by Rob Marchant
Last week Operation Midland, a two-year investigation into an alleged homicide thirty years ago, concluded with no charges made. It was the latest of several inquiries into child abuse, some of which are still ongoing.
Back in 2012, the Metropolitan Police began Operation Yewtree, culminating in the arrests and convictions of a number of people, mostly media personalities. It was largely perceived as a success, rightly uncovering some terrible failings on the part of the media “establishment”, where stars had become “untouchable”.
The most shocking thing about the revelations was that it seemed that everybody knew. I still remember a conversation with a BBC producer perhaps a decade ago, who commented that “you didn’t leave children alone with Jimmy Savile”. How could it be, I asked myself, that a culture be allowed to grow which allowed people to commit horrific crimes against children with impunity?
And so, many finally got their just desserts. About time. A job well done.
There was, however, a downside. No wide-ranging investigation can dig up only guilty people. Inevitably, there would be those, like the thoroughly decent DJ Paul Gambaccini, who suddenly found themselves pushed into a media circus where their life and careers were trashed by mere virtue of suspicion. That they formed part of the same sick segment of society as Savile and Rolf Harris.
Later, of course, they were cleared. As were comedians Freddie Starr and Jim Davidson.
What was the part of Labour in all this? Well, the now Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, was at the forefront of raising awareness, and used his position as MP to campaign for action to be taken, as he did with the phone hacking scandal which ultimately led to the Leveson inquiry. Both laudable goals, which largely produced positive results.
Of course, it also fitted conveniently with some traditional leftist prejudices that figures such as Starr and Davidson were in the list. After all, they were well-known Tory supporters: and we all know that Tories are essentially bad people, don’t we?
But then the situation developed. Momentum had gathered in the campaign to uncover paedophilia (as well as other sexual offences not connected with children), and Watson became convinced that there was a ring of offenders which centred around Westminster. Naturally there were the odd Lib Dem and Labour figures allegedly involved, but mostly it centred around Tory MPs.
There followed a cornucopia of “Operations”: Operation Fairbank, initial police investigation of alleged events at the Elm Guest House, initiated on the back of Watson’s claims; Operation Fernbridge, a full criminal investigation of the same; further investigations Operations Hedgerow and Cayacos; and finally, in 2014, Operation Midland into the “cold case” of an “possible homicide” in a ring based at Dolphin Square, London. Nothing, it seems, was beyond these paedophiles.
Except that it turned out to be that that final investigation produced nothing which could be pursued in a court of law; and most of the others, little.
How had a genuinely well-intentioned campaign to uncover real paedophilia turn gradually morphed into a mad witch-hunt of perfectly innocent people? It serves us to look at Midland, the final step in the long chain of inquiries.
It took in the late Prime Minister Edward Heath, and former Home Secretary Sir Leon Brittan – who would be dead by the end of the inquiry – as well as the still-living former MP Harvey Proctor, whose life was turned upside down as he was accused of being not only a paedophile but potentially a murderous one at that.
Now Heath (always thought by many Tories to be a closet homosexual and therefore unacceptable as leader) and Brittan (a Jew) were easy targets for everyone’s prejudices, especially some of the older members of his own party. But Proctor was a cinch: he was not only openly gay but, in less enlightened times, had already been convicted in 1986 for gross indecency because he had had a relationship with a 17 year-old male.
It is easy to forget that, in the 1980s, homosexuality and paedophilia were not seen as entirely unrelated phenomena in the eyes of much of the general public. Indeed, for an ultra-reactionary few, that situation has never changed.
But Proctor was a fighter. He managed to rebuild his life, setting up a successful business in shirt-making with the help of a few friends within his party.
He has now had to rebuild his life a second time, after an accusation that he was involved in the paedophile ring of Operation Midland; forced to take retirement from his job as Private Secretary to the Duke and Duchess of Rutland and be on the run from the media for two years. And Proctor was not the only victim.
In short, the man who is now Deputy Leader of this party used parliamentary privilege to make several unfounded allegations, which came pretty close to ruining people’s lives. As the Times put it last October, “Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, used the floor of the Commons to make an unfounded allegation that a senior Conservative MP was linked to the smuggling of child abuse images.” It was his third such claim about a parliamentarian.
The Times goes on: “Mr Hames, a retired head of the obscene publications branch, said: “It is terrible that Watson… said what he did because that was a conspiracy too far.”
Proctor, unsurprisingly, saw his case as the second witch-hunt he had had to suffer in his life. He called for a public inquiry and for resignations to be carried out.
It clearly was a witch-hunt, but neither is it the first instance of poor judgement on the part of the Deputy Leader, is it? Oh, or resignations, for that matter.
To wit: from coordinating the 2006 letter and would-be coup against Tony Blair, to his ministerial resignation over expenses, to his forced shadow ministerial resignation after the Falkirk fiasco in 2013, Watson has rarely passed up an opportunity for a judgemental disaster (to that list, we might also add the coda of the present, as Deputy Leader shoring up arguably the worst leadership in the party’s century-long history).
Supporting the Operation Midland investigation there have been other Labour MPs, such as John Mann and Simon Danczuk; even the Tory candidate for London Mayor, Zac Goldsmith; but from the start it has been Watson leading the charge.
Watson apologised last October after the Brittan investigation collapsed for the “hurt caused”. But it was a little late for Brittan’s relatives. And Brittan himself, who died of cancer during the investigation, having led a tortured final few months.
To date, there has been no such apology to Proctor, the only surviving subject of Operation Midland. despite his quite reasonable demand for one. As he himself eloquently put it in his statement about Watson, Mann and Goldsmith:
“I only hope in their lives they never face the turmoil that their varying degrees of encouragement to fantasists and the police has caused me this past year.”
But why is all this important for politics, and for Labour?
First, while England and Wales have long held libel laws which are generally thought too lax, it is still worth reflecting on whether parliamentary privilege is really such a wonderful old institution as all that. In other words, the fact that an MP can stand up in the Commons with total impunity and accuse anyone of anything they damn well please might seem to the layman to be grossly unfair. Especially if you, like Proctor, are a victim of that “inalienable right” of parliamentarians.
Second, and more importantly for us: why is it that us Labourites can so easily think ill of our political opponents in such an unhinged manner? That is, not merely that they are politically wrong, but that they are genuinely morally inferior or even, in extremis, capable of anything.
It is part of an unattractive, holier-than-thou leftism which Peter Watt, former party General Secretary (and formerly of this parish), has written about many times here at Uncut.
Proctor was not only openly gay – not a problem for most of the Labour Party membership these days – but he was a Tory and a toff, with a question mark over his past. With pure, old-fashioned classist attitudes, how easy for us to read into the press coverage that he was guilty without ever coming to trial, especially with doughty “campaigning MP” Watson leading the charge.
Like all of us, Watson deserves to be judged not by his words, but by his actions. Those actions have helped lead to the uncovering of some important cases, yes. But at this point they have also caused a huge amount of unnecessary pain and suffering. It is time to stop.
And, on the other hand, we who believed him should perhaps examine our own instincts and prejudices.
On how quick we are to trust the judgement of others, when such trust has manifestly not been earned. And how we might fall into seeing our political opponents are bad people, rather than merely wrong.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left