When the BBC aired ‘A Very English Scandal’, its entertaining Russell T Davies-penned drama about the Jeremy Thorpe/Norman Scott affair a couple of years back, I remember explaining to a friend how the general public of the time were reluctant to believe the allegations against the Liberal leader due to him being a popular politician. I compared him to Charles Kennedy in that he was representative of an increasingly rare breed, i.e. a prominent Parliamentarian the majority of the electorate didn’t actually hate. I cited the 1975 Oxford Union Debate on the EEC Referendum as an example of Thorpe’s considerable oratorical skills; sharing the stage with plodding old Heath, as well as a stuttering Barbara Castle and a flustered Peter Shore, Thorpe shines as an eloquent and witty speaker; it’s a rare opportunity for TV viewers to see him at the height of his powers, for the Commons wasn’t televised in 1975; by the time it was, Thorpe had already left the building – in disgrace.
I recall my mother’s response to the sinister stories encircling the most high profile Liberal leader since Lloyd George in 1976 – ‘Poor Jeremy Thorpe,’ she declared whilst ironing. ‘All these horrible people spreading nasty lies about him.’ I suspect my mum’s response to the tabloid frenzy when the Fleet Street levee broke wasn’t an isolated one. It’s always far easier to believe scurrilous rumours concerning the private lives of those who divide opinion – Jimmy Savile, for example – than to accept those who elicit admiration might have feet of clay. Of course, Thorpe’s desperate attempts to cover his homosexual tracks caught up with him in the end and demonstrated the extremes public figures were then prepared to go to in order to obscure proclivities that are today worn as an identity-defining sandwich board. But it left a political party that just two years before had been within the grasp of a coalition administration paddle-free and heading towards an especially unpleasant creek.
And then David Steel stepped forward. Widely respected for his activities in the Anti-Apartheid Movement as well as his pivotal role in securing the legalisation of abortion in 1967, the MP for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles was elected full-time Liberal leader in July 1976. In less than a year, he had led his party into a working arrangement with the Labour Party, the so-called ‘Lib-Lab Pact’. Faced with a motion of no confidence from Margaret Thatcher’s Tories, PM Jim Callaghan approached the Liberals for support; an agreement was reached whereby the Liberals would vote with the Labour Government as long as Callaghan accepted a handful of Liberal policies. But it was a long way from being a genuine coalition, and this short-lived alliance expired in September 1978, when Callaghan was expected to call a General Election he fatally postponed until spring 1979.
The Liberal Party David Steel inherited in 1976 included amongst its 14 elected representatives perhaps its two most notable members in the popular imagination, Clement Freud and Cyril Smith. The former was a celebrated wit via his broadcasting career and the latter was primarily known for being immensely fat at a time when obesity was a rarity in Britain. The reputations of both were subjected to characteristically twenty-first century revisionism in the wake of their deaths in 2009 and 2010 respectively, though Smith had been dogged by unsavoury rumours for years.
Picking up on circulating stories in 1979, ‘Private Eye’ had been at the forefront of exposing Smith’s inappropriate behaviour in the company of young boys during his time as a Rochdale Labour councillor and governor of an all-male children’s home in the 1960s; but despite these allegations being investigated by Lancashire police a full decade before ‘Private Eye’ printed them and then Smith being interviewed in the early 1980s, no action was taken against him. Smith defected to the Liberal Party relatively late in his public life and wasn’t elected to Westminster until a 1972 by-election, by which time the allegations against him had already received police scrutiny. The fact that he hadn’t been charged or ended up in court implied he was innocent and there was no palpable reason for Smith not to be appointed Liberal Chief Whip; a party with such a small representation in Parliament needed larger-than-life figures to maintain a high profile, and the 29-stone Smith certainly fitted the bill.
In response to ongoing rumours during Cyril Smith’s lifetime, many claimed Smith’s alleged crimes constituted no more than standard (if cruel) practice in the more severe educational and ‘correctional’ establishments of the immediate post-war period – which is, to an extent, true. ‘All he seems to have done is spanked a few bare bottoms’ was the alleged response from David Steel’s Press Office in response to the ‘Private Eye’ exposé. Besides, Steel had more pressing political issues to concern him, such as the electoral alliance of the SDP and Liberal Party from 1983. Steel’s relationship with the SDP leader David Owen was particularly fractured during the General Election of 1987, with the former ‘baby of the House’ memorably portrayed as an elfin-like imp permanently perched on Owen’s shoulder. Despite the alliance’s poor showing in 1987, a proper merger between the two parties was proposed and Steel was determined a single leader was the better option; he won the vote when the Liberal Democrats came into being in 1988.
Despite a coalition with Tony Blair’s Labour Party being discussed in the run-up to the 1997 General Election, the landslide victory Labour enjoyed put paid to the hopes of Steel’s Lib Dem successor Paddy Ashdown of a place for the party in government; but Steel himself stood down as an MP at that very Election and as well as undergoing the traditional promotion to the Lords, he also became an MSP in 1999, inaugurated as the Scottish Parliament’s first Presiding Officer that same year. He remained an active figure in British politics despite his retirement from the Commons and was a respected elder statesman whose career in public life had certainly spanned an eventful era.
The instigation of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, inspired in part by the hysterical accusations of Tom Watson re the imaginary ‘VIP Paedophile Ring’ at Westminster, revived the old allegations against Cyril Smith; and before the conviction of Carl Beech confirmed everything most of us knew about that serial liar, Beech’s lurid fantasies – given legitimacy by Bunter’s headline-grabbing promotion and by a police force desperate to make amends for presumed past failings – pushed David Steel’s ambivalent attitude towards Cyril Smith under the spotlight again. Yesterday, Steel quit both his party and the House of Lords, citing his weariness with certain colleagues who were keen to see the back of him. The myth of the Westminster Paedo Ring has finally been officially dispelled, but mud sticks.
When any inquiry stretches its remit so far back in time, one has to take the laws of the land at that time into account. Talk of MPs and ‘rent boys’ should come with a reminder that the homosexual age of consent was only brought into line with the heterosexual one as recent as 2000; therefore, any gay exchange in which one party was under 21 (18 from 1994) meant the other half (if over 21) was eligible for prosecution and technically regarded as a paedophile. On paper, the same laws that had convicted Oscar Wilde a century before could still be applied up until the Millennium. Conspiracies and cover-ups are not dismissed by the findings of the IICSA, but just as dead men are beyond prosecution, the living should not have to answer for the alleged offences of the dead. When a lawyer from that most mendacious of ambulance-chasers, Slater & Gordon, welcomes the resignation of David Steel, you know it’s hardly worthy of celebration.
© The Editor