Friday, 30 November 2012

Open Season

As Michael Portillo declared it to be on the dead during last night's edition of This Week. As he put it, imagine if Lord McAlpine had been dead.

Knowing what we know now, would you have kept any teenage girl in your care away from Sir Jimmy Savile? Yes. Margaret Thatcher, fully briefed by Special Branch and by MI5, has serious questions to answer about her closeness to him, as surely as she has about her reliance on Sir Peter Morrison, and about her mesmerisation by Sir Laurens van der Post. Knowing what we know now, would you have kept any teenage boy in your care away from Sir Cyril Smith? Probably. In both cases, better safe than sorry.

But each of them could easily have afforded the lawyers to have been acquitted, and to have won libel actions. And ought we really to assume the veracity of allegations of molestation made against a celebrity disc jockey and television presenter by the residents of an approved school for, of all people, "emotionally disturbed but highly intelligent girls"? It is not as if they would make up something like this, and perhaps even sincerely believe that it had happened. Is it?

Or of molestation by the single most prominent local politician, also a well-known national figure, made by boys of whom the Director of Public Prosecutions, hardly known for letting Liberal politicians off the hook in the 1970s, could write in 1970 that "the characters of some of these young men would be likely to render their evidence suspect"? In other words, criminal records, or at the very least known to the Police. Ipso facto reliable sources of information, then, would you say?

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that people in either of those categories must be lying. But I fail to see how they must be telling the truth, either. Have they waived any claim to the estate of Sir Jimmy or Sir Cyril? And funny how there is such a frenzy over the corpse of a man notable for having been at the heart of the Zeitgeist between the 1960s and the 1980s while also a matter-of-fact practitioner of daily prayer, of weekly or where possible daily Mass, and of monthly Confession (he told all of this entirely frankly to any interviewer who asked), with his Papal Knighthood and with his Knighthood of Malta.

Who next? Princess Margaret kept the most swinging salon in all of Swinging London. Princess Margaret, who all her life was uncommonly devout even by the standards of senior members of the Royal Family. Not everyone would have agreed with her about that. But no one thought that it, any more than her royal status, prevented her from being, again, at the very heart of Zeitgeist. The ludicrous story of her "secret son" has lately been revived.

Sir Cyril was wrong about asbestos. But nobody is perfect. And he was fighting for a Rochdale industry, which was at least some excuse. In him, there came together several of the best features of the old Liberalism. He embodied individuality, municipalism (it is just priceless that his mother served as a cleaner at the Town Hall during the day and then as his Lady Mayoress at that same Town Hall in the evenings), local communitarian populism, profit-sharing, unashamed provincialism, patriotism in general and reverence for Parliament in particular, traditional family values, the Nonconformist conscience, and the working and lower-middle-class self-help and self-improvement that, as well as informing his strong commitment to education, also placed him in the same tradition as the Rochdale Pioneers of the co-operative movement.

Like them, he came out of Rochdale as a centre of Unitarianism due to the coincidence there of at least two of the movements that coalesced into that denomination during the nineteenth century. One derived from the Great Ejection and was related to such phenomena as the Dutch Remonstrandt Brotherhood, the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, the Socinian 'New Licht' within the early Free Church of Scotland, and the descent of New England Puritanism into little more than "the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Neighborhood of Boston"; all alike are stark, and currently timely, warnings of the perils of hyper-Augustinianism. The other derived from the explosive preaching of Joseph Cooke within early Methodism, the Cookite experience being a stark, and currently timely, warning of the dangers of departure from the truths that the Augustinian tradition is both keenest to articulate and most successful in articulating.

But Sir Cyril seemed to point to an earlier time, when Unitarianism was still in some sense Christian rather than post-Christian or whatever it is now. Yes, yes, I know. But on both points, you know what I mean. He was totally pro-life on all issues but one, and even that, his mercifully never realised desire to restore capital punishment (also the position of at least one other Liberal MP of the period), placed him within the tradition that correctly identified an inseparability between uncompromising civil liberty and the vigorous sentencing of those whose guilt could therefore be accepted as having been proved beyond reasonable doubt. His defence of the preborn child was such that his eulogy was delivered by no less a pro-life figure than Lord Alton, who recorded that in the end Sir Cyril had changed his mind on the death penalty.

The likes of Oliver Kamm and Damian Thompson are in no position to judge either Sir Jimmy or Sir Cyril. Among other things, Kamm is financially dependent on the newspaper that prints Page Three. As for Thompson, the Catholic Herald now at least implicitly admits that in his time as Editor-in-Chief he employed the late Fr Kit Cunningham conditional upon his predatory sexual interest in boys, in that it no longer removes my comments pointing this out, so he should take up the matter there if he has any compliant about my saying it.

Furthermore, the latter-day habit of the Police, of ostentatiously issuing moral judgements from the steps of courthouses and such like, ought not to be extended to the dead in the furtherance of raids, both on the now-unfashionable principles that they embodied in their public lives, and on the money that they left behind them. Are the Police being lined up for a cut? I think we should be told.

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