Joyce McMillan: Britain is in grip of moral panic

Ted Heath's 1970 victory was unexpected. However, today alleged abuse fuels panic rather than surprise. Picture: Contributed
Ted Heath's 1970 victory was unexpected. However, today alleged abuse fuels panic rather than surprise. Picture: Contributed
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THINGS have changed since the 70s but the establishment still panics when questioned, writes Joyce McMillan

If you want evidence that the past is another country – or that the Britain of 45 years ago was, as so many have argued, “a different world” from the one we inhabit today – then you could do worse than cast your eye over the political map of Britain on the morning after Ted Heath’s unexpected election victory in June 1970. Following this year’s seismic general election, many wags in Scotland pointed out that the new 2015 electoral map looks exactly like Maggie, the little blonde toddler in The Simpsons; blue at the bottom, yellow at the top, a few blotches of red around the middle.

Back in 1970, though, the picture was utterly different; most of Scotland’s land-mass was still Tory blue, like England, with areas of red in the industrial cities, touches of Liberal yellow around the edges, and one gleam of gold in Western Isles, where Donald Stewart was the SNP’s sole MP. It was a political picture almost unimaginable today; and social mores, too, were very different, as recent revelations about the BBC and other major institutions have made clear. Powerful men groped and harassed young women with absolute impunity, homosexual relationships – which had been legalised just three years earlier – were still surrounded by a culture of fear, hypocrisy and blackmail; and television series like Life On Mars have encouraged a certain nostalgia for this time before “political correctness”, when racism, sexism and homophobic bullying were still – well – more or less OK.

The problem with the “different world” argument, though, is that it is a double-edged one, for those who seek to dismiss the many allegations of “historical” sexual abuse now arising from that period. It certainly helps to explain why such abuse might have taken place, and not been reported or even named at the time.

It also, though, makes more credible the claims that there might have been a widespread willingness to “keep quiet” habitual child sex abuse by powerful men, on the grounds that no-one really took it very seriously. One of the most damning documents in this whole story is the interview given to the BBC in the 1990s by Tim Fortescue, a Conservative Party whip at Westminster during the Heath government; he talked freely about how the whips’ office would hush up scandals for MPs – including those involving “small boys” – in return for absolute obedience in the voting lobbies.

And most importantly and cruelly, this argument involves a dismissal of the experience of victims who are still alive. The Britain of the 60s and 70s may have been a “different world”, but millions of us can still remember living in it and being shaped by it; and for those whose experience involved the kind of abuse that was not then taken seriously by the law – physical, mental or sexual – that continuity between then and now remains a painful fact of life.

None of which, of course, makes this fierce nexus of shifting attitudes and remembered pain any easier to deal with, either for victims themselves, or for the authorities charged with investigating allegations which may date back as far as 50 years.

There are obvious mistakes which might be avoided, of course, such as the sheer crassness of Wiltshire police’s decision to hold their press conference about the investigation of allegations against Ted Heath on the doorstep of his much-loved home in Salisbury. Following past failures to deal adequately with child sexual abuse, Britain is now in the grip of a full-scale moral panic on this subject, a panic which may have helped, this week, to sweep away the much-admired Kids Company charity, as a major donor withdrew funds following unspecified allegations of abuse. Instead of contributing to that mood of sensationalism and panic, the police should be dealing with accusations in a manner as calm, low-key and meticulous as possible, since only rigorous adherence to the law can even begin to give victims the reassurance they seek.

At the moment, though, hardly anyone in British public life seems able to achieve the kind of calm and rigorous approach to this issue that would begin to command trust, and rebuild confidence. Complaints against dead men are pursued without explanation of how these could ever result in criminal proceedings; reputations are destroyed on grounds of mistaken identity, as happened in the case of the late Lord McAlpine. And if the matter were not so serious, there might even be a kind of grim comedy in the Home Secretary’s repeated attempts to find an establishment figure distinguished enough to head the government’s own inquiry into historical abuse, yet not linked by family, business, or friendship to any of the possible suspects.

And it’s in the space created by decades of mishandling of these issues, still far from resolved, that conspiracy theories flourish. In my youth, it always seemed to me that Ted Heath, the prime minister of my student days, was a man more intensely inhibited than actively sleazy; not likely to risk jeopardising his remarkable rise from the back streets of Broadstairs to the heights of British government.

Yet if the allegations against him persist, they will provide ever more ammunition for those who would dismiss Westminster as a hopeless cesspit of privilege and corruption. In that sense, a failure to hear the vulnerable victims of past sexual abuse by powerful figures, to offer them respect and justice, could represent a final blow to the British system’s lingering reputation for fairness, openness and compassion; and it’s because both politicians and police are aware of this that we have seen this week’s massive publicity surrounding allegations against a former prime minister.

So far, though, there is still little sign of these painful allegations being handled with the kind of maturity and clarity that would be needed to bring any sense of resolution. For too often, these days, in too many areas where they are challenged, the British powers-that-be seem to panic first, and think only much later; their first response is to bluster, grandstand, and – if possible – dismiss any critics as mad, evil or “delusional”. And on this vital issue, as on so many others, that is a sign of profound weakness, masquerading as the most superficial kind of strength.