Opinion: Cyril Smith – Liberal Democrats should allow scrutiny of all party archives

As late as last year there were people defending Cyril Smith’s reputation on Liberal Democrat Voice.  Well now we know beyond all reasonable doubt that the old Liberal Party had its own Savilesque character – it is just that none of us knew, in fact none of us even had an inkling. None of us could possibly have known and none of us could possibly have had an inkling. Could we?

I joined the party in 1985 when I was eighteen. Of course three decades on I do not remember every earnest conversation amongst my fellow Liberal students. What I do remember though is that in the entirely peripheral and uninfluential party circles in which I moved, “Hanger Smith” was viewed with contempt and wariness for supporting capital punishment and rejecting a woman’s right to choose. I never heard any rumours about him and sexual abuse, but there was a sense that he was an old local government bruiser who was somehow untouchable despite being totally out of sync with the mainstream of the party. 

Smith retired as an MP in 1992 so I would imagine most present party members hardly knew of him. But is there any kind of written record that would help the party learn from the errors of the past? Some Liberal Party records are with the LSE.  I imagine that most pre SDP/Liberal Party merger constituency records were binned long ago or are in cardboard boxes in garages scattered across the land.

Liberal Democrats have a duty to allow an independent inquiry, to subject all party archives to scrutiny and to advise those who have independent archives to do so too.

* Ruth Bright has been a councillor in Southwark and Parliamentary Candidate for Hampshire East

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25 Comments

  • When in a court of law people are found guilty “beyond all reasonable doubt” it is after they have had the opportunity to defend themselves and [setting aside the legal aid controversy for a minute] they or their lawyer have had the opportunity to probe the case against them. All this in a context where a judge or magistrate ensures due process.

    A case against Cyril Smith is being made but I am not aware of any attempt to probe the evidence or present a defence so I do not believe it can be said that it is beyond reasonable doubt that the old Liberal Party had a Savilesque character.

  • Helen Dudden 20th Mar '15 - 2:32pm

    How those children suffered, no one listened to either the Savile comments or this.

    As we read about other cebritaries and their court cases, too late to prevent the pain these young minds have faced.

  • matt (Bristol) 20th Mar '15 - 2:45pm

    YES.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Mar '15 - 3:20pm

    Well done for writing about this. From an outside perspective, the stance chosen up to now looks like one of simply co-operating with the police, but after alleged previous police cover-ups then perhaps we need to take a more pro-active approach.

    I really don’t understand the legal implications and differences between an independent inquiry and a police inquiry, but perhaps it is one for the president or someone to look at.

  • Simon McGrath 20th Mar '15 - 3:56pm

    I am not clear what point you are making.
    Has anyone said the Party will not give info (if there is any which I doubt) to an independent inquiry ?

  • “Liberal Democrats have a duty to allow an independent inquiry, to subject all party archives to scrutiny and to advise those who have independent archives to do so too.”

    Is there any suggestion they wouldn’t? If an enquiry is independent or by the police why would there be any non-cooperation?

  • Ruth Bright 20th Mar '15 - 5:29pm

    Simon my understanding is that Nick Clegg has said no to an inquiry on the grounds that no-one in the party knew. I am very happy to stand corrected if he has now signalled that the party would co-operate.

  • Good piece.

  • Jonathan Brown 20th Mar '15 - 6:25pm

    I joined the Lib Dems in 2010, and I think I’ve only come to learn of his existence in the context of suspicion and then mounting evidence against him. I obviously have and had nothing to do with him, and yet I feel tarnished by association.

    If there is anything we as a party can proactively do to ensure that the truth is known, I wholeheartedly hope that we do so, and I congratulate you for writing this article.

  • Jonathan Pile 20th Mar '15 - 7:43pm

    Ruth a good and timely article 100% agree .

  • Of Course they should – its the right thing to do (I’m not a Lib Dem) – but take a lead & demand the Labour Party does the same . I understand he was a Labour member when these rumours started. A Labour MP imo is turning the screw on the Lib Dems when they should be doing the same to Labour . Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  • You are right, we must dig into this & hand over any evidence to the police. Its hard to beleive that anyone active in the Party at the time can have been unaware of allegations made repeatedly from 1979 onwards.

  • Dr Michael Taylor 20th Mar '15 - 11:31pm

    I first met Cyril in 1972 and helped to get him elected as MP for Rochdale. I worked in Rochdale for 13 years. All this stuff was exposed in the Rochdale Alternative Press (RAP) about the time I started work as a teacher there. I have no idea if any of it is true or not. I never saw any evidence of it.

    What I would say is that it’s very easy to make accusations when someone is dead, because they have no comeback. It is amazing how Simon Danzuk and others waited to make accusations until there was no legal redress for Cyril and his family, because you can’t libel a dead man.

    I abhor any kind of child abuse and am as keen as anyone to root it out and bring the perpetrators to justice, but what is happening here is that people are acting as if the accusations are true, when there has been no court case nor indeed any completed report into the accusations, because like it or not that’s all they are at this stage and no amount of claims by people are proof.

    When we see a report by the police or a public inquiry or when there is a court case against the Smith estate that will be the time to make a judgement.

    We have a system of justice in this country that says people are innocent until proved guilty. Ruth is jumping the gun and assuming things that may or may not be true. This is not to defend Cyril Smith, I would hold the same view of any legal process until it is concluded and a verdict reached.

    If the police or a pubic enquiry ask the party to produce any information it has, then of course as a law abiding democratic organisation we should.

    Has anyone asked the question why this should be raised yet again in March 2015? Nothing, I suspect, to do with helping the alleged victims. Far more to do with discrediting the Liberal Democrats by association and innuendo with a man who never held any major office in the Liberal Democrats, because he stood down as an MP in the first election after the formation of the new party.

  • My earlier comment has been rejected without explanation, would that this article had been similarly treated.

    I deplore this article: I deplore its objectionable characterisation: “the old Liberal Party had its own Savilesque character”. I deplore that the author gratuitously taints those who were associated with the Liberal Party, yet somehow manages to absolve herself from the same association, but undercuts her argument by explaining why few had much time for Smith. Why would there be some kind of underhand protection for someone who was a misfit in the party? The fact that Smith was a Labour councillor at the time many, perhaps most of the alleged events took place does not seem to merit a mention.

    The assertion: “As late as last year there were people defending Cyril Smith’s reputation on Liberal Democrat Voice”. is lacking in any form of justification. Whilst I certainly cannot claim to have read everything, I am unaware of any support for Smith on these pages.

  • I would urge anyone with doubts about Smith’s guilt to view Channel 4’s Dispatches programme from September 2013, three victims give very moving accounts on camera.

    Martin I do not absolve myself in any way, as Jonathan Brown points out I feel the burden of guilt by association. I have no wish to besmirch an organisation that has been a central part of my whole adult life I just wish the party to be open and proactive in order to, at long last, help the victims and back up the (now retired) police officers who were continually thwarted in their efforts to charge Smith.

  • Alex Sabine 21st Mar '15 - 5:45pm

    Dr Michael Taylor makes some important points about the principles of justice and the nature of the libel laws; but this misses out a key part of the story.

    Ruth’s article questioned the idea that no one in the old Liberal Party could have been expected to know about allegations of abusive behaviour by Cyril Smith.

    As Jonathan demonstrates on his blog, this is implausible, to say the least. He points to detailed allegations published in Private Eye in 1979 (based on testimonies that had recently appeared in the Rochdale Alternative Paper); to an account of Smith’s behaviour at the Manchester Central by-election that year; and to a statement by Dominic Carman to the effect that his father, the famous QC George Carman, had been told by Jeremy Thorpe that “senior Liberals knew of the serious nature of the allegations against Smith and that they dated back many years”.

    http://liberalengland.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/what-liberal-party-knew-about-cyril.html

    The Private Eye article notes that “the allegations are substantiated by a number of sworn statements and carefully recorded interviews, but they have so far not been published anywhere else. Nor has any writ for libel yet been issued by C. Smith.” It goes on to state that a policy inquiry took place, a report was produced and kept at the police headquarters in Preston, but the DPP had declined to answer the question of whether they had received the file in either the affirmative or the negative.

    Much more recently (in 2013), the Manchester Evening News published the transcript of a police interview with Smith from 1970, in which he is warned about interfering with witnesses: http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/revealed-sir-cyril-smiths-bullying-1744842

    Clearly, the allegations against Smith were, and remain, unproven since they were not tested in a court of law. This is different from saying the Liberal Party (among others) was unaware of the allegations or that they were not in the public domain. The question that arises from Ruth’s article, and the evidence adduced by Jonathan, is why the allegations were not pursued more thoroughly; and, to the extent that they were investigated, why did the findings of the police inquiry seemingly disappear without trace?

  • David Allen 21st Mar '15 - 7:41pm

    “The assertion: “As late as last year there were people defending Cyril Smith’s reputation on Liberal Democrat Voice”. is lacking in any form of justification.”

    At a private Liberal Democrat meeting I attended some two years ago, following widespread dissemination of the allegations, a prominent regional official gave a general policy speech. He chose, for some reason, to make more than one favourable reference to Cyril Smith. The one I remember, which was treated as a brilliant piece of political wit, was a bon mot attributed to Smith: “Always tell the truth, but not always before the election.”

  • Alex Sabine 21st Mar '15 - 7:43pm

    As for Smith’s politics, I was 12 years old when he stood down as an MP so I have only the faintest recollection of him – and that was because his high public profile (and talent for self-publicity) meant he popped up from time to time in TV clips and the like.

    When I subsequently become interested in politics and learned more about some of the characters involved, I was pretty repelled by him to be honest: not just his reactionary, authoritarian views on social matters but what came across as a bullying manner disguised by superficial jocularity and larger-than-life persona.

    One of the most discreditable aspects of his conduct as a politician was his behaviour in connection with Turner & Newall, a Rochdale-based company involved in the manufacture of asbestos. As Michael Meadowcroft noted in his obituary of Smith in the Guardian: “Smith was [T&N’s] consistent advocate in parliament, even after a clear link between asbestos and the cancer mesothelioma was established.

    Indeed, he did rather more than merely support a prominent local firm when he opposed EEC regulations on asbestos in 1981; according to an article in the New Statesman published in 2008, he asked T&N to draft a speech for him and the speech he went on to deliver in Parliament was virtually identical – despite his claims to have “worked very hard on the speech” and to have “spent hours, both in reading and in being at the works, trying to master the facts about safety in asbestos”. The speech included the assertion, which T&N archives show they knew to be untrue, that: “The public at large are not at risk. It is necessary to say that time and again.”

    Smith did not declare his ownership of 1,300 T&N shares until a year later. He thus dishonestly sought to protect his financial interests in a deadly industry. When the New Statesman approached Smith for a comment before publishing its story in 2008, he said: “If you’ve got the documents, it is all true.”

    And while his support for capital punishment and opposition to abortion were perfectly valid positions for a parliamentarian to take (albeit unusual ones for a Liberal MP), the manner in which he approached these subjects, and expressed his views, was pugilistic and bilious. As Oliver Kamm has written: “He was a doctrinaire and unyielding opponent of abortion, for whom questions of ethics and women’s rights could be countered with boneheaded abuse. After the failure in 1988 of David Alton’s bill to reduce the time limit for abortions to 18 weeks, Smith was forced by the Speaker to apologise for referring to MPs who has talked it out as ‘murderers in the womb’.”

  • Stephen Hesketh 21st Mar '15 - 10:27pm

    Alex Sabine 21st Mar ’15 – 7:43pm

    Very informative post about this odious man Alex. Thank you.

  • Small spelling correction: The fourth paragraph in my first comment should read “a police inquiry took place”. And RAP is the Rochdale Alternative Press (rather than Paper).

  • I was a not -very-important member of the Liberal Party in London in the late 1970s and early 1980s and find it hard to believe that anyone was unaware of rumours concerning Cyril Smith. I certainly heard them, though not in any detail, and I wasn’t a reader of Private Eye. I can’t remember when they were first mentioned. At the time I discounted them because I didn’t know of any actual evidence and because I assumed that, if there was anything illegal in them, the police would have taken action. Perhaps people who were members of the Liberal Party at that time also discounted them. It was evident, however, that Cyril Smith was a bully and rather unpleasant. I remember an occasion when I was asked to see if he would speak at a university meeting. He put his arm round my waist more firmly than I liked and in a way that I found deeply uncomfortable for reasons I couldn’t quite understand. I had the sense that he was enjoying my discomfiture, This was in public at a Liberal Assembly and there was nothing illegal about what he did, or anything that would have been seen as abuse. But I remember that I forced myself to smile because I thought that, if I objected or showed any sign of distress, he would prolong the situation. It was hardly unusual for older men to grope female students in those days and this didn’t go as far as groping. But there was something in Cyril Smith’s action that felt more threatening than groping – it felt like a deliberate exercise and enjoyment of power. That, I think, is why I’ve remembered this more distinctly than the numerous episodes of casual groping which were the norm of young women’s lives in the 1970s. In the following years I saw Cyril Smith at assemblies etc. being rude in a bullying way to people with whom he had disagreements on matters of policy (especially as those he regarded as lefties who needed to be weeded out), and he seemed to have a little group of supporters in the party. I avoided him.

  • I think that all archives ought to be open – but would be (pleasantly) surprised if they reveal anything.

    I was personally at the ‘thick end’ of Cyril Smith’s bullying in the 1980s/90s, so had no cause to like the man, but you have to recognise that various people may have said various things about him -but then ask what evidence was ever provided at the time and to whom?

    Rochdale Alternative Press (RAP) attacked the Liberals on all sorts of fronts which, clearly, the Liberals at the time were not happy with. Ask Paul Rowen what he had to put up with as Council leader. The local voluntary sector in Rochdale were co-ordinated by a vocally anti-Liberal CVS. I would be very surprised, therefore, if anyone ever bothered to look into anything which was alleged from these sources against Cyril Smith without strong supporting evidence. Was this ever provided to anyone in the Liberal Party, locally, regionally or nationally?

    Paradoxically, perhaps, Cyril Smith was also a very close mate, throughout his time as an MP, of Geoffrey Dickens MP, the ‘scourge’ of child abusers. This ‘unholy alliance’ did not make it easy for the Liberals in Littleborough & Saddleworth, at that time, of whom I was one.

  • Ruth Bright 22nd Mar '15 - 8:54pm

    Alex Sabine, David Allen, Tony Dawson – salutary stuff, many thanks for your contributions.

    Kathz – thank you for sharing your account with us. One of the people who spoke out to C4 was a party worker who was abused by Smith as a young man. I intend speaking to the party’s Pastoral Care Officer about how the party might assist those who wish to confide in someone about past incidents.

    (On a lighter note I must quickly acknowledge Jonathan Calder’s blog which will never be “peripheral or uninfluential” on these or any other matters!)

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