A book you have been waiting for!
A book that joins the dots between neoliberalism and sexism, between equal pay, war zones, the veil, The Wire, the web and welfare states…a new way of thinking about where we’re at.
A book you have been waiting for!
A book that joins the dots between neoliberalism and sexism, between equal pay, war zones, the veil, The Wire, the web and welfare states…a new way of thinking about where we’re at.
FUREDI INTO THE ABYSS
Is there a consensus about sexual abuse of children and rape generally? The answer to this question would seem self-evident but it isn’t. There are laws, of course, but laws don’t describe consensus. Nor do they create consensus. Laws may describe prohibitions and rights, but they do not effect either rights or prohibitions.
The eminent lawyer and former Appeal Court judge, Stephen Sedley cautions that ‘Any state can set out rows of shining rights, like medals on a leader’s chest…’ But rights only have meaning, he says, in their implementation, and their application to intractable conflicts of interest.
Long-standing laws proscribing sexual acts with children exemplify Sedley’s point: sexual offences laws attract many-a-medal but few rights. More than 90 per are never reported, and fewer than 10 per cent of reported rapes ever reach a courtroom. Legal prohibitions are not the same as legal rights.
This failure goes to the crux of consensus and whether we mean what we say about sexual assault and rape. Failure to implement the law contributes to the lack of consensus: it doesn’t create it, but it facilitates it. This gap exercises great minds in the criminal justice system, social justice and feminism. It is also the abyss into which sociologist Frank Furedi throws himself. He is a prolific emeritus professor and a go-to-contrarian in the right-wing media. He bundles random hypotheses into purported grand theories about the meaning of modern life, and his methodology is sound-bite rhetoric.
His work is an archetype of child abuse scepticism, a hyperactive, cynical engagement with nowness that masks hubris, an addictive againstness that is parasitical – it squats on terrain, phenomenon and agendas made by others, only to criticise or condemn.
Furedi reads the gap between sexual offences law and implementation as evidence not of hidden crime but of perils imagined by moral crusaders: the gap, therefore, between crimes, reported crime and justice outcomes, is confirmation that sexual abuse is bad but rare. He goes further: irrational paranoias and scandal-mongering menace civil society. Typically, he used the 2012 Jimmy Savile scandal to air a grand theory about the crisis of civilisation as we know it: Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust.
He omits concepts of power, oppression, suffering and inequality, and enlists ‘sexual violence’ instead as a transcendent term: ‘panics’ about rape and child sexual abuse sponsor his complaints about threats to civilisation, consensus, reason, public institutions and public safety, everything.
Let’s consider Furedi’s case and his method.
Consensus: Furedi argues that there is, or rather was, a moral consensus: everybody agrees that sexual abuse of children is wrong. But (contrary to the evidence) he insists that it is rare and it is exaggerated by feminists and other ‘moral entrepreneurs’ for their own political ends.
Furedi argues that moral consensus is being – or has been – disoriented and even displaced by the promotion of distrust in traditional institutions, and aversion to risk and the ordinary hazards of everyday life, ‘There is little consensus even on some of the most elementary questions about the meaning of life,’ he argues
Scandal: A moral apocalypse has been created by scandals that never clarify or clean up society, they just make people feel bad, they lead only to a ‘sense of disorientation’; Irrational suspicion and ‘sightings of new evils are an integral feature’ of moral crusaders who promote an ideology of evil that ‘rarely accepts that a problem has been solved.’
Sacred childhood: Amidst this loss of faith in the established order, he suggests, an idealised icon of hope glows, it is the child, a sacred ideal of innocence, an optimistic gleam in an otherwise incoherent world. Thus, he argues, we insulate childhood from sex and everything else, children are sacralised and sequestered, under the perpetual surveillance of anxious parents fearful of everything outside their domestic bubble.
He offers no evidence. Nor does he consider trans-Atlantic debates about the sexualisation of children in popular culture and the polarisation between masculinities and femininities in the marketing of childhood.
Culture of fear: He accuses paranoid adults of seeing sexual abuse everywhere – we won’t let our children just be; we invest not in their future but our own. We smother children not with love but with fear. His misanthropic prospectus brings a cynical frown to anti-oppressive movements and leads him to defend traditional institutions and consensus from challenge.
Thus, he claims panic is induced by the ‘tendency to massively inflate the peril of paedophilia’; scandals – typically the Jimmy Savile scandal – are a ‘moral crusade’, exemplified by the police inviting ‘the entire nation to recollect any incident of abuse that might have happened to them in the past’; by feminists contending ‘that the majority of young girls and women are subjected to some form sexual abuse by family members’ – for this he offers no evidence. He relies on the arch sceptic Richard Webster, who also offers no evidence.
There is a loss of authority, he says, exemplified by a chilling example, ‘the Catholic Church has lost significant moral capital as a result of the involvement of a few of its clergy in a series of sexual abuse scandals.’ Well, yes.
Crisis of authority: loss of trust derives not from the impact of survivors and radical social movements, not from the rise of democracy and the decline of deference, not from political scrutiny, but from moral crusaders, self-interested moral profiteers who exploit a few mistakes and misdemeanours to terrify everyone into feeling that they just can’t leave the house.
So successful has this been, he says, that even the authority of judges is called into question. He cites the movements to revisit the Hillsborough stadium disaster and abuse in North Wales children’s homes: The independent panel of inquiry into the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster in which 89 people lost their lives ‘called into question’ the inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor. Furedi is wrong – the panel vindicated the Taylor inquiry and went further by accessing evidence of wrongdoing by South Yorkshire police that was unavailable to Taylor. The launch of the review by Julia Macur into the evidence available to Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s inquiry and his report, Lost in Care, ‘indicates that the authority of judicial independence is not beyond question.’ It might have. But, wrong again, the issue was not ‘the authority of judicial independence’ but whether Waterhouse had full access to evidence, and the ability to investigate it.
There is, for sure, an important debate to be had about the conditions in which scandals and public inquiries do or do not sponsor political change. The scandals following the Aberfan colliery disaster in 1966, Hull’s triple trawler tragedies in the 1968, the thalidomide drug scandal in the 1950s-60s, all exposed reckless disregard for safety.
The inquiries did not necessarily yield reform: in Aberfan the National Coal Board, the trade unions and civic authorities, were all implicated, and the potential agents of challenge and change were, therefore, compromised.
It took a decade – after mighty, lonely campaigns by the women of the fishermen’s families – before new laws regulated the fishing industry; It took three decades of campaigning by the Hillsborough relatives movement and the people of Liverpool, for the authorities responsible for the Hillsborough football stadium disaster to be called to account; it took four decades for relatives of the British Army’s murderous action on Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland, to get the full story of what happened to the 13 unarmed people shot by the British Army.
All of these outcomes were contingent on whether the truth could ever be told, by whom, and to whom – to everyone? – and on whether it was made to matter. These are questions of political culture, the ‘balance of forces’ and hegemony. Politics and power, however, are nowhere in in Furedi’s chronicle, in which scandal is moralised rather than politicised.
A good example is telephone hacking, cited by Furedi as just another blow to institutions and reputations. The ‘crime’ at the heart of the hacking scandal was industrial scale, illegal hacking of people’s telephone conversations. Although it was initially represented as the price celebrities pay for being seen, the politics of hacking came alive in the House of Commons Culture Select Committee hearings in 2011. That was when the traffic of personnel between the Metroplitan police, the Murdoch press and Downing Street was disclosed. That was the moment when the hacking scandal became much more than the invasion of individuals’ privacy – though that was cruel enough; that was when we learned of secret and illegal surveillance that circulated between, and served the interests, of the Met, Downing Street and the Murdoch media empire.
The Murdoch media had established a symbiotic relationship between hackers, senior Metropolitan police officers, and Downing Street. They could spy on anyone. They could ruin anyone – not least their adversaries.
Children, teenagers, sex and violence: Furedi’s modus operandi appeared in 2012 in a blog that indicated his general approach to sex and sex crime.
In 2012 the British government launched a campaign directed at teenagers about sexual violence in relationships, and in particular, boys’ sense of entitlement. That year the parenting website Mumsnet launched its own campaign We Believe You campaign against rape.
The Home Office initiative was a novel campaign that fielded a ‘top man’, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, to promote equality in young people’s sexual relationships.
Furedi rushed into print. He had been triggered by an advert on London Underground, ‘REAL MEN GET RAPED… Talking about it takes real strength.’ He admitted that he didn’t get it. But that didn’t stop him. He threw in a third ingredient, the trial of two boys convicted of attempting to rape an eight-year-old girl. ‘The Home Office campaign is so obsessed with ‘raising awareness’ about an alleged epidemic of sexual violence that it wouldn’t recognise a healthy teenage relationship if it bumped into one. Once rape has been redefined as a normal feature of human relationships, it will end up being ‘discovered’ everywhere,’ he protested, so boys had been subjected to a ‘showtrial for being naughty and were convicted of attempted rape at the Old Bailey in London’ despite the fact that the eight-year-old ‘admitted in court that she had made up the story of her ordeal’.
There was indeed widespread unease among children’s advocates about the criminal trial. However, the boys were not tried for being ‘naughty’ and it wasn’t a ‘showtrial’. The judge and the lawyers divested themselves of their usual wigs and gowns, and during the trial the boys were allowed to sit with their mothers.
In 2010, the boys had been seen taking the girl to various locations to attack her. The girl’s mother had told been another boy that they were ‘hurting’ the girl ‘and doing really bad things.’ The mother found the boys in a field where they were trying to assault her daughter. The girl had been consistent in her evidence at the time, but under cross-examination at the Old Bailey, she retracted. (Not unusual.)
Nonetheless, the jury believed her contemporaneous statements and delivered a guilty verdict.
The implication was that the Home Office campaign had pathologised intimate relationships between young people. Furedi went further, he mounted a defence of pressure: ‘pressure – unwanted or wanted – is integral to every attempt to strike up a sexual relationship.’ It is? How does he know? And should it? Is that how it is for him? Generalising from masculine intuition, he complains that heterosexuality is being criminalised by efforts to clarify what is meant by sexual violence and the question of consent.
The Home Office campaign could hardly bear the weight given it by Furedi: Theresa May, who was then Home Secretary (and later Prime Minister) supported women’s movements’ attempts to improve the criminal justice system’s response to rape. She recognised that the system should not just seek to prosecute perpetrators but to prevent abuse.
Research conducted among teenagers by Bristol University scholars revealed that 90 per cent had been in an intimate relationship, 30 per cent of girls experienced violence from a partner; a sixth of girls felt pressured to have ‘sexual intercourse’ and one in 16 had been raped; one in 17 boys felt pressured into sex.
The Home Office then commissioned a campaign to raise teenagers’ awareness. But the Department of Education and Secretary of State Michael Gove baulked at spreading the campaign to schools – the most obvious location. Despite research showing that publicity didn’t penetrate unless accompanied by action to engage people in the issues, there was no follow-up in schools. May tackled Gove about this, but to little avail. ‘A sorry story,’ confided one of the officials involved.
Mumsnet: Furedi also trashed a parallel campaign by the online parenting network, Mumsnet. It conducted a survey of 1,600 women that confirmed long-standing findings from other research: 10 per cent had been raped, 30 per cent had been sexually assaulted, 80 per cent didn’t report these attacks to the police.
Mumsnet had created a phantom, he said, ‘The process through which this fantasy was concocted is fairly typical of the modern pathologisation of sexual relations. First, an online poll carried out by an advocacy group is miraculously transformed by a journalist into ‘research’. And of course, there is no need to raise any questions about how the poll was conducted or how representative was the sample on which it was based. Then, by the time the story hits the rest of the media, it is yet another case of ‘New research shows…’ – a phrase we hear all the time these days, and which should always set alarm bells ringing. Finally, the 80 per cent claim is magically converted into fact.’
He accused feminist scholars of promoting ‘an epidemic of rape’ by their ‘methodological exaggeration of male violence.’ Not only did they inflate the figures, he said, ‘they constructed survey questions that stripped sexual acts of context and, therefore complication, ‘Since that time, discrete acts of rape have been so denuded of meaning that they have become indistinguishable from the normal ambiguities, tensions and pressures involved in everyday sexual encounters.’
Furedi himself could have inquired into the conduct and methdology of the poll. He only needed to ask Mumsnet. He didn’t. I did.
Mumsnet explained that, of course, surveys among their members are not representative samples, they are Mumsnet users. Mumsnet explained: What had been learned was that ‘official data can miss important aspects, because it’s not asking enough questions, or asking the right questions. In lots of other situations, the official record is simply silent because the research is never undertaken.’
The rape survey and the campaign emerged from online conversations, ‘Mumsnet is a female-dominated site where users are anonymous, and as such it is an environment where women can talk about sex, bodily functions and the nuances of relationships in great detail, and without being told to pipe down. And that has a significant effect on the kinds of conversations that take place.
‘The campaign grew out of an entirely organic set of discussions and surveys that the users themselves carried out. What was really noticeable about those user conversations was the way in which users were led, by other women, towards the naming of their experiences as rape or sexual assault.
‘Incidents that they had previously thought of as ‘just a bit off’ or ‘don’t know whether that was OK’ or ‘I haven’t thought about it for years’ or ‘I suppose I didn’t say no and scream and shout’ became recognised for what they were – rape and/or sexual assault. So, the survey that we carried out was conducted in an atmosphere of heightened awareness among our users.’
Mumsnet explained to me that, ‘the definition of rape and sexual assault to cover all non-consensual sexual activity is challenging, especially for people – not all of them men – who have grown up believing that a bit of slightly forcible slap-and-tickle is nothing to make a fuss about.
‘We have seen users on Mumsnet become extremely angry and upset when other users tell them that the experiences they’re relating – sex instigated while they were asleep, anal sex taking place suddenly or without discussion, condoms being promised but not worn – were non-consensual and thus categorisable as a criminal offence; the women themselves don’t always want to see their experiences and their relationships that way. So, it’s not only Furedi who struggles with this.’
A year after Mumsnet’s survey, it was vindicated by Office for National Statistics figures showing that only around 15% of rapes are reported to the police.
Furedi does not report official statistics, instead he finds the main culprits in a coven of feminist academics and journalists, primarily Mary Koss and Ms Magazine. There is indeed a story here (though Furedi doesn’t tell it) about the politics and technologies of measurement when surveys delve into the most intimate and defended crimes. Feminist researchers had criticised official surveys for failing to address context and complication, as well as official under-reporting.
Koss and her colleague Cheryl Oros published the first rape survey showing that only a quarter of women who had experienced legally-defined rape described it as rape. Her work attracted the attention of Ms magazine, which sponsored a federally-funded survey on rape among college students. Koss was writing in the context of a revolution in rape awareness and research, not least the discovery in the 1980s that official statistics, based on police reports and national crime surveys, did not reach into or record women’s experiences.
The Ms Magazine survey discovered that a quarter of students had been victims of rape or attempted rape, yet only a quarter of those whose assault met the legal definition actually named it as rape. This is the story of ‘one-in-four’ and the entry of ‘date rape’ into the lexicon of sexual politics.
It became a template, regularly revisited and refined, for research on sexual violence. Bonnie Fisher and Francis Cullen, writing in 2000 about the development of measurement, ‘Measuring the Victimization of Women: Evolution of Current Controversies and Future Research’, comment that, ‘What they developed, therefore, was systems of criteria, measurement, and vocabulary that were sufficiently subtle to cope with women’s reticence, shame and ambivalence about their experience, particularly in the context of entrenched social scripts about sex and violence.
‘Researchers have come to realise that conceptually defining and then operationalising sexual victimisation are complicated and, to a degree, imperfect enterprises—especially when deciding when an unwanted sexual advance crosses the line from imprudence to criminal behaviour.’
They also had to anticipate and address the inevitable criticism that as activist academics they would find what they were looking for. The methodological challenges ‘opened the way for conservative commentators to charge that the supposed “epidemic of rape” is an invention of feminist scholars.’
Scholars and pundits remained divided. Was the perceived extent of rape a ‘constructed’ or real public health and justice problem? What were the linguistic and psychological implications of these dissonant narratives?
After decades of experimentation, surveys have become more refined, yet ‘Letting a woman tell her own story’ doesn’t necessarily resolve the discrepancies: half of women describing acts legally-defined as rape still did not consider it to be rape. It is when acts are described explicitly that rape estimates increase.
Bonnie Fisher comments that how people construct incidents ‘may be a large, not a small, source of “measurement error” in how people respond to questions.’ The implications are heavy, ‘For virtually any other crime (e.g., larceny, burglary, robbery), the idea of measuring objective, rather than socially constructed, reality would raise barely a ripple of concern.’
The early feminist estimates have been consistently confirmed in the US by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and in the UK by the Office for National Statistics. In 2016 the BJS published a survey which found that 20 per cent of students had been sexually assaulted since entering college, and 34 per cent during their lifetime. In the UK, in 2016 the Office of National Statistics published the first official breakdown of on children and rape statistics derived from the National Crime Survey. (The ONS updated its child sexual abuse findings in 2019). The breakdown showed that 30 per cent of rape victims are children
Furedi didn’t get it. But ‘It looks as though our ‘concoction’ was not too far off the mark,’ commented Mumsnet.
Witch hunting in North Wales
In lush mountainous Wales, an English literary scribe, Richard Webster, wandered, with his tape recorder, formulating a hypothesis that witch hunters were stalking its green hills and valleys. Webster didn’t believe in witches, of course, but he believed that other people behaved as if they did, hunting out an imaginary enemy within: a child sex abuser. Webster became an influential sceptic whose attention had been caught by the Cleveland child abuse controversy in 1987 and who, in the decades that followed, elaborated a quasi-conspiracy theory about the ‘creation’ of child sexual abuse. In the 1990s he was outraged by the convictions of men running cruel regimes in children’s homes in Staffordshire and Leicestershire – the Pindown regime and the Frank Beck convictions for sexual abuse: moral panic and witch hunting was afoot, he charged in his 1998 book, The Great Children’s Home Panic.
He became the stand-out champion of men convicted of rape and buggery of vulnerable children over whom they exercised almost absolute power, whose authority was guaranteed by their control over institutions in which children were effectively incarcerated. Their victims, by contrast, he maligned as scoundrels and ingrates.
He made the extravagant claim to a Home Affairs parliamentary committee on 14 May 2002 that investigations into children’s homes in Wales were witch hunts ‘without parallel’, that 80-90 per cent of around 580 suspects were ‘completely innocent.’ His grandiose exposition was that zealots and moral crusaders were spreading moral panic and that pro-active policing into suspected sexual abuse was creating miscarriages of justice. He wrote a book about the investigation into Bryn Estyn children’s home in North Wales, which he averred was ‘one of the most extraordinary stories in recent British history’. That made him, too, extraordinary – by association.
Something about men being accused of sexually abusing children and young people roused his indignation. At a time when most constabularies in Britain were investigating sadism and sexual abuse in children’s homes he rose to the defence of the accused in his 736-page book Bryn Estyn: the Making of a Modern Witch Hunt, self-published in 2005.
Webster became the influential vector of a hypothesis floated during the 1990s and 2000s, that was all the more alluring for being airless, excessive and derived from the denials of convicted sex offenders. He became an exemplar of bookish scepticism that was less about scrutiny of the sequence of events than mere disbelief. Webster also came to be regarded as saintly. After he died, his collaborator Bob Woffinden, a campaigner against miscarriages of justice, wrote an obituary in The Guardian on 31 July 2011: Webster’s ‘generosity and big-heartedness were extraordinary,’ he wrote
But Webster’s vaunted kindness did not extend to the victims, particularly the dozen young men who died or killed themselves as a result of their experiences in the North Wales children’s homes gulag.
Webster’s theory and practice
His intellectual mooring lay in his critique of Sigmund Freud and in Norman Cohn’s history of medieval movements of mass delusion.
Webster’s 1995 book Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis claimed that not only was Freud’s ‘seduction theory’ of childhood abuse (later repudiated by the great man) wrong, but Freud was also wrong to retract: it was all wrong. Freud had ‘cajoled’ his patients into creating memories of events that never happened. So, Freud, his apostles and – above all – his feminist critics were all implicated in an epochal con.
Webster found inspiration in Norman Cohn’s book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, a study of ‘millenarian fantasies,’ collective delusions, cults and ‘dreadful irrational fantasies’ in Europe during the Middle Ages. However, he misrepresented Cohn’s thesis: Cohn had compared the great peasant revolts with the millenarians: the peasant revolts were mass movements, highly organised, coherent and focused; the millenarians, he argued, were by contrast isolated, alienated and marginal.
The modern discovery and re-discovery of sexual abuse has no equivalent in millenarian or witch hunt histories: unlike them it is anchored in real events, not outsiders, cults or quacks; mass experience that has found articulation in the health and welfare professions, feminism, criminal justice, and the laws of modern states.
Webster promotes a theory of contagion among social workers, police, therapists and feminists who ‘retreat from practically all forms of scepticism,’ and who share an ‘ideological taboo against disbelieving any allegations of child sexual abuse.’ He offers no empirical research to substantiate this grand hypothesis.
In 2005 the Orwell Press – founded in 1988 by Webster himself – published his magnum opus, The Secret of Bryn Estyn. It is commended on the cover by a cadre of eminent sceptics. Prof Jean La Fontaine comments that he ‘admirably succeeded’ in doing what the ‘police and public inquiries failed to do: discover what really happened.’ What really happened, apparently, was mass delusion.
That’s not what two expert inquiries discovered: one led by a social services director John Jillings, was long-suppressed, the other, a judicial inquiry by Sir Ronald Waterhouse, had no doubt that what really happened was all too real: widespread sexual abuse. The 2000 Waterhouse report, Lost in Care, described boys’ experience of Bryn Estyn as, ‘a form of purgatory or worse’ from which children emerged more damaged than when they entered and for whom the future had become even more bleak.’
The star in Webster’s book, The Secret of Bryn Estyn is himself: Webster places himself and his method at the centre of the story. He describes his tools, his battery-powered tape recorder, his journey to a strange country where he offers guidance in the phonetics of Welsh – a language which very few people speak in Wrexham where Bryn Estyn is located – and which, I am assured by a Welsh-speaker he doesn’t get quite right. He provides maps for seekers-after-truth whose sense of North Wales is likely to be mountains, lakes, choirs, second homes, rather than institutions incarcerating naughty boys. His promiscuous details hold out the reassuring promise of really knowing things, of being there.
He establishes himself as a passionate champion of convicted sex offenders, and the scourge of social workers, journalists and police officers and, not least, the wounded survivors of Bryn Estyn’s purgatory.
The North Wales narrative began in the mid-‘80s with an indefatigable social worker, Alison Taylor: boys had been telling her about violence and sexual abuse in children’s homes; she discovered that other carers and social workers had reported allegations, to no avail. Taylor reported the allegations to managers and then to police. In 1987 she was suspended after passing on the allegations to the police. She didn’t give up and in the early ‘90s delivered a dossier to the authorities. It emerged that 10 reports had been made to the local authority before her own. In 1994, former social services director John Jillings began an inquiry, together with Jane Tunstall and Gerrilyn Smith. Lack of co-operation by the authorities almost forced the Jillings team to quit. In the event, the panel produced a report which the local authority insurers demanded be destroyed. In fact, some copies were shared under elaborately secret circumstances with some journalists. It was not until 2013 – with the renewal of public interest in child sexual abuse – that the Jillings Report was made public.
Alison Taylor also took the story to the press – it was covered in Wales and the reporter Dean Nelson got the story into the Independent on Sunday and thus the London media.
Nelson’s previous experience had taught him that the victims could be vulnerable and sharing their story could feel like a journey back to hell. ‘I went first to the NSPCC to make sure there would be some counselling for people,’ Nelson told me. Contrary to the myth that disclosure is easy, encouraged by 15 minutes of fame, or compensation, some of the men he met just could not endure the telling of it. Nelson’s reports also referred to allegations about police involvement – notably a recently-retired police officer. He was unnamed superintendent Gordon Anglesea. Anglesea sued Nelson, the Independent on Sunday and several other press and television organisations, and in 1994 he was awarded a massive £375,000 in damages.
Webster would not accept that Peter Howarth was a sex offender who terrorised his pupils at Bryn Estyn: no, he was a martyr who had a gift for ‘reading difficult adolescents’ and who was ‘keen on bringing out any hidden potential he might divine.’ Their exposure of Peter Howarth’s notorious regime, he protested, ‘constitutes one of the most terrible instances of collective ingratitude which is to be found in recent history.’
Anglesea got his comeuppance, however, when a fresh investigation, Operation Pallial, was launched in 2012 in the wake of a new wave of historic abuse allegations. Anglesea was prosecuted and jailed in 2016.
John Allen, the owner of several children homes in North Wales, that earned him an estimated £30 million paid by local authorities to ‘care’ for vulnerable children from all over the country, was also re-investigated, prosecuted and jailed for life.
Webster’s book had repeated the slur that the accusers did it for the money and blamed Nelson for the deaths of three witnesses who killed themselves after Anglesea’s successful libel trial. He implied that Nelson set them up, ‘witness manipulation’ the saintly Webster called it.
‘Webster couldn’t understand that all this was so painful to these men,’ Nelson told me. Webster never met Nelson, but confidently accused him of being ‘credulous’ for taking the North Wales victims seriously.
Webster’s critique of the Bryn Estyn investigation rests on his attempts to discredit both the accusers and the messengers. While the Waterhouse report commends whistle-blower Alison Taylor, the social worker who first called attention to the assaults on boys, Webster condemns her.
In her attempts to expose violence and abuse, he wrote, she ‘almost inevitably bestowed upon herself a quite extraordinary degree of power.’ Power? Taylor’s efforts were rewarded by dismissal in 1987 and disrespect by people who really did have power – police and public service managers. All she had was knowledge but that didn’t give her power.
Webster’s review of the Waterhouse report in the New Statesman on 13 March 2000, headlined Can a Whistleblower be Wrong? re-iterated his rather obsessive grievances about her. It provoked a successful libel action by Taylor against Webster and the New Statesman. She won and secured a settlement that required Webster and the New Statesman to read out in court an apology and a retraction. Webster wouldn’t have it, and went back to court, where Britain’s senior libel judge, Mr Justice David Eady, ruled that the requirement to read out the retraction would be ‘unjust and unfair both the general readership of the New Statesman and the public more widely and to Mr Webster.’
Pro-active police investigations of children’s homes were known to their critics as ‘police trawls.’ In the early 2000s, complaints about these investigations prompted the the parliamentary Home affairs Select Committee to launch an inquiry. Webster, Woffinden and journalist David Rose presented the case against them to the Committee in 2002, Webster argued they were ‘intrinsically dangerous.’ Rose proposed that perhaps 50 innocent men out of 100 suspects had been wrongly convicted. Woffinden argued for a strict, three-year time limit on investigations and prosecutions. All three claimed that compensation was an incitement to falsely accuse.
The troika had a sympathetic ear in the committee chair, Labour MP, Chris Mullin. But the committee’s report in 2002 did not agree that the allure of compensation attracted false allegations and convictions; it did not agree to statutory time limit, it did not call a halt to the police inquiries. It reminded the police that they had a legal duty to investigate if they suspected criminal activity.
Yet the hearings had a chill effect. A decade later the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer commented, ‘the concern was that the police might have been over-eager in some cases, with the risk that false allegations might be made. Ten years later, post-Savile, the concern is that the police failed to give complainants more information, in particular to tell them that there were other complainants who might also be prepared to support a prosecution.’ A new consensus was needed, he said.
The deaths of Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith released many muted voices. In 2012 allegations of historic abuse in North Wales were revisited and in 2013 Gordon Anglesea was arrested. Webster didn’t live to see Anglesea back in court. Some his victims didn’t live to see it either. But there were others, and they did.
In 2016 Anglesea was convicted and jailed for 12 years for sexual offences against boys between 1982-87. He died in prison.
Webster didn’t live to witness the demise of Anglesea and fresh investigations in North Wales. His reputation lived on, however: he had become a doyen of British scepticism about sexual abuse, consulted and cited by scholars and journalists, wrapping what the Australian criminologist Michael Salter describes as the excitable ‘pleasures of disbelief’, in a seemingly erudite account of the TRUTH. Not as he saw it, not as you might see it, but simply the truth.
Webster exemplifies scepticism as a form of negative faith. He mounted one conspiracy theory to vanquish another: professionals talking to each other, researching, going to conferences! A kind of cruel piety gripped his life, he spent years being a champion of convicted serial sex offenders, shunning the suffering of their victims, and learning nothing about what people do with their troubles, or wherein trouble resides.
Peter Ellis cases rises from the dead
New Zealand’s child abuse controversy: sex offender gets to the Supreme Court
A case that flooded New Zealand’s media a quarter of a century ago came back to life when the Supreme Court took the radical decision on 2 September 2020 to hear a third appeal by Peter Ellis against his conviction and imprisonment for sexual offences against children in a Christchurch creche – despite his death a year earlier.
Parents were horrified – including mothers who had initially resisted their children’s complaints about Peter Ellis, who blamed themselves for their children’s sudden, alarming behaviour, and who, confronted by their children’s persistence, were eventually persuaded.
It was grim, too, for children who had been the prime witnesses in the criminal trial and who were faced yet again, with a crusade to impugn their testimony – evidence that had been accepted by judge and jury in a criminal trial in 1993, two Appeal Courts and a judge-led independent review in 2001. Their evidence had been vivid, robust, consistent and accepted. And for three decades it has been traduced by Ellis’s supporters and advocates of the notions that children are susceptible to suggestion and that child abuse is an urban legend whipped up by witch-hunters. The case was a cornucopia of vehement conflict during the 1990s about children’s evidence, memory, professional practice, witch-hunts, moral panic, feminism, child care, everything.
Peter Ellis had been an unsettled, flamboyant New Zealander in his late 20s who’d been in trouble with the law before he had the good fortune to be allocated a job in Christchurch Civic Creche in 1986 as part of his probation.
It was a time when New Zealand, like the UK and many other countries, was reforming its approach to childhood adversity. In the government published a review that announced that ‘ill-treatment and neglect are not uncommon and occur in all sections of our society,’ it introduced the 1989 Children and Young Persons, and their Families Act, and appointed a Commissioner for Children. This was also a time when men were being encouraged to work in a field they’d hitherto avoided, child care.
According to a judicial inquiry into the case by Thomas Eichelbaum, Ellis was known as ‘an outgoing, uninhibited, unconventional person,’ sometimes ‘risqué and outrageous.’ He was gay, but that was no bar to his job; he was trusted by many parents, ‘although according to what children said in their interviews, his boisterous games, tricks and teasing were not universally appreciated.’ His friend and advocate, Lynley Hood, noted in her 650-page bestseller on the case, A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case, that he was also a drinker – he’d have a drink at lunchtimes whilst working at the creche.
It all began in 1991 when a boy told his parents that he ‘hated Peter’s black penis’. (Peter Ellis was white). The remark was reported to the creche, Ellis was suspended, an investigation began, parents were alerted and over the next 2 years 118 children were interviewed. Most made no allegations of abuse, but 20 children did. In June 1993 Ellis was convicted and jailed for 10 years for abuse, including penetration.
In 1994 Ellis appealed. The appeal was dismissed. In 1999 he appealed again – according to Lynley Hood, he believed that the children’s evidence ‘had been given a weight and confidence to which it was not entitled’, and furthermore it had been given ‘unjustified credibility because of misconceptions about children’s evidence’; the evidence should have been treated at least with the greatest of caution and at best by total exclusion.’
The story had flooded the media, Ellis acquired ardent champions, notably Lynley Hood, some alleged mental instability in some parents and the malevolence of child protection professionals, who were accused of going to conferences and contaminating each other, children and parents with their ideas, of being feminists or christians, and of being wrong.
The case became a test of children’s credibility. Their evidence was subjected to intense pre-trial assessment and argument, a criminal trial and two Appeal Courts. The second appeal in 1999 had relied heavily upon submissions by two eminent scholars – frequent witnesses for the defence: Stephen Ceci and Maggie Bruck, whose research focused on children’s suggestibility. The appeal was dismissed.
It was a classic case of the child sexual abuse backlash, the memory wars’ and what the American political scientist Ross Chiet calls the witch-hunt narrative.
The Eichelbaum Report
After Ellis was released from prison he resolved to go on making his case, now for a free pardon and Royal Commission of Inquiry. The Ministry of Justice didn’t concede a Royal Commission, but it commissioned an independent inquiry by former Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum.
His task was to investigate and report on current best practice in interviews with children and the investigation of multiple abuse cases, and to assess whether the Civic Creche case had been conducted accordingly. He was also required to consider several other inquiries, including Cleveland and Orkney, and Britain ’s Memorandum of Good Practice regulating interviews with children.
Here’s what he concluded: During the trial the defence argued that the questioning of the children had been oppressive. He acknowledged that, ‘the ideal position would be if the evidence of the complainants in such cases arose clearly and precisely, without any previous questioning, but it would be unreal to have any such expectation.’ It was also acknowledged that parents had been talking to each other, but the judge in the criminal case had not been persuaded that this had a ‘deleterious’ effect on the children’s evidence.
The defence claimed that the prosecution had been selective in its presentation of the video-taped interviews to the court, and withheld some disclosures that were deemed outlandish. The trial judge had allowed the defence to play any or all of the tapes to the jury. In the event, the defence played some of the tapes. Eichelbaum commented, ‘This merits emphasis, since there seems to be a common misconception that the jury was unaware of the bizarre allegations’.
Eichelbaum enlisted two international experts to assess the children’s interviews: Prof. Graham Davies, an expert on children’s testimony, and a contributor to Britain’s Memorandum of Good Practice, a guide to the conduct of interviews, and a Canadian psychologist, Dr Louise Sas, a specialist on the impact of trauma and the conditions in which children disclose sexual abuse.
Prof Davies did not find any evidence to support contamination, he thought some interviews were too long or repetitive, but he concluded that there were few gross violations, and by the standards of 2000 the quality of the interviews stood up ‘surprisingly well’, in fact, the standard was ‘exceptional for the time.’
Dr Sas regarded the child witnesses as reliable, and she ‘expressed the view that there would probably have been more convictions, had the contamination issue not been given such prominence.’
Lay to rest
Eichelbaum concluded that, the formal interviewing was ‘of a high standard for its time. Even by present day standards it was of a good overall quality. The interviews did not meet best practice standards in every respect, and if that degree of perfection were the test, few if any interviews of this kind would pass.’
His report offers a full account of the children’s allegations, their context and timing. An alternative account is provided by Lynley Hood’s book, A City Possessed. It invoked medieval witch hunts to argue that child abuse is ‘a major folk tale theme’ that now emerged as ‘urban legends.’ She insisted that – contrary to the evidence – most abused children ‘disclose voluntarily’ and most ‘suffer no long-term harm’.
Quiet Christchurch, she wrote, had been seized by moral panic and mass hysteria, an ‘inferno’ fanned by a coalition of feminists, child protection professionals and Christians and implausible children’s stories.
Hood had no evidence that was not available to jurors and judges. They were just wrong, she wrote. What she did have, however was disbelief. The problem was not sexual crimes against children, but ‘the models used by Eichelbaum, Davies and Sas that coerced children and ‘may seem in themselves to be forms of abuse.’
In the end, Eichelbaum had counselled that quality of interviews had been exhaustively ‘traversed in detail’ and revisited by a total of seven judges, ‘Mr Ellis’s case has had the most thorough examination possible.’ His wish, he said, was that the case ‘should now be allowed to rest.’
But it wasn’t allowed to rest.
In July 2019 the Supreme Court allowed Ellis another appeal. But then he died. In September 2020 the Supreme Court made the radical announcement that the case would go ahead – on the basis, in part, of the Maori tikanga tradition that a person’s prestige and reputation endures after death and extends to the person’s wider family.
The expert reports provided to Eichelbaum concerned the efficacy of the interviews with children, their memory and reliability and the implications of their behavior in the context of the abuse. The experts enlisted by Peter Ellis revisited the enduring debates about trauma, memory and suggestibility. These, said the Supreme Court, ‘raise issues of general and public importance and significant issues.’
These ‘significant issues’ have dominated debates about child sexual abuse for decades. Psychologists in New Zealand have noticed the alarming rise of applications to the courts, ‘mostly by defence counsel,’ to admit expert evidence about memory. Research published by the specialists Suzanne Blackwell, Fred Seymour and Sarah Mandeno, on applications covering the last 20 years, published in the summer of 2020 found that these were ‘almost exclusively in the context of sexual violence trials.’
The doyen of American law and psychology Thomas D. Lyon explains in his 2019 essay, Child Witnesses that the overwhelming ‘difficulties children encounter in disclosing abuse’ leads most of them to remain ‘silent and only the most forthright children to disclose.’ Very few pre-schoolers make it to criminal court and as a result, investigators and the criminal justice system, typically encounter only children who are ‘unusually willing to disclose but susceptible to pressures to deny and recant.’
So, in New Zealand, the evidence of Ellis’s victims, who had been ‘unusually willing’ to speak, were to be excavated again: like the undead, never laid to rest.
ON BEING NICE – DREAM ON
Molly Scott Cato is one of the Green Party’s popular politicians, an economist, and until recently an admired Euro MP for the South-West. She is likely to be elected to the party’s executive in forthcoming elections where – many of her supporters have been hoping – she will confront the bitter conflict over gender politics and encourage a kinder, gentler temper.
Then on 29 June she tweeted an accusation: why was labour leader Kier Starmer being ‘so timid in defence of trans rights? Transwomen are women; transmen are men…’ Whoa, how did she know that Starmer was being timid? Maybe he didn’t want to be snared on admittedly ‘difficult’ terrain.
Like her, he urges people to be nicer. Unlike the Green Party, the Labour leader suggests that law reform to enhance trans rights ‘takes us into difficult questions,’ that should be considered ‘in a mature, calm way.’ By contrast the Green Party leaders say there is no difficulty, no debate.
Scott Cato’s assertion attracted over 100 responses in no time, unusually polite, and mostly challenging her recital of extreme trans dogma that ‘transwomen are women; transmen are men’ and ‘no debate.’
Her tweet synchronised with an emission on the same day from the green direct action movement, Extinction Rebellion that typified what passes for political manifestos these days, it put up a pledge:
‘We do not believe that the existence of trans people…is a topic that is up for debate…transwomen are women, transmen are men…this is not up for debate.’ A torrent of protests followed and unhappy moderators found themselves having to defend a pledge the provenance of which was seemingly a mystery even to them.
Of course, trans people exist. And trans rights aren’t at risk from debate – people do not die from debate. But women’s rights and resources are at grave risk not only from the effects of ‘austerity’, funding regimes, but also from and extreme trans activism seeking to silence women and assail feminist organisations.
There is a fundamental problem – already evident in politics, in the institutions, from banks to publishers, in the voluntary sector, in sport, and in schools and universities – if a man is a woman because he says he is, then the category woman is emptied of meaning. How can we address the fact that women everywhere in the world are put upon, discriminated against, oppressed, under-paid, unpaid, raped and disrespected because they are women?
And how can we make the connections – vital for Green politics – between thoroughly gendered pillage, exploitation, pollution and patriarchy that is manifest from the Congo to the Amazon?
No sooner was the Extinction Rebellion pledge up than unhappy posts asked who decided this, what does it mean, what about women? ‘If it helps I’m not enjoying it very much either,’ lamented a besieged moderator.
Scott Cato addressed the flood following her tweet by saying that yes, she too, wanted to end the toxicity that is stifling the Green Party. But telling members to play nicely is no match for bullying. The authoritarian and narcissistic mantra ‘there is no debate’ is biblical not political, it is, in fact, the antithesis of politics.
The academic Sarah Ahmed goes so far as to defend ‘no debate’ and no-platforming of feminists in this way, ‘we do not agree that freedom of speech is freedom to speak unaccountably.’ But no-platforming, blocking and not-debating precisely prevents speaking accountably, it proscribes speaking, hearing and active participation in the very production of politics.
IS THERE OR ISN”T THERE…?
Scott Cato and Extinction Rebellion were doing what they were simultaneously denying: they were participating in a debate it whilst prohibiting it.
Scott Cato clearly wants to heal a party suffering from septic shock, but her benign injunction is too late: playing nicely assumes that the players want to play, that they share an interest in the game, that they recognise politics as a context for necessary, peaceful, creative conflict – all of which is extinguished by ‘there is no debate’.
To understand this impasse, we need to go beyond the etiquette and structures of the Green Party to its sexual politics: it is liberal rather than radical and feminist, all about choice – choosing to sell sex, choosing to change sex. No doubt liberal goodwill to all men also motivated the party’s endorsement, without research, consultation or debate, of extreme trans dogma. Of course, people wanted to be nice and to support trans rights.
But liberalism became host to tyranny and misogyny. When damned feminists and gays, and people whose job it is to think, debated sex (bodies) and gender (cultures), and power; about prostitution, sex trafficking child sexual abuse, they met a wall of denial and harassment; when they queried cultishness and the injunction ‘there is no debate’, they were maligned as terfs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), disciplined and even sued.
Outside the pale of the Green Party, feminists and their supporters have been harangued – J.K. Rowling’s careful and candid exploration of the issues is the latest in a long and honourable line – picketed, gigs cancelled, venues barred, some organisations’ funds have been threatened, funds lost; jobs have been threatened, jobs lost.
Amidst all this, the Green Party leadership either stayed shtum, or, like co-leader Sian Berry, were intransigent defenders of the dogma.
CHILD TORTURE – THE CHALLENOR CASE
It was when a case of child rape and torture by Green Party member David Challenor became public in 2018 that the implications of this sulphurous state of affairs hit the party. He was the father of trans woman Aimee Challenor, a Green equalities spokesperson – notorious for abusive social media denunciations of ‘terfs’, and for improvising a social-media mass ‘terf’ blocking mechanism, her boast was that 50,000 people had been blocked. Hardly an exemplar of online democracy.
Teenage Challenor had returned to Coventry (the Challenor siblings had been in care) in 2014, joined the Green Party, and embarked on ‘gender transition’. Aimee Challenor became a Green Party candidate and equalities spokesperson with ambitions to become party leader.
However, unknown to the party at the time, her rise and rise was shadowed by her father’s offence: David Challenor was arrested in 2015 for the kidnap, rape, and electrocution of a ten-year-old girl, whilst dressing up himself as a girl, at the Challenors’ home, which was also Coventry Green Party’s registered address. Apparently, he was also a fetishist who enjoyed dressing as a little girl in nappies and frocks.
Aimee had been interviewed by the police in 2015, and therefore knew about the case, but nevertheless appointed him to be her election agent in Coventry in May 2016.
After a radical High Court ruling in October 2016, which referred to Mermaids, a ‘charity’ that facilitates sex change in children, David and Aimee Challenor mobilised an open letter supporting Mermaids. Green party leaders Sian Berry and Amelia Womack were among the signatories.
In 2017, Aimee Challenor returned to the family home. In 2018 David Challenor stood trial, was convicted and jailed for 22 years. The party’s response was to condemn him, of course, and to extend support to….no, not the tortured child, but to Aimee Challenor, who had failed to warn the party of this looming disgrace, and who claimed to have not known the ‘full details’ of his offences.
This was a clear breach of party rules: candidates and officers are required to inform the party of anything that might bring the party into disrepute; it also ignored the child safeguarding implications.
Subsequently, the party and Challenor were criticised by the Verita independent report, commissioned by the party and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse report on abuse linked to Westminster, published in February 2020. Both were stern critics of the party’s low level of safeguarding awareness.
It was the Challenor case and Aimee Challenor’s performance as equalities spokesperson and the anti-feminist discourse promoted in the Green Party from 2014-15, including the public humiliation of a philosopher who was only doing his job: thinking, and finally the lack of awareness of child abuse, that provoked many party members to challenge the trans agenda – myself included. I wrote a critique, urging the party to ask itself whether it had been induced into a – witch-hunting and cultishness, to which the Challenors had vigorously contributed – that not only shielded them from scrutiny but created a kind of political coma about the misogyny and McCarthyism in the party.
This was only one flank of a larger reification of offended sensibilities and censorship spreading across organisations in the US and the UK. One of the protagonists, Richard Firth – ironically Leeds Green Party’s equality, diversity and inclusion officer – participated in a little scam designed to get the feminist campaign Women’s Place UK banned from Leeds Civic Hall: WPUK had organised a celebration the 2018 centenary of (some) women getting the vote. The group was accused of transphobia – for insisting on women’s right to safe spaces – and the reservation was revoked at the last minute.
It was Richard Firth who lodged a formal complaint against me in 2018. A similar complaint was lodged against former deputy leader Shahrar Ali for tweeting a reference to my Byline piece. Firth’s complaint was focused on a couple of blogs and tweets which, he alleged, attacked trans people and party policy. Readers can see for themselves.
The complaint loitered in the crowded complaints system for almost a year. In September 2019 I was informed that the committee took no position on my views, only on the way they were expressed, ‘Given the respondent’s acclaimed mastery of language, she should have been more careful about causing distress, not just offence.’ I was urged to treat other Green Party members ‘with more courtesy in the future.’
There was no reference to whom – if anyone – I had caused distress. For the record, disagreement does not equate to distress. The complaint rested on the idea that I should have pursued concerns through the party’s clogged channels and, presumably waited and waited for a non-result.
So, I would not be suspended, but I would take a proverbial slap for not being nice to the clique that, in my opinion, brought the party into disrepute. And I would be prohibited from standing for public office for a year. Irony upon irony, Richard Firth himself was suspended for a year and banned from holding off ice for two years in 2020.
Complaints saturated the party’s disciplinary process. One of the most egregious was against Sheffield activist Andy Healey, a promoter of the feminist site, Gender Critical Greens.
Clearly, there is a debate and there isn’t: it is mangled in the party’s disciplinary – rather than democratic – processes. Attempts to address the decline of democracy in the party, the toxic culture, and the implications of the trans modus operandi *at the party’s spring 2019 party conference – despite a clear majority in support of debate – were thwarted: no time was allocated for a conversation that most of the people at the conference wanted to have.
Therein lies madness and tyranny. So, we come back to the Extinction Rebellion and Molly Scott-Cato.
Without consulting supporters – difficult to do in intensely-devolved movements – a coterie in Extinction Rebellion introduced a polarising trans commandment for which it has no mandate. Scott-Cato’s sincerely-held wish for everyone to be nice and bring an end to nastiness is an impossible dream if she holds to the prohibition: there is no debate.
Be Nice is no answer. The party is polarised and it must take a risk: acknowledge the divisions, admit that though they may never be resolved they can be addressed; create the opportunity for collective contemplation of the evidence, the science and the politics, the theory and practice of sex and gender. That is, to do politics properly.
Post script After this piece was posted, the very experienced Green activist, Dee Searle, wrote a searing critique of Green inner-party democracy on London Left Green Blog: http://londongreenleft.blogspot.com/2020/07/can-green-party-be-saved-from-its.html
“Review and renew the democratic culture of the Green Party”. It was initially ruled out, but an overwhelming conference vote decided it should be ruled back in for debate. It was not given time, however. It proposed a safe, decisive and contained way to re-evaluate recent events – particularly in response to ‘gender critical positions’, and re-establish democratic principles: ”Conference acknowledges concerns that a culture has arisen in the party which may have lowered standards of civil debate, marginalised members complaints, and silenced members voices around particular policies. In particular we note allegations of the following: Pressures brought to bear from outside the party to have members suspended; Prejudicial suspensions, without prior warning, including of a parliamentary candidate; Court action being pursued against a member by party officers; Complaints of misogynistic bullying and of complaints going unanswered; Language-policing of members in discussion forums accompanied by legal threats; Blocking of members electronic communications and other access to party bodies; Disciplining of local parties over their wording of resolutions. We affirm that a culture of respectful, inclusive and transparent enquiry and debate is essential if we want to develop effective Green policy, retain membership, and build a democratic party worthy of office. We also affirm that all party officers and internal procedures must be seen to serve and protect these ends. We recognise that, in parallel to the independent Verita enquiry, work must now be done to re-establish trust in our democratic culture, policy-making and governance, both within the party and beyond. Conference therefore instructs GPRC, as guardians of party well-being, as follows: 1) To commission an expeditious internal enquiry into how this divisive culture has arisen and been perpetuated and what measures should now be taken to restore political health and amicable debate. 2) To invite submissions to this enquiry, relating to the period September 2016 to September 2018, from members and former members, with guarantees of confidentiality if required. This Internal Enquiry Into The Party’s Democratic Culture to be established within no more than one month of this motion, and to be concluded no later than the week before Spring Conference 2019, with findings and recommendations to be made available to members at that time. 3) To restore confidence in the ‘no fault’ suspension mechanism by confirming the procedure that GPRC is using to reach decisions on requests for immediate suspension. 4) To ensure that plans are drawn up by 14th December, and communicated to all members, for a Disciplinary Review process whereby members or former members can submit requests that suspensions, expulsions, complaint adjudications or other disciplinary sanctions from this period be reconsidered, such that any remedial action which is necessary may be taken.”
Personal note: It is with the greatest regret that I am leaving the Green Party.
…and the NHS
For 60 years the Catholic Church has managed to insinuate itself, without our knowledge or consent, into the administration of the Pill – that daring contraceptive invention that since 1960 appeared to banish forever fear of unwanted pregnancy and the papal injunction against the pleasures of sex.
Lo, the Catholic Church influenced the way that the Pill would be taken – for 21 days, with a week off each month. This was always risky, women had to remember the timing, and there was always the possibility of rogue sperms swimming towards destiny. The failsafe Pill was not as reliable as it could have been in preventing unwanted pregnancy.
New NHS guidelines have finally ended that 21-day cycle, and the commitment to periods. It was always, apparently, motivated not by medicine or heterosexual women’s needs – lest we forget, all of this was steered less by women’s pleasure than the consequences of the penis-vagina fix – but by the patriarchal principles of the Catholic Church.
Prof John Guillemaud, a specialist in reproduction and sexual health, recalls the history of that arbitrary break in the cycle of Pill-taking – said to be one of the easiest and most effective medical interventions.
Prof John Rock was a member of the team that invented the Pill. He was a practising catholic and embarked on a heroic navigation of papal resistance. In the hope that the Vatican might yield, he proposed that Pill-taking should mimic the natural monthly cycle of ovulation and bloody menstruation.
Poor John Rock, his aim was to release women from the risk of unwanted pregnancy, to circumvent the Augustinian cult of sex-as-sin in the Cathoilc Church, and the dictum that sex and marriage go together in the holy service of procreation.
Rock tried his best to reassure the Vatican. He might have felt some optimism during the brief (in some ways) beautiful reign of Pope John XXIII, the humane advocate of human rights and equality. Except, of course, for women.
In 1963 Pope John, mindful of the Pill revolution, launched a commission on the family and reproduction. Ultimately, it did not recommend relaxation of the doctrine on birth control and the blessed sperm’s freedom of movement.
Pope John’s successor Pope Paul VI cemented the Vatican’s injunction against women’s control over their own bodies with the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, affirming the church’s official ban on all forms of artificial contraception.
The dictum was endlessly challenged by the prevalence of rape and infection. Even now, and even amidst the tragic manifestation of the Zika virus in South America, the seemingly progressive Pope Francis recoils from any loosening of that sacred sex-procreation fixation.
The extraordinary thing is that the NHS guidelines on the Pill prescribed the formula devised in vain to appease the Vatican.
Rock failed. Popes were not persuaded.
Poor John Rock’s faith was killed. Millions of catholics in Europe and North America retained their faith but abandoned the Augustinian cult and the prohibition of the Pill.
Bizarrely, however, that patriarchal principle enjoyed a residual influence over women’s lives. Until now and the new NHS guidelines. Amen.
Catch a rollicking discussion between Dr Sarah Jarvis and me, on the Jeremy Vine Show @BBCRadio2 with me and Dr Sarah Jarvis (around 12.15) on 22 January 2019.
Here is a letter I’ve sent to Peter Tatchell following his bitter tirade against feminists.
I should explain: We had been in email conversation for a while, after I’d asked him, as a human rights activist, to sign (with about 200 of us) a letter to The Observer protesting against the harassment and censorship of women participating in the government’s consultation on the Gender Recognition Act. No, he didn’t want to sign it unless it specified trans rights. It was not about trans rights, It was about women’s rights to speak and organise. No, he didn’t want to sign it.
I admit, many friends and colleagues wondered, why bother? This is why: he is an emblematic figure in gay and human rights politics. That made it worth it.
He ended that dialogue when I challenged him about support for feminist campaigner Julie Bindel after the Truth to Power Cafe at the Roundhouse in October – an event to which he had been invited to participate – disinvited her. He discontinued our conversation. But he continued his public convos on Twitter, and the more he says the worse it gets.
I sent him this letter following his embarrasingly poor responses to challenges to his 1997 interview with a 14-year-old boy, ‘Lee’, and what he calls the child’s ‘affair’ and involvement in ‘the rent scene’ – what most of us would call abuse – and to his argument about consent and what he calls “sex education.”
Just let’s think abut another conversation Tatchell could have had with ‘Lee’: a boy exploited through prostitution; he could have said, ‘I’m sorry I encouraged you inappropriately, to talk about sex; I’m not qualified to do this, and I did it to service my own agenda; I should have put you in contact with someone who could have protected you; I’m sorry I didn’t. I won’t talk to a young person like this, ever again.’
He could have said, ‘i understand your difficulties, but this does not decribe being gay, it tells me that no one has taken care of you, you need a rest. Trust me, you need to be protected. Then, who knows… you might decide you are gay, wonderful; you might descide you are straight, and that’s wonderul, too. But you did not learn about being gay, or not being gay, by being abused.’
Peter did not do that, as far as we know, and that is very worrying.
Of course, Twitter doesn’t hack it, so here is an edited version of my letter – introducing the tweets and links – to Peter Tatchell.
Peter replied on 12 November – it is published below.
Of course, the hardest word is sorry, but it would be a relief – for him and the rest of us – if he could say it, and then be quiet for a while:
11 November 2018
Oh Peter, what have you done!
I’m afraid you will rue the day when you re-wrote, misquoted and misrepresented your own words after you were confronted with your opinions on adult-child sex and your tirade against feminists.
You will of course deny sexism and support for paedophilia. But feminists of many hues, ethnicities, ages and orientations will have read your tweets with horror and sorrow.
Here is your tweet against ‘white feminists’
It is you who are so wrong.
Among my most vivid political memories is a massive public meeting in Croydon in defence of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, whose case had been taken up in 1989 by Southall Black Sisters, who were supported by Justice for Women. She had been brutalised by her husband and then imprisoned for killing him. We heard her taped voice from prison. It was searing. The meeting was attended by black and white feminists. I know because I was one of the speakers.
Justice for Women, founded by Harriet Wistrich (Liberty lawyer of the year) and Julie Bindel – both white lesbians – has always campaigned with and for black women. Clearly, you appear to be unaware that Southall Black Sisters and Justice for Women – among the most robust and innovative organisations to emerge from the Women’s Liberation Movement – have worked together for decades.
Or more recently, perhaps, do you know that black and white women have worked together to drag the criminal justice, and social services systems to support girls enduring abuse and exploitation by both black and white men. Rhetorical question – I don’t think you do.
You complain that white feminists weren’t on your demos or at your meetings – that’s hardly surprising and it is of no significance. The point is you weren’t with them.
I don’t want to enter a defence of ‘white women’ in response to your slurs. Racism – like sexism – is ubiquitous. But I suggest that you need to check your history and your motives.
Your misanthropy is compounded by vanity, the litany of complaint, sometimes aired minute by minute in your tweets, that your words get edited and therefore do not express what you wanted to say.
But then you edited yourself. Your trail of tweets accusing feminists of ‘too busy demonising trans people as a threat to women. So wrong!’ had gone too far. So, you cut out the nasty smear in subsequent tweets on the same theme using the same photograph.
However, be assured – we saw it, we read it and we remember it. That sentiment was in your head. I believe that it expresses what you feel and think. Show us if we are wrong, but it appears that condemning feminism in your defence of trans rights has become de rigeur.
By the way, the feminists who are your targets have not and do not oppose trans rights. We are not anti-trans. We are feminists trying to clarify the muddle and rubbish about sex/gender, and we are merely trying to defend the Equality Act’s provisions/protections and sex-segregated spaces/resources, e.g. women’s prisons, women’s refuges and abuse services, women’s short-lists, women’s representation.
I asked you if you would stand up for Julie Bindel after she was ‘dis-invited’ by the organiser of the Truth to Power Café at the Roundhouse. You didn’t defend her and you didn’t reply to me: I fact you accused me of making false allegations and then decided to end the conversation.
Abuse and exploitation
Women and men will read with similar horror and sorrow your rather deceptive re-writing of your own words on paedophilia (not a term I use – it softens the intentions and impact of abusers).
You are now caught in an inescapable convergence, your reputation is in grave danger. It may already have been lost.
In the renewed flurry of concern about your defence of child-adult sex over many years, you have edited what you wrote in the 1990s. There is something unseemly in your brittle rebuke to feminists reminding you – in the hope that you might show that you have learned something – of your tolerance of adults’ sexual relationships with children.
You invoke in your defence, your letter to The Guardian in the 1990s rebuking Ros Coward for her critique of the pro-paedophile book Dares to Speak. What you now claim is that what you then wrote was: ‘it is “impossible to condone paedophilia”.’
But that is a con.
What you actually wrote on 26 June 1997 was, ‘it may be impossible to condone paedophilia’.
On 1 July 1997 what you claimed you had written was that ‘paedophilia “is impossible to condone”.’
Why change it ‘may be’ to it ‘is’?
This is sneaky semantics: you change the words and relocate the direct quotation marks, and what this achieves is to declare certainty where you had expressed ambivalence.
For a forensic chronicle of the episode check out yourself – and your critics – in the indispensable Spotlight on Abuse: https://spotlightonabuse.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/peter-tatchell-and-dares-to-speak/
It is chastening read.
Then, in the letter to The Guardian, you go on to defend sexual relationships between children and adults by arguing that the children liked it, found joy, and said they weren’t harmed. So, which is it – possible, or impossible to condone sex between adults and children?
The interview with ‘Lee”
Now, to your purported ‘interview in 1997 with the boy called ‘Lee’, which is still up on your website. You have not reflected upon it or repudiated it. It is a culpable accommodation of abuse. Here is a child, involved in sex at eight years old, in care and, by his own account, involved in prolific sexual activity, including anal penetration, and being exploited by adult men through prostitution – you call it the ‘rent scene’.
There is no word in that interview that conveys the shudder many of us have felt reading it. Nothing to indicate that you were worried that this boy was in danger, or that you sought to get him professional assistance and protection. We are left with the inevitable inference that you regarded his way of life as a ‘life-style choice’ – the term used by the authorities in Rotherham and other cities in the last decade to judge girls who were being snared, abused and exploited by gangs of men.
What is the difference between those girls and ‘Lee’? What is the difference between your thinking then and now? There has been a mighty body of research and literature since the 1970s exposing how children’s perceptions of adults’ sexual interest in them is framed by adults’ agenda. You don’t acknowledge it.
Part of our shared history (gay men and gay women, aka lesbians, women and men generally of a certain age) is the moment when child abuse and exploitation was put back on the political agenda in the 1980s.
Why is this important now? Because gays have always been vilified and traduced as paedophiles.
Some men in churches and children’s homes mobilised a gay alibi to cover child sexual abuse. Historically, that alibi completely compromised male homosexuality, and even now it is a smear to which some gay men’s ideologies lend currency. That’s why many of us are so worried by what you have written.
I’m not suggesting, in any way at all, that you have a sexual interest in children. But there is a but: You do not seem to appreciate why you are discredited by this advocacy. The alibi has been explicitly condemned by independent experts and by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – go along to IICSA some time, Peter, listen and learn from the narratives of horrible childhoods in the 1980s and 1990s.
Following your letter to the Guardian in the 1990s, there was a raft of responses that anyone else might have taken very seriously: the child abuse lawyer Richard Scorer, a key figure in the current Independent Inquiry, Valerie Howarth, director of Childline; Marjorie Orr, whose monitoring of the terrain, Accuracy About Abuse, was a key resource throughout the 1990s.
You seem to have ignored them. That’s why people who prioritise children’s safety and wellbeing are not reassured by your blether about ‘I campaign against child abuse’. Give us the evidence.
When you have been reproached by feminists – and Julie Bindel has been challenging you for years – you re-iterate a narcissistic bleat that your letters/comments/positions have been edited and that you have been misrepresented.
The vital thing in all of this is power: that’s the word that is missing from your children-and-sex commentaries.
And if you want to know why feminists (and indeed many men) keep reminding you of your position it is because they know something about child sexual abuse – as an abuse of power – and you seem not to. You proclaim your own sex education work (about which many of us have some concerns) whilst you ignore the campaign to reform sex and relationship education by a consortium of more than 50 women’s organisations, co-ordinated by End Violence Against Women.
Just so that you know, this is not to accuse you of paedophilia, it is, however, to say that won’t let go of a discredited libertarian tolerance that places you in proximity to advocates of paedophilia.
Of course, the hardest word is sorry, but it would be a relief – for you and the rest of us – if you could say it, and then be quiet for a while.
12 November 2018
Peter Tatchell sent this response:
Thank you. And yes, of course, would welcome any discussion or debate.
These are some of the thoughts I shared with a splendid gathering in Melbourne, We Revolt At Dawn, organised by the Search Foundation and the Victoria Women’s Trust, on 9 November
Let’s begin with bodies…we wake, we are ashamed and afraid; it feels awkward, creepie in a way, to be in our skin, we don’t belong to ourselves. Humans never do, of course, we belong to air and the soil, and if we are lucky we are held by love. But for some of us, sometimes day in day out, we are entombed in the memory of that man.
There are 1.3 million people in the UK who emerged from childhood having been sexually abused by the time they reach 18, according to the Children’s Commissioner’s Report, Protecting Children from Harm.
Abuse and harassment is always on the horizon.
Then there are the people who go to work expecting to work, only to find themselves snared, by a man, that man.
A man, perhaps a man like Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey, wakes and he knows what he wants: you! He plans his position, his props, the environment. He anticipates the predicable pleasures: he loses some, he wins some, it doesn’t matter which because he enjoys the choreography, the risk, the anticipation and finally the look on a your face when he opens the door, when you see him and shock is written all over your face.
I’m guessing this, because I don’t know what’s in his head.
He never needs to tell us, and no doubt he never will.
One morning, however, this corporate prince discovers that he is accused, and he uses his vast resources to do what powerful men have done forever, find a way of making a woman (or a child) suffer in silence, to make her feel shame and to shut up. Shame, we know, is the greatest gag. Most of the time he wins.
When a corporate prince finds himself accused – this, it is reported, is what Weinstein did – he employs the best sleuths he can afford to find out everything about the women who are talking about him, to make them shut up
He doesn’t just threaten them, slap an injunction on them, terrify them, he makes them spend money they haven’t got to defend themselves. He might even pay out to pay off. But it’s never enough.
He does more, he finds out about them, he delves into their lives, he wants to know all about them in order to control them.
The first strategy is to make their bodies serve his and become subordinate to his, in a context, a space, that is controlled by him, or a space that is what Prof Liz Kelly calls conducive context.
That manoeuvre is compounded by another: to stealth bomb their lives, leaving people unable to trust anyone, to spy, know stuff that’s none of his business; all a way to have them, control them, to silence them.
The hacking scandal exposed the way the Murdoch press seized control of private lives by knowing stuff and leaking stuff that wasn’t secret, it was just private.
On both of these fronts we were witnessing corporate patriarchy at work
But one dawn a woman called Rose McGowan woke ready for revolutionary action. She did that most radical thing: not shut up, tell her story and call a corporate king to account.
The effect has been electrifying: women, and now some men, have taken control of the body discourse. The old story told by so many men for so long is exposed and all over the world sexual harassment is broadcast as no joke but as a strategy of bodily dominion.
I was sitting in an airport the other day, on my way to Australia, talking about all this with a bloke who sat next to me. In his seemingly genial way he started a conversation. What was I doing in Oz, he said, I was doing a talking tour, I explained, about feminism, and socialism.
‘I’m a feminist, I love women,’ he said.
‘But you know some of those women knew what they were doing,’ he said, ‘didn’t they, I mean they went into those rooms, they agreed, surely they knew….’
‘Did they?’ I asked. ‘What could they have known? And doing what they had to do was not the same as doing what they wanted to do. Did any of them want to do what he demanded?’
As feminism would have it, you can’t consent to something unless you can withhold your consent.
Why, I wondered, was this the first thing he had to say about the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey?
The last thing I want to say – for the moment – is this: I don’t know any women who have not been sexually harassed. We know that the culture industries harbour harassment, they have been conducive contexts. Now they’re saying they’re not. Just like that.
But patriarchies solicit women’s subordination and participation, and of course interpret women’s submission as consent.
So, the question is: how do the cultural industry institutions know that they are no longer conducive contexts? What have they done? Have they created a conducive context for women to share their secrets, to describe how all this stuff happens, to name the guilty men to someone, and for the guilty men to disclose their Modus Operandi? And how do these agencies know, all of a sudden, that the men who are sexually harassing women right now – or allowing men to do it – will stop?
I think the Parliamentary Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport should find out.
Would anyone think it was a question worth asking, whether the Prime Minister is a boy job or a girl job after Britain’s experience of Margaret Thatcher?
Her premiership bewitched and bothered her many critics, they couldn’t resist representing her premiership as manly – Fluck and Law’s great puppet satire, Spitting Image clothed her in a man’s suit and even went so far as to have her in a men’s urinal.
Entertaining, of course. But it missed the ghastly genius of Thatcher: it was to eschew the very word equality. She did gender, of course, but she didn’t like talking about it, and she refused to do feminism.
She could go to war, mount a tank wearing handbag and chiffon scarf; she could be the domestic bursar, clean out the cupboards, make a fry-up for her colleagues – things no male Prime Minister had been seen doing.
Her frocks and bows, headscarves and handbags were the feminine props of a patriarchal political discourse that launched accelerating inequalities, year on year, thereafter.
It was a modus operandi that liberated Thatcher from the personal politics of equality and engaging with the great women’s movements that helped her get the top job.
How? Because she performed femininity and more-than masculinity. Although Thatcher is no model for May, the apparent paradox of Thatcher’s thoroughly gendered premiership works well for her.
What we know is that Thatcher didn’t really do housework. The Thatchers had a housekeeper. Her relationship to her children was somewhat regal – they were allowed into her presence during afternoons at home; and then they were packed off to boarding school.
What did May think she was doing on the BBC’s One Show this week? In the guaranteed absence of any challenge to her political agenda, it was undoubtedly designed to humanise May before the June general election by bringing on her husband and delving into private pleasure and power, gender and domestic divisions of labour.
Phillip May was asked if she was a tough negotiator over domestic tasks – no doubt implying that he might be up against a brick wall; after all she seeks our mandate as a hard-as-hulk Brexit negotiator.
He revealed that he got to decide when not if he put the bins out. So, not much wriggle room.
Then Theresa May helpfully reminded us: ‘there’s boy jobs and girl jobs, you see’. He said he did the traditional boy jobs. So what are May’s girl jobs? Everything else? She didn’t say.
Phillip explained that a man who expected his tea on the table might be a ‘little disappointed’ by Theresa. But he isn’t, he appeared devoted. However, his bins vignette showed him to be not New Man but Old Man.
Time Use surveys show that over the last three decades British men’s contribution to the domestic division of labour has changed significantly, more men do more than boy jobs, and men generally do more: from 20 minutes a day to 53 minutes a day.(See my book End of Equality)
Phillip May doesn’t even seem do that.
Women do much more than men – 146 minutes a day. Theresa May didn’t reveal how much time she spends on domestic labour, but you can bet it won’t be 146 minutes.
May’s silence about the girl jobs was indicative – it was what she didn’t say that revealed as much as her one silly sentence.
Like most top-earner couples, the Mays probably don’t actually do much domestic labour at all. The highest-paid may still do boy jobs and girl jobs but they depend on a third category: the help who does most of the jobs.
Ms May still needs to answer the question: is being Prime Minister a boy job or a girl job? And if it is neither, how come the Mays can’t manage in private what she can manage in public?
Why didn’t they be normal – rather than pretending normal – and help the feminist conversation by sharing the sheer difficulty of getting even the most devoted of men to do domestic democracy?
The pity is that Theresa May, who says she is a feminist seems unable to show it.
I’m writing to you to support the Library’s invitation to Julie Bindel to speak about being a young working class lesbian. It was a smart and bold invitation, and I’m aware that you have attracted a great deal of hostility as a result. You may feel taken aback and shocked, but you should be aware that for every protest there are likely to be many more people supporting your invitation.
You will know, I’m sure, that good, calm, stalwart and unobtrusive stewarding is the key to contexts like this, to protect everyone’s safety and good manners, and to ensure that everyone who wants to participate peacefully is able to do so.
May I share some of my own experience with you — in the hope that it might encourage you to withstand the hostility.
I have been involved in working class, progressive politics all my adult life and I have received many awards and honours for my writing. I came out as gay in my early 20s — in the 1970s — and like many other gay people I have felt over the past few years that what was once an open, inclusive, exhilarating politics, which has been spectacularly successful in advancing gay rights, has become overwhelmed by a toxic element of trans activism, a campaign of authoritarian silencing in the name of ’safe space’. Many gay activists, particularly women, are now deeply alienated. Some years ago I wrote an article in the Guardian opposing the NUS no-platforming of Julie Bindel.
I should say that she is a friend, I’ve known her since the 1980s when I made a TV documentary on battered women who kill their assailants, and since Justice for Women and Southall Black Sisters campaigned successfully for the release of Kiranjit Aluwhalia.
Julie Bindel is one of the founders of Justice for Women, a pathbreaking movement supporting women who live with violence, and an enduring campaigner against violence and sexual exploitation of women, and for gay rights.
We have disagreed about many things — not least the Green Party, for whom I’ve been a local and Parliamentary candidate. But I would go to great lengths to defend her right to write and speak and, just as important, for people’s opportunity to hear her in person and to challenge her. She is always interesting, adroit and sometimes very witty and, yes, offensive.
I support the Index on Censorship approach to this: there is no right to not be offended.
During the 2010 General Election, trans gender friends in the Green Party alerted me to some trans activist threats to picket me at hustings — they offered to attend the hustings in the event of trouble. There was no trouble, those making the threat never turned up.
In the last couple of years the movement to no-platform people who are against the sexual exploitation of women, who support the ’Nordic model’, or who have a critique of some trans positions on gender, have also found themselves being subjected to harassment.
It was in response to this that myself and Prof Deborah Cameron (also a working class lesbian, by the way) organised a letter to The Observer opposing no platforming. The 130+ signatories included people who are transgender, and who have been involved in prostitution.
This was repudiated by another letter the following week, initiated by Sara Ahmed.
I suggested to a couple of publications — a progressive Oxbridge journal, and a lesbian magazine — that they host a round table to air the issues. My contact on the Oxbridge journal rejected the idea on the grounds that it was universities’ duty to provide students with a safe space, a ‘home’ away from home. The lesbian magazine editor rejected the proposal — the editor, very committed to trans people, admitted to me that she was afraid.
I also wrote a couple of letters to the London Review of Books in response to a long feature by Jacqueline Rose which had failed to address these controversies, and which did not engage with trans activists who do not support no platforming, and who have a critique of some trans people’s theories of gender:
Here is another link that includes references to some other very interesting contributions:
You may, of course, not be interested in all of this. You may disagree with me.
But whatever your position on trans gender debates might be, there are vital ethical and political issues at stake here for all of us:
The claim that critique or analysis or debate amount to ‘killing’ is an abuse of language.
And what is being suppressed by no-platforming is not only the right to speak, but other people’s right to listen, to participate and to challenge.
It has taken centuries of heroic effort for oppressed and marginalised people to find their voices; Julie Bindel is one of those voices; the Library is a monument to those efforts and to its founders, Ruth and Eddie Frows’ commitment to honouring them.
Please don’t be afraid. Be brave, be normal, keep on doing what you do so well — showing the richness of working class life and struggles.
Yours in solidarity
What would it take for the biggest political party in Western Europe to be accorded a bit of respect?
Will the mass media reports from the Labour Party conference be the same when the membership tops 750,000? Or a million?
What does the Labour Party have to do to get taken itself taken seriously?
And what has happened to our political discourse that when democracy is exercised it is traduced as a kind of dictatorship?
In an otherwise thoughtful column by The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley describes the outcome of Labour’s second leadership election campaign, and Jeremy Corbyn’s increased share of and increased vote as a coronation.
It wasn’t a coronation, it was an election.
He was not crowned, he was elected.
No sooner had he won overwhelmingly, than a queue of discontented MPs were lined up to protest.
This is an example of what the political and cultural scholar, Prof Jeremy Gilbert describes as the ‘anti-democratic discourse’ of what passes for political commentary.
Hilary Benn recycled his anti-Corbyn plea for military intervention in the Middle East – as if staking out a lonely pitch for himself as a Churchillian anti-appeasement, anti-fascist leader in waiting;
Anti Corbyn Louise Ellman was everywhere; Chukka Umanna re-iterated his cautions against de-selection of MPs…same old voices, same old complaints…endless laments that Corbyn is unelectable…
Will they still be rehearsing these lines if and when Labour Party membership – excited by the prospect of a social democratic political project for the first time in three decades – hits 1 million?
Will they rebuke the party members if and when they mobilise actual, active resistance to the Tories’ neo-liberal strategy?
Why? Because they can’t stop themselves: they are fighting for their political lives. Not because they are menaced by a de-selecting mob, but because most of the Parliamentary Labour Party has been shaped by New Labour and it our doesn’t know what else to do. It has been chosen and trained by New Labour; it has been disciplined by New Labour, and by its biblical belief that there is no alternative, that Labour’s adoption of the neo-liberal global settlement is not only Peter Mandelson’s failed Third Way, it is the Only Way.
The surprising dullness of candidates challenging Corbyn during the first leadership election campaign, and their performance since then, is indicative — it is a kind of mute inability to connect with the impact of 2008 and the neo-liberal implosion; it renders them the living dead.
The decline and fall of political journalism, its cloistered internment on Westminster Green, its symbiotic dependence upon the tenants of the raggy palace across the road, produces gossip as a proxy for analysis.
It worked well with a party leadership that controlled the commentariat much as it controlled the party. But it doesn’t work when the membership itself is taking everyone — including itself — by surprise.
I once described New Labour as a kind of anti-party party — an organisation run by people who didn’t like its members, a project that preferred an audience to a membership. That era has been extinguished by the rush to join up and join in.
Hence Corbyn’s critics’ strange obsession with the new mass membership as a ‘movement’ rather than a ‘party’. Prof Jeremy Gilbert has written an adroit critique of this polarisation.
Movement and party are not irreconcilable — exemplified by the Green Party which is both a movement and a party. The rise of radical anti-austerity movements across Europe and Scandinavia, Podemos, Syriza and the pirate parties, are simultaneously movements and parties.
You can have effective movements that aren’t political parties — feminism is the exemplar: movements, ideas, campaigns that don’t have an address, a political energy and imagination that is not tethered to a place or time.
Civil rights movements in the US, Northern Ireland and South Africa operated within and beyond the boundaries of parties.
But as Labour needs to know by now: you can’t have successful mass parties that aren’t also movements.