Thirty years ago last month, speculation about a paedophile ring inside the British political establishment went global – not for the first time. The Toronto Globe and Mail was one of the newspapers to report on it.
“Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has stepped in to quell widespread rumours that her government is in the grip of another sex scandal,” its correspondent Vera Frankl wrote, on 23 June 1984.
“Rumours circulating in Westminster… suggest that a senior cabinet minister is a child sex offender.” Mrs Thatcher, she added, was sure that the minister was innocent, but “Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens, a leading anti-child-sex campaigner… is under pressure to name the minister in the House of Commons.”
Before we need to go any further, we need to pick up on that word “another” for what it tells us about Westminster’s attitude to sex in 1984. The writer was not referring to some other allegation of child sex abuse, but to the fall of Cecil Parkinson, a minister who was forced to resign from the Cabinet as it became known that he had had a long affair with his secretary, who was now pregnant and accusing him of breaking a promise to marry her.
In those days, it would seem that adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and the abuse of children were all lumped under one heading of things people really should not do, some of which were illegal.
In the summer of 1982, there was a sensation when it emerged that the Queen’s chief bodyguard was actively homosexual. His prompt resignation did not abate the fury of MPs such as Eldon Griffiths, a much respected backbench Tory, who exclaimed: “It is astonishing that the positive vetting of this officer should either have failed to reveal his homosexual proclivities, or if they were revealed, that it was not regarded as making him a security risk.”
Later in the 1980s, a Tory MP named Harvey Proctor was arrested after a young man was found near naked and screaming from pain outside his Fulham flat.
Proctor got his sexual kicks by handcuffing and caning young men; but it was neither the age of his victims nor the pain that he inflicted on them that led to his arrest, in what the newspapers at the time repeatedly called a “homosexual scandal”. During Proctor’s trial, his solicitor, Sir David Napley, remarked: “If this man had performed equal acts of gross indecency with a female prostitute under the age of 21, he would have committed no offence.”
Our age has a different understanding of what is genuinely shocking. It condemns the sexual exploitation of the vulnerable – and particularly of children – with a harshness that would have seemed excessive in the 1980s, while being tolerant now of what was then looked upon as deviance.
The failure to place the sexual abuse of children in a category of its own, as a sinister crime, was not restricted to those who disapproved of sexual licence: there was also a notorious blindness on the part of those who campaigned for a more liberal society.
The former Labour cabinet minister, Patricia Hewitt, who was general secretary of the National Council of Civil Liberties in the Seventies and early Eighties, only recently admitted that they were wrong to associate themselves with the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), which was campaigning for the legalisation of sex with children.
Even the youngest MPs in 1984 were old enough to remember when any male homosexual acts were illegal. The change in the law, in 1967, which decriminalised private homosexual acts between men aged over 21, was not intended to make gay men equal under the law or to make homosexual practices socially acceptable: it simply protected them from prosecution, provided they were discreet.
There were active homosexuals in both houses of Parliament. What their colleagues demanded of them was, again, discretion. One Labour MP, Chris Smith, courageously came out as gay in 1984; no other MP voluntarily followed his example until well into the 1990s. Things that were known around Westminster stayed in Westminster.
It was common knowledge among his colleagues that the Tory MP for Chester, Sir Peter Morrison, was gay, and it was rumoured that his taste was for boys rather than men, but that was never discussed in public. Sir Peter’s inept handling of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership campaign in 1990 was considered to be a bigger scandal than his private life.
Stories about the disgusting behaviour of the Rochdale MP, Sir Cyril Smith, were published by the unpaid staff of the Rochdale Alternative Paper but did not create sufficient shock for anything to be done.
It is, in retrospect, to the credit of that clumsy Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens that child abuse disgusted him. One of the first campaigns into which he dug his teeth was to have PIE banned.
The liberal view at the time was that no matter how much you might disagree with PIE, their right to campaign for the lowering or abolition of the age of consent ought to be respected. Thus when a former Home Office employee, Steven Adrian, speaking as a member of PIE, argued in 1983 that “sexual relationships with a responsible paedophile gives a child a far greater sense of self-respect and self-awareness… It’s a spurious protection against sexual assault, which, in fact, works as a weapon against children’s sexual freedom,” this was duly reported in the media as a point of view, rather than an incitement to criminality.
Geoffrey Dickens believed that the law was being far too soft on people with sexual designs on children. A few months before his arrival in Parliament in 1979, a member of the public had found a package of child pornography on a bus and handed it into the police, who traced it to no less a person than the former High Commissioner to Canada, Sir Peter Hayman, who was also reputedly an officer of MI6.
He was a member of PIE, and one of a group of seven men and two women who were writing to each other about their shared interest in child sex. One of the nine was also separately corresponding with a tenth paedophile with whom he shared fantasies about torturing children to death.
Those two were prosecuted, but the case against the other eight was quietly dropped, on the grounds that they were consenting adults who were not making money from pornography. But when Geoffrey Dickens came to hear of it, he used parliamentary privilege in March 1981 to name Sir Peter. His action was widely condemned as an abuse of parliamentary privilege by a publicity-seeking MP.
Sir Peter was the only person Dickens publicly named, though he threatened more than once to name others, including those who featured in the now famous dossier that he passed to the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, in 1983, and that Thatcherite cabinet minister who has never been publicly identified.
Despite the current furore over Dickens’ assertions – and indeed his one-man crusade to unmask establishment wrongdoing – was there really a huge paedophile conspiracy and cover-up from this period that’s waiting to be exposed by Lord Butler-Sloss’s review?
Dickens, who died prematurely in 1995, was not taken seriously in his lifetime. It is suggested that this was because of his working-class background and outsider status, but another factor was his self-defeating behaviour.
After he had named Sir Peter Hayman, Dickens announced at a press conference that he was leaving his wife, Norma, for another woman, and then asked the astonished reporters not to use that information until he had had a chance to break the news to Norma. Within a month, he had changed his mind, and told the press that he was back with his wife.
He championed other causes, apart from the protection of children. He was a keen advocate of hanging. In 1982, he tackled the Transport Secretary David Howell – George Osborne’s future father in law – demanding greater security on the railways, because the Chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, had had his trousers stolen on a sleeper train.
That same year, his home was burgled. Dickens suggested in the Commons, without any supporting evidence, that the crime was the work of MI5. In 1990, he called for a debate on the Commons on “the spread of satanism and devil worship in the United Kingdom”.
The Government is rightly taking seriously the apparent disappearance of the dossier Geoffrey Dickens handed over to the Home Office many years ago and the suspicion that there was a cover up – but given how erratic he could be, it may be that if the dossier ever turns up, it will be an anti-climax.