Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

As claims multiply of decades-old establishment cover-up of child abuse, Andy McSmith considers what really went on in political circles in the 1980s

Thirty years ago last month, speculation about a paedophile ring inside the British political establishment went global – not for the first time. The Toronto Globe and Mail was one of the newspapers to report on it.

“Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has stepped in to quell widespread rumours that her government is in the grip of another sex scandal,” its correspondent Vera Frankl wrote, on 23 June 1984. “Rumours circulating in Westminster… suggest that a senior cabinet minister is a child sex offender.” Mrs Thatcher, she added, was sure that the minister was innocent, but “Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens, a leading anti-child-sex campaigner… is under pressure to name the minister in the House of Commons.”

Before we need to go any further, we need to pick up on that word “another” for what it tells us about Westminster’s attitude to sex in 1984. The writer was not referring to some other allegation of child sex abuse, but to the fall of Cecil Parkinson, a minister who was forced to resign from the Cabinet as it became known that he had had a long affair with his secretary, who was now pregnant and accusing him of breaking a promise to marry her.

In those days, it would seem that adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and the abuse of children were all lumped under one heading of things people really should not do, some of which were illegal.

Video: Government launches inquiry into abuse claims
Read more: Home Office ‘probably’ destroyed paedophile dossiers
Comment: Enough of this parliamentary privilege hogwash
Sketch: A journey into a past riddled with loose ends

In the summer of 1982, there was a sensation when it emerged that the Queen’s chief bodyguard was actively homosexual. His prompt resignation did not abate the fury of MPs such as Eldon Griffiths, a much respected backbench Tory, who exclaimed: “It is astonishing that the positive vetting of this officer should either have failed to reveal his homosexual proclivities, or if they were revealed, that it was not regarded as making him a security risk.”

Later in the 1980s, a Tory MP named Harvey Proctor was charged with three acts of gross indecency with one male and one act of gross indecency with another.  The men were prostitutes and all the activity was consensual. But in 1987 the legal age of consent for homosexuals was still 21 and, unbeknown to Proctor, both men were in their late teens. The case caused a sensation.  During Proctor's trial, his solicitor, Sir David Napley, remarked: "If this man had performed equal acts of gross indecency with a female prostitute under the age of 21, he would have committed no offence."

Our age has a different understanding of what is genuinely shocking. It condemns the sexual exploitation of the vulnerable - and particularly of children - with a harshness that would have seemed excessive in the 1980s, while being tolerant now of what was then looked upon as deviance.

The failure to place the sexual abuse of children in a category of its own, as a sinister crime, was not restricted to those who disapproved of sexual licence: there was also a notorious blindness on the part of those who campaigned for a more liberal society. The former Labour cabinet minister, Patricia Hewitt, who was general secretary of the National Council of Civil Liberties in the Seventies and early Eighties, only recently admitted that they were wrong to associate themselves with the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), which was campaigning for the legalisation of sex with children.

Behind closed doors: Geoffrey Dickens only publicly named one person – Sir Peter Hayman Behind closed doors: Geoffrey Dickens only publicly named one person – Sir Peter Hayman (Getty)
Even the youngest MPs in 1984 were old enough to remember when any male homosexual acts were illegal. The change in the law, in 1967, which decriminalised private homosexual acts between men aged over 21, was not intended to make gay men equal under the law or to make homosexual practices socially acceptable: it simply protected them from prosecution, provided they were discreet. There were active homosexuals in both houses of Parliament. What their colleagues demanded of them was, again, discretion. One Labour MP, Chris Smith, courageously came out as gay in 1984; no other MP voluntarily followed his example until well into the 1990s. Things that were known around Westminster stayed in Westminster.

It was common knowledge among his colleagues that the Tory MP for Chester, Sir Peter Morrison, was gay, and it was rumoured that his taste was for boys rather than men, but that was never discussed in public. Sir Peter’s inept handling of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership campaign in 1990 was considered to be a bigger scandal than his private life.

Stories about the disgusting behaviour of the Rochdale MP, Sir Cyril Smith, were published by the unpaid staff of the Rochdale Alternative Paper but did not create sufficient shock for anything to be done.

It is, in retrospect, to the credit of that clumsy Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens that child abuse disgusted him. One of the first campaigns into which he dug his teeth was to have PIE banned. The liberal view at the time was that no matter how much you might disagree with PIE, their right to campaign for the lowering or abolition of the age of consent ought to be respected. Thus when a former Home Office employee, Steven Adrian, speaking as a member of PIE, argued in 1983 that “sexual relationships with a responsible paedophile gives a child a far greater sense of self-respect and self-awareness… It’s a spurious protection against sexual assault, which, in fact, works as a weapon against children’s sexual freedom,” this was duly reported in the media as a point of view, rather than an incitement to criminality.

Geoffrey Dickens believed that the law was being far too soft on people with sexual designs on children. A few months before his arrival in Parliament in 1979, a member of the public had found a package of child pornography on a bus and handed it into the police, who traced it to no less a person than the former High Commissioner to Canada, Sir Peter Hayman, who was also reputedly an officer of MI6. He was a member of PIE, and one of a group of seven men and two women who were writing to each other about their shared interest in child sex. One of the nine was also separately corresponding with a tenth paedophile with whom he shared fantasies about torturing children to death.

Former Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens (Getty) Former Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens (Getty)
Those two were prosecuted, but the case against the other eight was quietly dropped, on the grounds that they were consenting adults who were not making money from pornography. But when Geoffrey Dickens came to hear of it, he used parliamentary privilege in March 1981 to name Sir Peter. His action was widely condemned as an abuse of parliamentary privilege by a publicity-seeking MP.

Sir Peter was the only person Dickens publicly named, though he threatened more than once to name others, including those who featured in the now famous dossier that he passed to the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, in 1983, and that Thatcherite cabinet minister who has never been publicly identified.

Despite the current furore over Dickens’ assertions – and indeed his one-man crusade to unmask establishment wrongdoing – was there really a huge paedophile conspiracy and cover-up from this period that’s waiting to be exposed by Lord Butler-Sloss’s review?

Dickens, who died prematurely in 1995, was not taken seriously in his lifetime. It is suggested that this was because of his working-class background and outsider status, but another factor was his self-defeating behaviour. After he had named Sir Peter Hayman, Dickens announced at a press conference that he was leaving his wife, Norma, for another woman, and then asked the astonished reporters not to use that information until he had had a chance to break the news to Norma. Within a month, he had changed his mind, and told the press that he was back with his wife.

He championed other causes, apart from the protection of children. He was a keen advocate of hanging. In 1982, he tackled the Transport Secretary David Howell – George Osborne’s future father in law – demanding greater security on the railways, because the Chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, had had his trousers stolen on a sleeper train.

That same year, his home was burgled. Dickens suggested in the Commons, without any supporting evidence, that the crime was the work of MI5. In 1990, he called for a debate on the Commons on “the spread of satanism and devil worship in the United Kingdom”.

The Government is rightly taking seriously the apparent disappearance of the dossier Geoffrey Dickens handed over to the Home Office many years ago and the suspicion that there was a cover up – but given how erratic he could be, it may be that if the dossier ever turns up, it will be an anti-climax.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee