Blame the establishment! (But which one?)

The sinister cabals at work under the top-soil of UK society; why Nadine Dorries should be applauded; and a parents' dilemma

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As the Government set about establishing two separate inquiries into the Welsh care-homes scandal of the 1970s and 1980s, with the prospect of an over-arching "super-inquiry" lurking in the background, it became clear that this retrospective conscience-salving is about to transfer itself into areas far removed from its original remit. What was initially an investigation into the abuse of children will, it seems fair to say, soon mutate into an exploration of the abuse of power.

The 1970s have always been fertile ground for exposés of the covert alliances that gang up to bypass the democratic process. One of the best BBC television dramas of the past 20 years is Peter Flannery's Our Friends in the North, which sketched out a wide-ranging and almost entirely corrupt environment involving networks of bent coppers, venal councillors and malign property developers. The fascination of Lewis Baston's later biography of the former Tory Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, who made the mistake of allying himself with the crooked architect John Poulson, was how nearly most of Flannery's fictional treatment approximated to what had actually happened.

A legal expert connected with the Waterhouse report into the Welsh scandal, now being revisited, recently made the point that the difficulty faced by investigators at the time was that most of those claiming to have been abused were youngish men whose post care-home lives had been disrupted by drugs and drink, whereas most of those being accused were inherently plausible – "the kind of people you might meet at the golf club". But the fatal mistake, in reanimating these inquiries, would be to assume that any cover-ups that may be in place are the responsibility of the dark, undifferentiated social mass that generally gets marked down these days as "the establishment".

As even the briefest survey of post-war municipal history soon reminds us, there are, and were, many "establishments" at work beneath the top-soil of UK political and social life. They came from both right and left, but some of the very worst were by-products of municipal socialism. The father of a friend of mine, applying for a school-teaching job in 1960s Merthyr, was urged to petition to the local Labour MP. How this gentleman had the power to ratify a job in the gift of the education authority, no one quite knew, but ratify it he did. In the same way, my father used to maintain that some of the most sinister power-brokers he ever came across as a young man were the gallant ornaments of the Norwich trades council.

***

Just as it was possible to feel a pang of sympathy for Mitt Romney as he stood surveying the chastened Republican hordes on Wednesday morning, while the chilled apple juice booked to mark his victory grew warmer in its vat, so one felt faintly sorry for the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries as she applied herself to the same morning's newspapers. Ms Dorries' decision to head to Australia to appear in the forthcoming series of I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! has been greeted with a variety of responses, ranging from ridicule to outright contempt. The Communities Secretary Eric Pickles will be "ringing in religiously every week to keep her there", while her colleague Sarah Wollaston has complained that "chasing celebrity just undermines the campaign for more women in Parliament".

What we had here, essentially, was a Cakes and Ale moment, named after Sir Toby Belch's penetrating remark to Malvolio in Twelfth Night ("Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"). As for the abandoned electors of Mid-Bedfordshire, Ms Dorries always seems to be a decent constituency MP and only the other week was on her feet in the House lamenting the inadequacy of planning legislation which prevents the citizens of Ampthill from withholding a licence to a lap-dancing club. Then there is the thought that Ms D, when compared with one or two of her backbench rivals, does at least betray some vestige of a human spirit. Accompanying a Cabinet Minister to a football match on behalf of a sports magazine once, I was aghast to find that this titan of the despatch box had brought his press secretary to tape the chat lest he be misrepresented. Set against this instinctive timidity, Ms Dorries looks like a dynamic natural force. The "gaiety of nations" argument in politics is much underestimated.

***

Some of the saddest paragraphs in the obituaries of the American composer Elliott Carter, who died on Monday at the age of 103, covered his relationship with his father. Carter senior not only disliked his son's choice of career but never once attended performances of his music. All this offered a fascinating gloss on the eternal question of just what level of approbation a parent ought to offer his (or her) child.

Great Expectations, the US critic Robert Gottlieb's new book about Dickens's children, establishes a near-infallible pattern, in which papa diagnoses almost supernatural powers in childhood, grows steadily more dispassionate and eventually cuts his losses by packing the boys off to remote corners of the Empire. At the other extreme, Martin Amis's essay about the LA porn industry features an actress whose proud parents turn up at an awards night to cheer her triumph in the "best anal" category. This may be taking a commendable enthusiasm too far.

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