Last week, as Harvey Weinstein finally faced justice in America, the UK's Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) gave its verdict on David Steel. It damned him for his years of silence and inaction on the child sexual abuse by Cyril Smith, Liberal, then Lib Dem, MP for Rochdale from 1972 to 1992; saying that Steel had 'abdicated his responsibility' and had not been motivated by 'the lens of child protection but through the lens of political expediency'.
The backstory to this is that, in 1979, Cyril Smith informed Liberal leader David Steel about child sex allegations against himself – and Steel assumed they were true. These had been published at the time in the local Rochdale press and picked up by Private Eye
. Steel not only did nothing then, but subsequently maintained a defence of falsehoods and evasions for the next 40 years, including successfully recommending Cyril Smith for a knighthood in 1988. When challenged over the years about the allegations against Smith – particularly by a dogged Private Eye
who pursued Steel through the decades – Steel acted as if he was morally innocent and the injured party.
And when Steel finally admitted last year to what he knew, in evidence to IICSA, he was not exactly filled with remorse. Steel was immediately suspended from the Lib Dems while the party launched their own inquiry into Steel and found no grounds for not giving him back the party whip.
Last week, as the inquiry criticised Steel and what reputation he had left, he immediately resigned from the Lib Dems and said he was standing down from the House of Lords. If anyone thought Steel had suddenly had a realisation of his lack of moral compass, his resignation letter gave no hint of it, declaring he was being used as 'a proxy for Cyril Smith'. It contained not one genuine word of apology or regret for the numerous victims of Cyril Smith's abuse – some of whom would most likely not have been abused had Steel acted on the information he had in 1979.
Steel should have no-one defending him in this, yet that is not the situation we find ourselves in. Rather, some supposedly liberal-minded men who see themselves as standing against injustice and the many wrongs in the world have either stood by Steel, defended him, or refused to condemn him.
Step forward Magnus Linklater, former editor of The Scotsman
and ex-editor of The Times
Scotland edition. Linklater felt so strongly about the issue that he wrote an extra column on the subject last Friday in The Times
. In an extraordinary defence of Steel and his actions, Linklater wrote: 'Does one contentious decision, dating back 40 years, determine a man's reputation for ever?' And he answered his own question: 'Of course not'.
Linklater tried to create a defence of Steel by resurrecting the culture of the late 1970s, saying that: 'Back then, however, things were less clear'. This doesn't take us far, so he tried to explain historical events and facts: 'Allegations had surfaced in Private Eye
but had not been substantiated; the police inquiry in Rochdale had been stopped; Smith had not "confessed" to Lord Steel but merely confirmed there had been a police inquiry'.
This is not what the situation was in 1979 and in the years following. Rather, we know that Cyril Smith had told Steel about the allegations and that Steel assumed they were true. We know this because Steel admitted it last year when he was asked during the inquiry by lawyer Brian Altman if it was his understanding that Smith had 'actually committed these offences from what he said to you?', to which Steel replied: 'I assumed that'.
Linklater goes further to fully exonerate his friend, writing: 'The charge is that Lord Steel did nothing, to protect his party from embarrassment. I very much doubt that. Knowing him as a friend, I suspect he thought it was none of his business'.
Linklater's defence of Steel is that the then leader of the Liberal Party, when confronted by child sex allegations, thought it none of his business to do anything. This was actually what Steel said last year, stating with no sense of shame that 'It had nothing to do with me' – shockingly when he was leading a political party and hearing what he assumed was an admission of criminal behaviour by one of his senior parliamentarians.
Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, was evasive last week when asked to condemn Steel and the decision of the party inquiry which gave him back the party whip last year. Rennie tried to claim that the Lib Dems and Steel knew nothing about the allegations against Smith when he was awarded a knighthood on Steel's recommendation, saying: 'The Liberal Democrats did not know. David did not know at that time when those decisions were made. All of that became public later'.
Post-Weinstein, in the age of #MeToo, we continually hear the conceit that we have changed and live in a different, more sensitive age – one more attuned and responsive to the voices of victims of abuse. Then there is the contrast between the present age of supposed enlightenment and the dark age of repression where the voices of those abused were not heard. This is to assure us that whatever past injustices happened, processes have been put in place to prevent them happening again. We have theoretically learned from the cases of Jimmy Savile, Gary Glitter, Cyril Smith and other prominent men who serially abused, and were hiding in plain sight.
David Steel will never live down his role in this. But we have to learn more from such episodes than treating the now elderly ex-Lord Steel of Aikwood as a social and political pariah.
We need to learn that silence, inaction and covering up the truth is part of how abuse happens. People like David Steel turned away from helping those in need when they most needed abusers to be challenged and to face the full force of the authorities, and instead decided to put his head in the sand.
The rest of us should learn that we can never be complacent or think we have somehow become completely enlightened on such difficult and sensitive areas. And we should never forgot that the establishment – whether in the UK or Scotland – always likes to protect its own and close ranks, no matter the seriousness of the charges or scale of evidence.