Perhaps the ghost who flitted through the House of Commons chamber sat invisibly on his old backbench seat for a few moments as Theresa May announced her inquiries into child abuse on Monday, surveying the scene with bitter-sweet relish. As well he might.
Quite a card in his time, old Geoffrey Dickens. Many were snobbish about the populist working-class Tory and former heavyweight boxer who liked tea dances, a man who didn’t quite belong in his times. Which he didn’t of course. He was way ahead of them. A crusader against child abuse, including what he was convinced was paedophilia in high places, with a single-minded courage which reinforced him as a bit of a laughing-stock.
No one was laughing today. Not when Ms May, in a sombre all-black trouser suit, announced 33 years after Mr Dickens took up his cause that there would be a fresh investigation into what the authorities did with his allegations, not to mention the 114 files “destroyed, missing or not found” they generated. Not when Labour’s Tom Watson, whose campaign on the issue has commanded the kind of respect Mr Dickens could only dream of, paid the long-dead Conservative, whether unwittingly or not, a unique tribute by naming in Parliament the same eminent knighted diplomat Mr Dickens had named under parliamentary privilege as a paedophile – but when the diplomat, Sir Peter Hayman, was still alive.
Yvette Cooper, saying that she had called for an over-arching inquiry 18 months ago, rightly insisted that the one also announced by Ms May today must examine “child-protection as it operates now”, as well as “historic” abuse. And Ms May herself referred – at least 13 times – to the “lessons” to be learnt from both of them.
You wonder how good we are at official investigations when you have to have a “review of a review” as Ms May kept calling the Wanless inquiry. The other inquiry, meanwhile, is supposed to go much wider, including care homes. A subject on which, however belated her announcement, Ms May was at her best, stressing that the country could take “no comfort” from its abysmal record.
One “lesson” will be the price of suppression. The seventies and eighties were a time on the one hand when, as Labour’s Lisa Nandy pointed out, an old-school Tory whip of the period could blithely talk of the “jam” an MP would be helped with: “It might be debt, it might be a scandal involving small boys, or any kind of scandal.”
And on the other, as the Labour MP Ann Coffey pointedly acknowledged, some leftish-libertarian circles suffered a “confusion” between freedom and paedophilia. Unfashionable Mr Dickens eschewed both tendencies. Monday went some way to being his posthumous reward.