How the Tories ignited the paedophile panic
Revealing the right-wing origins of today's child-abuse hysteria.
Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government has been blamed for sheltering sex abusers at the heart of Westminster – but the truth is it did more to stir up fears of child molestation than any other administration.
Accusations of child sexual abuse and paedophile rings are currently being levelled against scores of respectable citizens. The Daily Mirror alleges that Conservative ministers Keith Joseph, Rhodes Boyson and Michael Havers (all conveniently dead and so unable to sue) took part in orgies supplied with underage rent boys. Allegations have been made that ministers and senior civil servants had the free run of children’s homes to sexually abuse the children there. None of these allegations has a shred of evidence behind them.
The outlandish charges come after the then Tory chief whip Nigel Evans was peremptorily charged with rape and sexual assault earlier this year (though the supposed victim insisted that he did not want a prosecution), and after the party’s former treasurer, the late Alistair McAlpine, was widely accused of abusing children – allegations which ended in libel actions against Sally Bercow, George Monbiot and others. The belief that the Conservative Party is sheltering a top-level paedophile ring persists no matter how many times it has been disproved in the courts.
It is surprising, then, to look back at the actual record of the Conservative Party in power in the 1980s and early 1990s. From the accounts today, one would imagine that the government was indifferent to all allegations of child abuse. But that is not so.
In fact, no government before or since did more or legislated as much as Thatcher’s on the presumed epidemic of child abuse. ‘Child abuse is the biggest blot on civilised life’, Thatcher told the country in her New Year’s message of 1988. Her government set up inquiries into the deaths of Kimberly Carlile and Jasmine Beckford at the hands of their immediate family. Queen’s Council Louis Blom-Cooper’s conclusion that ‘there can be no legitimate objection to the welfare authorities coming in to act against the defaulting parents’ became the central plank of the government’s 1989 Children Act. That act established the principle that the interests of the child would be paramount in the deliberation of the courts and government services.
Though it sounded reasonable, the meaning of the ‘paramountcy principle’ was that it assumed a clash between the interests of parents and of children. The government would be free to act against families on the claim of acting in the interests of the child. Though elsewhere the government claimed to be taking the state out of people’s lives, in its social policy it was becoming much more intrusive.
The background to this change in the law was a widespread belief among Conservative policymakers that society was falling apart. Their fears focused on families who were blamed for failing to hold society together. Preoccupied with the imagined problems of single parents, deadbeat dads and juvenile delinquency, the government was keen to use the law to make families conform.
Though the initial cases that had drawn public attention to the problem of child abuse were of battery and neglect, many in social services and the media became fixated on the horror of child sexual abuse. The taboo against incest is intrinsic to society, so fears that it was being broken were emblematic of a profound dread of social breakdown.
Emboldened by Blom-Cooper’s findings, and by the powers in the Children Act, social workers were taking part in seminars about the problem of child sexual abuse in families – seminars organised by Christian fundamentalists and by militant feminists. The lesson they were learning went further than even the government dared to say. It was apparently not a case of ‘some problem families’, as the government front bench was claiming, but rather that all families were sites of violence and sexual predation.
The consequences were swift. In Cleveland, 121 children were taken into care after their homes were raided by police and social workers who were convinced that the children had been sexually abused. Among them were Lindsey and Paula Wise. Looking back, Lindsey says ‘the state kidnapped me at two years old and I did not go home again until I was four. My mother and father were accused of an unspeakable offence. It has almost destroyed their lives.’
Selina Allen, now 29, was seized when she was eight. She told BBC Radio 4, ‘It was cruelty – we received cruelty at the hands of people who were supposed to protect you’.
Following protests, and a police and judicial inquiry, the children in Cleveland were eventually returned to their parents. The social workers’ fantasy of paedophile rings was shown to be without foundation. Yet despite the unravelling of the creepy fantasies about parents molesting their children in Cleveland, social workers, under the new child protection regime, pushed forward with their investigations of supposedly abusive families. Nine children were taken into care in the Orkneys in 1991, and they, too, later spoke out about the bullying they got from social workers who were convinced the children had been abused.
‘They said tell me about this or I know you have been doing this with this person and you are like “no, I haven’t, don’t be ridiculous”. And this would go on for some time’, said one.
Though it was leading to many false allegations against families, and even to children being taken from their parents and into care, the child-abuse panic that began with the Conservative Party’s Children Act and other initiatives had become unstoppable. Local authorities’ ‘at-risk’ registers were expanding very quickly because the councils were suspicious of families and fearful of being accused of failing.
Throughout its time in power, the Conservative Party stoked up anxieties about children at risk, with such measures as Peter Luff’s Periodicals (Protection of Children) Bill, and the Sex Offenders Act of 1997. One of the most destructive campaigns was the legislation that was contained in Clause 28 of the Education Act (1988). Clause 28 was inspired by the protests of the Parents’ Rights Group in Haringey, London, over a booklet called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, about the adopted child of two gay men. In the minds of the protesters, homosexuals were bound to molest children, and so they protested outside the Education Department offices. Under Clause 28, the government banned in schools any talk of gay relations. ‘The clause is about protecting children’, Tory dame Jill Knight trumpeted.
These government-led campaigns against the presumed problem of social breakdown were attempts to be seen to be acting. But in truth they were themselves creating a problem of unthinking distrust towards everyday authority. Teachers and other professionals charged with the care of children were the target of thousands of false allegations of abuse – a figure that began to climb in 1991.
In the midst of the panics over deviant sexual behaviour, many right-wing newspapers and activists tried to identify left-wingers as perverts who would put children at risk. In parliament, Dame Jill Knight said ‘the Labour party believes that children in schools should have the homosexual lifestyle thrust on them as a desirable alternative to normal heterosexual marriage’. Then, as now, the Tory press alleged links between the Labour Party, and particularly the more left-wing Labour councils in London, and paedophile rings and other perversions.
The Tory Party had great success in the 1980s in characterising the problems of paedophilia and other abuses of children as a terrible threat to society. Ironically, it is because of that success that so many people now want to believe that the Tories are secretly hiding a ring of child sex-abusers in their midst. This is of course fantasy politics. The fantasy is that the arch-moralisers will be exposed as the most corrupt and vile. What these fantasies can never do is understand the real motivations that have led to an unremitting child-abuse panic, because they are simply attempts to share in it.