In post-Savile Britain, we have become accustomed to constant rumours and allegations of establishment cover-ups carried out by powerful networks of paedophiles. And no wonder; the pervasive mood of mistrust towards British institutions, which has been brewing for at least a couple of decades, has crystallised into an obsession with the apparently omnipresent threat of institutional abuse. What’s more, the UK government has internalised this mistrust – hence its willingness to launch a confused, all-purpose inquiry into the murky past of institutional child abuse.
However, the launching of an inquiry is no longer sufficient to placate those demanding that ‘something more needs to be done’. This is clear from the government’s struggle to find a suitable chair for the inquiry. The original chair, Lady Butler-Sloss, was forced to step down following accusations of a conflict of interest – her brother was UK attorney general during the 1980s when the abuse was alleged to have taken place. And now her replacement, Fiona Woolf, has had to step down because of her acquaintance with certain politicians from the same period. It is clear that the only suitable chair for this inquiry will be someone who both has the blessing of the victim lobby and who can be relied on to continue the crusade into the indefinite future.
There was a time when appointments to official inquiries were, at least outwardly, made according to neutral and objective criteria. That’s no longer the case. Home secretary Theresa May has signalled that the new head of the inquiry will be vetted by child-protection campaign groups – groups, that is, whose very moral authority derives from their conviction that child abuse is rife, and that it is their role to expose it.
That the question of ‘who will lead this inquiry?’ has become a subject of fierce debate shows that the boundary between the sphere of politics and the system of justice has eroded. What’s even more disturbing is that the government’s response to the now routine charges of ‘cover-up’ only strengthens the conspiratorial zeitgeist of our time.
All the current confusions surrounding the workings of this inquiry were set in motion in the weeks following the Savile revelations in September 2012. At the time, Labour MP Tom Watson, one of the moral entrepreneurs most active in the promotion of child-abuse conspiracy theories, responded to May announcing two inquiries into allegations of sexual abuse by a senior Tory by condemning them as representing the ‘next stage of a cover-up’. He claimed that May’s proposal ‘would guarantee that many sickening crimes will remain uninvestigated and some of the most despicable paedophiles will remain protected by the establishment that has shielded them for 30 years’. In effect, what Watson demanded was what one commentator characterised as a ‘virtually unlimited inquiry into establishment paedophile networks’. Which is precisely what this current inquiry is likely to become.