Our Establishment is running scared about historic sex abuse

Fiona Woolf was the victim of a kangaroo court – but she was wrong to take the job chairing the government inquiry into historic child abuse

Portrait of Alderman Fiona Woolf CBE, the 686th Lord Mayor of London, whose term will run from November 2013 to November 2014.

Fiona Woolf is a former president of the Law Society and is the current Lord Mayor of London Photo: Clara Molden

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Fiona Woolf, who has been appointed to chair the government inquiry into historic child abuse, was subjected to an interrogation on Tuesday. I strongly recommend watching the proceedings. They shed light on our weird current public culture.
Mrs Woolf appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons. She had a hard time. The essential charge against her was that she was a member of the “Establishment” and therefore (as if by iron logic) unsuitable for the task.
The committee thought she had a record as long as your arm. She is a former president of the Law Society. She is the current Lord Mayor of London. It was even held against her that she had recently led a Corporation of London delegation to Bahrain shortly after Amnesty International had published reports of child abuse in that country. (If such a visit was disgraceful, no delegations would ever come to Britain, since reports about child abuse here are published virtually every week.)
Then there was what a Left-wing lawyer on the BBC called “the evidence of dinner parties”. As Mrs Woolf explained, she had, on five occasions, given or received dinner parties to or from her London neighbours, Lord and Lady Brittan. She felt it necessary to mention this because Lord Brittan, who was Home Secretary from 1983-5, is accused by some of having failed to deal adequately with allegations about child abuse by the late Geoffrey Dickens MP (though no one knows what these allegations were). On the fragile basis of these accusations, the present Home Secretary, Theresa May, chose to erect the whole enormous super-structure of this inquiry. Its remit is child abuse in all “state and non-state institutions” from 1970 to today, how it was reported and dealt with, and where those institutions failed.
Ah, the evidence of dinner parties. It was useless for Mrs Woolf, who knocked over a glass of water in her anxiety, to protest “I am not a member of the Establishment”. Her explanation for the dinners, that “I was a newly elected alderman and I needed to build my City network” (Lady Brittan was a City of London magistrate) did not help either. Nor did her elaboration that she has “held hundreds of them [dinners] since”. Nor did her desire to “lay to rest any fears that I had a close association with Lord Brittan”, as if the poor man were the moral equivalent of an Ebola victim. In the eyes of the select committee, she was guilty.
Anyone not agreeable to the predominantly Labour membership of the committee and to the lobbies and law firms specialising in compensation which claim to speak for the victims of child abuse would have been found guilty too. These victims can be endlessly invoked – safe in the knowledge that we usually do not know who they are, or even whether they are victims at all – to say that they are not being heard, or, if heard, not believed. What the committee members and campaigners seek is an overarching theory of establishment abuse and cover-up, like the theory of police “institutional racism” invented by the Macpherson report into the Stephen Lawrence affair. They want findings of “institutional paedophilia”, preferably centred on the Thatcher era. They will accept no inquiry chairman who will not give it to them.
If you think about what inquiries are, it is likely that they will be run by an “establishment” person. This is partly because lawyers, having the relevant skills, are usually selected. The law is a centralised profession, and, like all professions, it has fewer people at the top than the bottom. Top lawyers meet other top lawyers and, as the law (regrettably) becomes ever more important in public affairs generally, they also meet ministers, civil servants, leading business people, and so on.
Sometimes, it is true, such associations will compromise them, but on the whole they will be better on inquiries, boards, committees, tribunals if they know how these things work. To do so, it helps to know some of the people on them. A lawyer who had reached middle age without acquaintance with any of these processes and any pillars of the Establishment would probably not be very suitable to be in charge of them, just as the owner of a small petrol station would find it hard suddenly to chair the board of BP or a local paper reporter to become, overnight, the editor of the Daily Mail. The Establishment is not an organised conspiracy, but a vague word meaning people who are powerful in society. It frequently needs a kicking, but no country can avoid having one. Inquiries are classic establishment territory, and always will be.
The Home Affairs Select Committee knows this, of course. At the beginning of the hearing with Mrs Woolf, its chairman, the Labour MP Keith Vaz, declared an interest, which was that his wife is a former member of the Council of the Law Society. He is a former minister in the Lord Chancellor’s Department. He is a member of the Establishment, a particularly suave one as it happens. Indeed, the anti-establishment game he was playing is itself a ploy – of the Labour bit of the Establishment. He can outplay poor Mrs Woolf.
Which leads me to my surprising conclusion about the kangaroo court which tried Mrs Woolf on Tuesday. Despite its outrageous bullying, the committee achieved something real. It exposed the fact that Mrs Woolf was frightened. Instead of justifying her wholly reasonable links with the Brittans, she ran scared of them. She made herself look cowardly in cultivating the Brittans’ social acquaintance and then dropping them. Instead of defending her experience as a senior lawyer and as Lord Mayor, she protested she was “an ordinary citizen”, which she ain’t. She quoted Lady Butler-Sloss, who was forced out of the role she now occupies, as saying “I did not sufficiently consider my background”. The same could be said of her – not that her background was unsuitable, but that she had not properly considered why she was the right person to conduct the inquiry. She thus showed that she is not.
The committee’s doubt about Mrs Woolf turned out to be true. She reminded me of Lord Patten accepting the chairmanship of the BBC Trust, back in 2011. He seemed to think it was his due, rather like being chancellor of Oxford University, light on duties and heavy (that issue again) on dinners. He was not ready for the massive corporate problems (child abuse included) which afflict a huge state broadcasting organisation in the modern world. Mrs Woolf will, admittedly, get few dinners out of her inquiry. No doubt she sincerely wants to perform a public service, but she gave every impression of not understanding what that service is, and why its subject is so problematic.
The truth is that no one should accept Mrs May’s poisoned chalice. This inquiry involves, to use Mrs Woolf’s own phrase, “hundreds of institutions and thousands of failures”. Even with the genuinely expert panel which the Home Office has belatedly assembled, the remit is dangerously wide. How can it get a grip on all government departments, police procedures, schools, hospitals, children’s homes, churches, youth clubs, Scout groups, mental institutions etc over the past 40 years and more? The whole thing is driven by the main emotion that nowadays dominates our enfeebled Establishment – fear: in this case, the fear of being accused of ignoring or covering up child abuse.
People, including Mrs Woolf and Mrs May, keep saying that what matters most is what is best for the victims. That is right. If you subject this inquiry to that test, it fails.

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