On Monday’s Newsnight, archive footage from an old Michael Cockerell documentary cast some sort of light, however shady and gloomy, on the potential cover-up of political paedophilia.
As brief as it was chilling, as tonally casual as it was factually astonishing, it involved a Conservative MP, now dead, who served as a senior government whip in Edward Heath’s early 1970s administration.
What Tim Fortescue had to say about the whips’ delicate handling of miscreant colleagues, in Cockerell’s 1995 film Westminster’s Secret Service, deserves to be quoted in full. “Anyone with any sense who was in trouble would come to the whips, and tell them the truth,” explained this urbane, slightly diffident old buffer. “They’d say ‘Now listen, I’m in a jam, can you help?’ It might be debt, it might be scandal involving small boys, or any kind of scandal in which...”
The Newsnight report ended the snippet there, though Mr Fortescue continued: “ … in which, erm, er, a member seemed likely to be mixed up, they’d come and ask if we could help, and if we could we did. And we would do everything we can, because we would store up Brownie points... And if I mean, that sounds a pretty, pretty nasty reason, but it’s one of the reasons, because if we could get a chap out of trouble, then he will do as we ask for ever more.”
There is so much there that is mind-achingly, stomach-turningly surreal, even to those well aware of the mafiosi tactics and omerta that has always governed whipping, that it’s hard to know where to start.
With the blithe equivalence of one MP’s financial worries with another’s commission of exceedigly serious crime? With the candid public admission that whips routinely used information that obviously belonged with the police as the leverage with which to blackmail colleagues into lobby fodder obedience? Or with the failure of the police, parliamentary authorities, media and any other supposed guardian of public morality to react in any observable way to what Mr Fortescue said?
What he effectively said is that, on behalf of Her Majesty’s government and in pursuit of parliamentary advantage, he and his ilk not merely abrogated their duty – as politicians, but far more than that, as human beings – to report the sexual abuse of small children. They were accessories after the fact of previous crime, and by ignoring it almost certainly accessories before the fact of future offences.
Once again, as with Savile, the reflex is to splutter with anguished disbelief, and ask yourself what sort of country you have been inhabiting. A former government whip appears on the BBC brazenly confessing to having been an enabler of a grave crime with catastrophic psychological consequences for its victims, and not for nearly 20 years does anyone show the faintest interest?
God alone knows how many children might have been spared if the abuse of others had been deemed more than a minor local difficulty to be confined within the Palace of Westminster, and adapted for us as blackmail.
Decades later, Theresa May’s inquiry won’t be able to find the precise figure. But as to its central question of whether or not there was a cover-up, Tim Fortescue has answered that one from beyond the grave.
One assumes that the Metropolitan Police will immediately want to interview every extant whip, of every party, and to examine any secret files that have survived the shredder and fire grate. No doubt those concerned will squeal the catch-all defence of parliamentary privilege.
Somehow, one suspects, public opinion will be that those concerned have had more than enough of that, and abused it as wickedly as some of them abused children.