child abusers, including a number of VIPs. You’ll probably remember, too, the Dolphin Square story, about a well-known block of private apartments not far from Westminster, where a number of MPs live, and where (Beech led the police to believe) sex orgies involving politicians and children took place. And you’ll surely remember the story that the former MP Harvey Proctor was prevented by the late Sir Edward Heath from cutting off Beech’s testicles with a penknife? But do you also remember (and if you do, do you now blush to be reminded of it?) how Beech described being raped by Lord Bramall while the former heads of MI5 and MI6 tipped spiders over him, threw darts at him and subjected him to electric shocks?
I remind you of some of this nonsense not so you and I can wince or giggle at the absurdity, but to ask whether, hand on heart, you can tell me that at the time you knew at once it must be nonsense? Because Tom Watson MP, who was shortly to become deputy leader of the Labour party, plainly didn’t think it was nonsense; good friends of mine who are not naive in these matters warned me it wasn’t nonsense and told me they’d heard there was a lot more to come out; I don’t remember a Commons outcry that it was nonsense; very few columnists put their heads above the parapet to call it nonsense; and I cannot call to mind leading articles in newspapers warning readers that it must be nonsense. The stories were believable — or at any rate believed.
In fact, after (more than four years ago now) submitting a column to the Times published under the headline and sub-headline ‘If Heath was a child abuser, I’m an aardvark — the police have gone mad and the media has lost its head. There’s no establishment cover-up and someone has to say so’, I endured a sleep-deprived night worrying that my hunch might turn out to be wrong and I’d look like a dupe or, worse, an accomplice.
I nearly lost my nerve. Such, when the wind of national panic blows, is the power of the gale. Among the reasons for relegating Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (about the Salem witch trials) to the ranks of the second–rate is the opportunity Miller missed to create likeable and level-headed characters who got caught up in the hysteria. Mostly, the bad people believed in witches while the good were sceptical. Likewise the fiction that McCarthyism was the creation solely of Senator Joe McCarthy, when many good Americans thought as he did. In spreading panic about communist conspiracies, McCarthy caught as well as fanned the wind. The same may be said of Titus Oates, when the nation was roused to hysteria about Catholic plots emanating from the European continent.
Beech — a pitiful sub-species of the genus of which Oates, McCarthy and the witchfinders of New England are more menacing exemplars — mined a seam that was already there. Yes, Tom Watson megaphoned his credulity; but some 600 fellow MPs stayed shamefully silent, some believing, others doubtful but preferring not to stick their necks out.
Each age looks back on the moral or political panics of earlier ages and wonders how anyone could have taken seriously the alarum in question. Instead we should stop to ask whether we, unlike every previous age, are imbued with a healthy, intelligent scepticism; whether we approach the daily news rationally; whether we have the moral courage our forebears lacked, to voice private doubts. It strikes me as highly unlikely.
So which great British alarum, which national anxiety, which cacophony of cries about ‘surrender’, ‘treachery’, ‘cliff’s edge’, ‘betrayal’ and ‘establishment plot’, are we in 2019 blowing out of all proportion? I may think it’s the fanciful poppycock about an EU conspiracy to rob us of our independence. You may think it’s the invention of an apocalyptic no-deal scenario. Whichever proves right, we shall surely look back on this era as we now look back on Operation Midland: in disbelief.