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A lack of Steel
Back in 1981, Liberal party leader David Steel infamously told activists at a conference rally that they should “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government!” It took nearly 30 years for his successor party to actually get into power, via the Cameron-Clegg coalition. But if the Liberal-SDP Alliance had indeed somehow got into government after the 1983 election, Rochdale MP Cyril Smith would have been angling for a ministerial role.
Given all that is now publicly known about Smith’s paedophile activity, the prospect of him being anywhere near national power is a scary thought. Yet just two years before Steel’s conference bravado, in 1979, the Liberal leader had had a conversation in the House of Commons during which Smith effectively admitted he had fondled teenage boys a decade earlier.
Thanks to the brave journalism of Private Eye (itself derived from pioneering report by the Rochdale Alternative Press), Steel had read that Smith had abused his position of power to access Cambridge House boys’ hostel. It was here he had administered ‘inspections’ where he cupped boys’ testicles and dished out punishments in the form of smacking their naked bottoms. When questioned by his leader, Smith simply said the report was ‘correct’, but that although police had investigated him they had taken no further action.
We only know about this conversation thanks to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse, before which Steel appeared last year. We also know that Steel, by his own admission, decided that was the end of the matter too. He went on to recommend Smith for a knighthood in 1998, without “confronting him to ask if he was still committing offences against boys”, as the inquiry’s new report put it today.
That report is certainly scathing. “Lord Steel should have provided leadership. Instead, he abdicated his responsibility. He looked at Cyril Smith not through the lens of child protection but through the lens of political expediency. …. When attending the inquiry, far from recognising the consequences of his inaction, Lord Steel was completely unrepentant.”
A close look at his evidence confirms that verdict. Steel’s justification, wait for it, was that the conduct described in Private Eye had taken place before Smith had joined the Liberal Party (he was a former Labour councillor then independent councillor at the time of the abuse of the teenage boys). “He was not an MP at the time, he wasn’t even a member of my party. So I didn’t feel that I had any locus in the matter at all,” Steel said.
Amazingly, he even referred to the fact that Smith had maintained his parliamentary majority over the years. “My point was that he had gone on since then to be Mayor of Rochdale, to be given the MBE for services to local government, then he joined the Liberal Party, he’d been elected as MP with increasing majorities I think four times. So I saw no reason, or no locus, to go back to something that had happened during his time as a councillor in Rochdale.”
Steel was pressed by the inquiry lawyer on what he felt about being told by Smith that the Private Eye report was correct: “He could, for all you knew, have been still offending against children?” In one of his most jaw-dropping bits of testimony, Steel replied: “I have to admit, that never occurred to me, and I’m not sure it would occur to me even today [my italics].”
As I’ve said before, as a Rochdalian and a reporter, I admit I’m close to this story. Here’s what one former boys’ hostel resident Barry Fitton told me (read HERE my 2012 report that got this issue on the record in the Commons): “He was big and he was heavy. You’ll have seen the size of his hands. Imagine how that would feel slapping you around. I was crying and he said ‘oh, there, there’ and he stroked my arse and fondled my buttocks. I was scared, Cyril Smith was God in Rochdale.”
Most important of all, Smith’s activities at Cambridge House hostel in the 1960s were not isolated incidents. The inquiry heard that in the 1980s – when he was a Liberal MP – Smith went on to rape and assault boys at Knowl residential home, an institution where he was governor and had keys to all the rooms.
Last March, the Lib Dems suspended Steel after hearing his admission to the inquiry, with their federal structure meaning the ‘executive’ of the Scottish Lib Dems conducted an investigation. But within barely three months, the party concluded there were no grounds for disciplinary action. Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said at the time this followed a ‘careful consideration’.
Fast forward to today and Steel announced he was quitting the party and the House of Lords and withdrawing from public life. Rennie had a new line that “Cyril Smith’s acts were vile and repugnant and I have nothing but sympathy for those affected. This is a powerful report that has lessons for everyone including David Steel, the Liberal Democrats and the wider political sphere.”
But what was perhaps most damaging for Steel today was his own statement. On the one hand he finally showed some recognition of Smith’s conduct. “Knowing all I know now, I condemn Cyril Smith’s actions towards children.” But then he added: “Not having secured a parliamentary scalp, I fear that I have been made a proxy for Cyril Smith.”
That phrase ‘parliamentary scalp’ and Steel’s hint that he was himself another victim left a truly bitter taste in the mouth. Smith’s victims never got the justice they so badly deserved, as he died in 2010. But his actions have ensured a warped new meaning for the phrase Liberal guilt.
Quote Of The Day
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Professor Sir Michael Marmot on 10 years of Tory austerity
Tuesday Cheat Sheet
Keir Starmer told HuffPost UK that he wanted to win the Labour leadership by a large margin to gain the necessary mandate for party unity. “Whoever wins, in a sense, the bigger the win the better, so they can get that unity.” He also had lots to say about the Salisbury poisonings, standing up to China, and why he disagreed with conspiracy theories about Julian Assange’s extradition to the US.
Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling all endorsed Ian Murray for deputy leader. This came a few days after Blair had said he did not want to “damage anyone by supporting them”.
Matt Hancock and Robert Jenrick said their aim was to ‘level up’ health and council spending, in the wake of a damning report by Sir Michael Marmot that described how Tory austerity had led to widening health inequalities. Marmot found life expectancy in England had stalled over the past decade for the first time in a century. Note Boris Johnson wrongly told MPs last month that the rich/poor gap in life expectancy “is coming down and it will come down”.
The EU announced its revised negotiating mandate for UK-EU trade talks.
Steve Baker quit as chair of the European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative MPs, saying the PM has “the policy, the mandate and the majority necessary to make a success” of Brexit.
What I’m Reading
The Women Covering The Weinstein Trial – AP
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.