The child abuse controversy is bad for all of today’s MPs, not just those from the past who face such terrible accusations
There is something odd, and revealing, in YouGov’s latest poll for the Sunday Times. We asked a series of questions about the controversies surrounding suggestions that senior politicians in the 1970s and 1980s abused children, and that this was covered up.
The odd thing is not the overall judgement: that most people think abuse did take place and was covered up. It is the number, and type, of people who lack confidence in the inquiries that have been set up into the allegations of abuse and the way the Home Office handled the matter thirty years ago.
Overall, the public is divided: 44% have ‘a lot’ or ‘a fair amount’ of confidence that the inquiries ‘will fully investigate the matter’, while the same number have ‘not very much’ confidence or ‘none at all’. Now, this is one of those issues that has only tenuous links to party politics. Although some of the issues for the inquiries concern the actions of Lord (Leon) Brittan when he was Home Secretary during the Thatcher era, media reports have concerned (usually anonymous) politicians in all parties. One would not expect huge variations in attitudes today by political loyalty.
Yet the differences are marked. By more than two-to-one, Conservative and Liberal Democrat supporters expect the inquiries to get to the truth, while Labour supporters divide three-to-two in lacking confidence – as do Ukip voters by an even bigger margin, almost three-to-one. Indeed, on every measure, Ukip supporters are more likely that the supporters of any other party to fear that things went, and are still going, badly wrong.
What’s odd is that Ukip supporters despise the very people to whom it wants to give more power. Its central goal is to take Britain out of the European Union. It aims to make Parliament fully sovereign once again. It seeks to restore to MPs powers that successive governments have handed to Brussels. Implicit in this ambition is the proposition that MPs are worthy people who can be trusted to wield this power responsibly. And yet, by their responses to our poll – and indeed, to a wide range of issues that YouGov has surveyed in recent months – Ukip supporters plainly lack any such trust, for they invariably display greater anger and suspicion than anyone else towards the very people whose powers they wish to augment.
On its own, this can, perhaps, be dismissed as little more than a curious paradox. My point is that the Ukip phenomenon reflects something far deeper than concern about the EU, immigration or, now, sexual abuse. It concerns a breakdown in trust towards British politics and politicians as a whole.
This is why the latest controversy over paedophilia goes beyond the somewhat arcane matters as the quality of the evidence initially produced by Geoffrey Dickens MP a generation ago, or whether Baroness Butler-Sloss is the right person to head the main inquiry into what happened in the distant past. What we are seeing is the latest in a long line of allegations of bad behaviour – ranging from MPs’ expenses to the Iraq war – which have led more and more voters to regard politicians as a class as inveterate crooks and liars who live decadent and immoral lives. The really terrifying things about the current controversy is not just that the accusations are so shocking, but that they simply reinforce what millions of voters already thought about the venality of our MPs. Forget overbearing Brussels: a far greater problem is sleazy Westminster.
In the House of Commons, MPs are required to refer to each other as ‘honourable’. These days that adjective sounds like a hollow joke; and to suggest that politicians need to live up to the label is, in the minds of millions, to ask for the moon. The two new inquiries won’t help. If they unmask wrongdoing, voters will say, ‘told you so’. Conversely, if they tell us that the allegations don’t stand up, voters will assume that, once again, the establishment has protected its own. Which is why the child abuse controversy is bad for all of today’s MPs, not just those from the past who face such terrible accusations.