A little over 30 years ago, three generations of the McMartin family, who had run a nursery school in Los Angeles for decades, were arrested, jailed, and put on trial, charged with hundreds of sensational counts of child sexual abuse. Six years later, when no convictions had been obtained, all charges were dropped against them—including against one family member who had languished in jail for five years without being convicted of anything.
Yet the exoneration of the McMartins was only the end of one chapter in a dire story. The case sparked a kind of moral panic across America in the 1980s and ’90s, with dozens of day-care workers and teachers being arrested and convicted on lurid molestation and assault charges, local prosecutors earning national reputations for draconian prison sentences, and police departments warning frightened parents about the signs of satanic ritual abuse. The fact that all those convicted and imprisoned in that period were ultimately vindicated, and set free, is proof not so much that a system of justice “works” but that, right or wrong, it can work with fearsome efficiency—even in the service, from Salem to L.A., of hysteria and mob rule. Put another way: Times change, but human nature does not.
Great Britain, for example, seems to be in the grip of a pedophile scare. Of course, pedophilia, like any sort of sexual abuse, does exist and is a terrible thing; but as with the “rape culture” alleged on American campuses (see Charlotte Allen’s “Of Frats and Men,” page 22), singular events and isolated instances can trigger an irrational response in civil society. In this instance, the catalyst seems to have been the revelation that Jimmy Savile, a popular BBC television and radio personality who died at 84 in 2011, had been a predatory sex offender for decades. At the moment, the 85-year-old, Australian-born singer Rolf Harris—best known here for his 1963 novelty hit, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”—is serving a five-year, nine-month prison sentence on 40-year-old “indecent assault” charges; and 75-year-old ex-rock ’n’ roller Cliff Richard has been the subject of near-constant police attention over sexual allegations (thus far unstated, much less proven) of similar vintage.
England being England, what ties these cases together are complaints that social prominence and political connections might have protected wrongdoers from the law: The BBC, various police agencies, successive governments, the press, and crown prosecutors have all been accused of conspiring to destroy evidence, suppress stories, and discredit victims. Whether any of this is true has yet to be demonstrated; but in a class-conscious culture, it’s a powerful narrative. Moreover, precisely because such allegations are widely believed, certain segments of the press, innumerable police agencies, and prosecutors are now soliciting stories and pursuing leads with McMartin-like zeal and recklessness. And inevitably, the downward path has led to politics.
Just as French political scandals tend to be about money, British political scandals are usually about sex. And since the 18th century, at least, London gossip has had a long history of identifying houses and streets and buildings as secret meeting places for misbehaving members of Parliament or errant members of the royal family. Some locales, no doubt, have existed in fact. But while current tales, ranging from homosexual trysts to child murders, at the former Elm Guest House in south London and elsewhere, have invoked the names of MPs of all parties (mostly dead but some still alive), as well as barristers, pop stars, Soviet spies, diplomats, famous athletes, and the occasional Sinn Fein representative, no evidence has yet been produced to suggest that any of these tales are anything but tales.
In fact, the revelation last week that no less than the late Sir Edward Heath, Tory prime minister during 1970-74, is now the subject of vigorous sex-abuse inquiries in no less than seven police jurisdictions might lead either to a wholesale collapse of anything resembling justice—all sorts of incredible stories are now being bruited about in the downscale media and treated with due diligence by police—or, with luck, to a measure of national soul-searching. Just as the McMartin case featured allegations of ritual slaughter, sex with animals, and human levitation, details in the Westminster pedophile scandals are now being updated regularly in such venues as ex-MP George Galloway’s television program on Russia Today.
Friday morning, David Cameron returned to Downing Street as Britain's prime minister. After a campaign of unsurpassed tedium, the General Election came alive last night with the first exit poll, and a Conservative victory out of nowhere. For weeks, the incumbent Conservatives and the Labour opposition had been neck and neck.
Americans were surprised—well, shocked, really—to see the public manifestations of hatred in England when Margaret Thatcher died. There were images of people celebrating in the streets, tweets and blog posts gleefully predicting damnation, even the Rt. Hon.
Embattled New Jersey senator Bob Menendez struck these four statements from a Senate resolution honoring the late Margaret Thatcher:
Whereas Baroness Margaret Thatcher in 1984 survived an assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army in Brighton, United Kingdom, and declared that ‘‘all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail’’...
Whereas Baroness Margaret Thatcher in 1982 led United Kingdom efforts to liberate the Falkland Islands after they had been invaded and occupied by the Government of Argentina...
Our pieces on Margaret Thatcher in this week's issue elicited many responses. Among the most eloquent and powerful was this email to the boss from a senior Hill staffer who deals with GOP members on national security issues, written, the staffer says, with "spontaneous passion while I was walking to meet a friend for lunch Saturday." It's reproduced here with the staffer's permission.
I cannot claim to have been an intimate of Margaret Thatcher’s. But I can claim to have known her on several levels—as a prime minister from whom I learned to put the “political” back into “political economy,” as a woman who fancied both her whisky and her sweet desserts, and as one who made it possible for me and others to withstand the thuggishness of the pickets attempting to block the introduction of new technology into Britain’s newspaper industry.
In his book Manliness, Harvey Mansfield remarks that “The mightiest woman of our time, Margaret Thatcher, is no model for feminists, partly because of her conservative opinions, of course, but also because her renowned insensitivity makes them uneasy.” No surprise there. But does her “renowned insensitivity”—which is Mansfield’s ironic way of saying she was clear-eyed, hardheaded, and direct—also make today’s conservative politicians uneasy? Apparently so. Why else do so few take her as a model?
I was at a reception at the British embassy here in Washington in the early 1990s, I believe, when I was introduced to Margaret Thatcher by John O’Sullivan, her friend and former “Special Adviser.” Gertrude Himmelfarb, he told her, had recently delivered the Margaret Thatcher Lecture in Tel Aviv on a subject dear to her, Victorian values. “But of course, I know Gertrude,” she replied, “we’ve met before. And what a great subject, Victorian values.
And now the last of them is gone. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II—three who won the Cold War and, it isn't too much to say, saved the West (at least for a while!)—are no longer with us. Their examples remain.