No iron in Steel

I like some politicians and dislike others. So do we all. These feelings exist independently of whether we agree with them or not. I have disliked politicians with whom I broadly agree and vice versa. One politician I have never liked is David Steel. Now I feel compelled to consider his stupefying conduct over the late Cyril Smith. 

In the light of today, Steel’s actions (or the lack of them) are beyond belief. Private Eye first reported allegations of Smith’s sexual abuse of vulnerable young boys in Rochdale in 1979. Steel confronted Smith (then a Liberal MP) with the allegations, and Smith – while not admitting to them – confirmed that he had been investigated by the police. When counsel at a recent enquiry asked Steel: “So you understood that he’d actually committed these offences, from what he said to you?”, Steel responded: “I assumed that.”

Steel took no action on the allegations, or on his own assumption. His press office commented that “all [Smith] seems to have done is spanked a few bare bottoms.” The events happened, in Steel’s words, “before [Smith] was an MP, before he was even a member of my party. It had nothing to do with me.” In 1988, he nominated Smith for a knighthood. Did he feel any obligation to tell the honours committee what he knew? “No, it never occurred to me.”

I remember Private Eye’s original revelations. I don’t remember them well enough to say how specific they were, but I certainly understood their import. No libel action resulted from the article, neither did Smith ever publicly deny the allegations. I certainly know that my attitude towards Cyril Smith was coloured for ever, and that I regarded his continuation as an MP with astonishment, and his subsequent knighthood an outrage. I think I also assumed that not enough evidence existed to prosecute Smith (which may have been true), and that his colleagues therefore presumed innocence.

To discover, now, that his own party leader did not presume innocence, yet not only did nothing, but later recommended Smith for a knighthood, is incredible.

However easy it would be to say “I never liked David Steel and my goodness I was right,” I don’t say that. I have disliked him because he has always struck me as a sanctimonious, moralistic humbug, the product of a certain type of narrow-minded Scottish Calvinism. Also, therefore, the perfect example of someone whom one would most expect to be outraged by the activities of a child abuser.

So, instead, I am confronted with three uncomfortable questions. Is David Steel by now so doddery that he has no real idea what he is saying and that his recollections should not therefore be relied upon? Or did I misjudge his character so completely that – rather than being a puritanical moralist – he has always been an extreme libertarian who took a relaxed view of other people’s behaviour, however appalling? Or – and the worst question of all – was it really the case that, in the 1970s, the sexual abuse of children was not seen as a big deal, and certainly not enough to stop someone being an MP or a knight of the realm?

Steel’s admissions were first made in 2014 (which raises another question: why did they not provoke much reaction then?). He does not strike me as being doddery now, and even less so in 2014. He seems genuinely bemused by the reaction to what he has said, and to his suspension from the party he led for so long. ‘No’ to the first question, then.

Have I misjudged David Steel? Well, maybe a little. Perhaps he has always been more of a libertarian and less of a moralist than he has appeared. It is easy to forget that, in the 1970s, libertarianism was a cause of the left, not of the right. But it would take the most extreme libertarian to defend paedophilia now, and Steel certainly does not belong in that category. So, even if the answer to this question is a partial ‘yes’, it is not a full and sufficient explanation for his conduct.

I am driven, reluctantly, to contemplate the third question.

In 2014, the public was reminded of the existence of the Paedophile Information Exchange, which operated between 1974 and 1984. The news caused extreme discomfiture to Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt, who had both been indirectly connected with PIE through their work for the National Council for Civil Liberties, to which PIE was affiliated.

Dispassionate consideration of the issue is confused by linguistics. It is surprising to learn that, until 1885 when it was raised to 16, the age of heterosexual consent in Britain was 13. The age of homosexual consent was set at 21 in 1967 and was not lowered to 16 until 1994. In the 1970s, therefore, if a 21-year-old man had sex with a 20-year-old man, he would have been guilty of a criminal offence and would technically have been a paedophile. My recollection is that, at the time, the word ‘paedophile’ was used in its more exact and legalistic sense, and not (as it has come to be used) to refer almost exclusively to the desire of an adult for someone who is pre-pubescent.

It is perhaps not surprising that an organisation such as PIE became entangled with the wider issue of homosexual law reform, and indeed with the wider consequences of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. In 1977, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality passed a motion condemning “the harassment of the Paedophile Information Exchange by the press”. However, other people could clearly see the organisation, and the activity, for what it was. Peter Hain, then Chairman of the Young Liberals, protested that “paedophilia is not a condition to be given a nod and a wink as a healthy fringe activity in society – it is a wholly undesirable abnormality.” But a fellow Liberal activist retorted that “it is sad that Peter has joined the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade. His views are not the views of most Young Liberals.”

If one now reviews what was said and by whom about the issue in the 1970s, it makes for uncomfortable reading. There was ignorance and naivety, certainly, but there was also a tolerance towards at least some aspects of paedophilia that is absolutely shocking today. The 1970s were the high point of ‘anything goes’, when there was a predisposition in favour of anyone doing almost anything they wanted. The rights of children went unmentioned.

How David Steel fitted into this general picture at the time, I cannot say. But nothing he has said, whether at the time or since, allows him to emerge from the Cyril Smith affair with any credit at all. The LibDems are right to suspend him.