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Pedophile Rings in Thatcher’s Britain—Myth or Fact?

Leon Brittan, who died last week, had a very distinguished career in British public life. Among other things, he served as Margaret Thatcher’s Home Secretary and later became a member of the European Commission. It is startling, then, to find that among the standard eulogies for the great and the good, some news headlines [1] reporting his death feature such unexpected words as “abuse ring,” “pedophile,” and “child murder.” Brittan had the misfortune to play a starring role in a long-simmering sex scandal currently fascinating that country’s media.

For years now, rumors have been floating about a “Westminster Pedophile Ring” that supposedly operated in the 1970s and 1980s and which included senior politicians, civil servants, and military figures, mainly right-wing Conservatives. Recently allegations reached new heights when police said they were seriously considering claims that the group had murdered several young boys. As the Independent headlined, “Tory MP Killed Boy During Sex Attack.” In themselves, these horrific charges contain nothing flagrantly impossible. Yet we need to be very careful indeed about accepting a story that depends on thorny issues of evidence and credibility that will be deeply familiar to American observers of our own country’s sexual politics.

The whole dreadful affair has now developed a complete mythology, with two pivotal hero figures. One was flamboyant Member of Parliament Geoffrey Dickens, who in 1984 compiled a massive dossier about pedophilia in British public life, with details on some 40 allegedly tainted politicians. He gave this to Home Secretary Leon Brittan, whose department promptly misplaced or buried it, supposedly as part of a general establishment cover-up. Only in recent years has the affair returned to life. The other key figure is the pseudonymous “Nick,” supposedly one of the abused boys from that earlier era. Finding his chilling account of witnessing murders “credible and true,” British police have now reopened the investigation, in the process generating sensational headlines.

Parts of the story are plausible. We know that in that era—roughly, the decade following 1975—several British public figures were indeed involved in outrageous and exploitative sexual misbehavior, including some cases of child abuse and child pornography. One horrific example was Liberal MP Cyril Smith, a 300-pound blimp with a penchant for spanking teenaged boys. Although such cases of sexual malfeasance were well-known to police and media, they were thoroughly hushed up, a process made vastly easier by draconian British libel laws.

The “pedophile ring” rhetoric is, though, misleading. If we look at the known sexual scandals from the politics of this era, they tended not to be “pedophile,” in the sense of involving someone sexually focused on children at or below the age of puberty. The word is thus chosen to maximize seriousness, implying young child victims, compulsive serial offending, and incorrigibility. In fact, the recorded cases commonly involved homosexual men interested in male teenagers or young adults, usually male prostitutes. That does not for a second excuse the behavior, but it does put it in a different category from molesters preying on infants.

That distinction is significant in light of the claims made about Geoffrey Dickens, who is today presented as a near-prophetic champion of decency and child protection confronting a perverted ruling class. Dickens was in fact an outrageous demagogue, who never found a sensational issue or moral panic that he failed to leap on. His special bugbear was homosexuality, a broad category that, for him, included pedophilia as one of its subsets. If we actually had a copy of the legendary dossier, we can be quite sure that it included very few actual pedophiles and a great many homosexuals. Almost certainly, too, the impressive-sounding term “dossier” dignifies a generalized rant.

Charges of rings and conspiracies should also be treated circumspectly. The “elite pedophilia” charges circulated very widely in tabloid media of the 1980s, usually in the context of lunatic theories of Satanism and supposed “ritual child abuse,” sometimes linked to anti-Masonic hysteria. Then as now, these fevered rumors Named Names, including Cabinet members and members of the royal family, as well as prominent Jews, like Brittan himself. It’s not surprising, then, that law-enforcement officials at the time were profoundly (and rightly) skeptical of any new nuggets Dickens had to offer.

But let’s move to the present day, and especially to “Nick,” the main (and seemingly only) source of the murder charges. I personally have no idea of Nick’s identity, or of his veracity, and it is possible that every appalling word he is uttering is grounded in truth. But based on the extensive media reports of the affair, I do have concerns.


I read, for instance, the accounts of the homicidal orgies attributed to the elite ring, in which at least one boy was strangled. This gives me a mighty sense of déjà vu because I know identical stories of actual, confirmed incidents that happened in London at this exact time and which have been known in the public domain for decades. Those crimes, though, involved a quite genuine pedophile crime network that was as far from “elite” as it was possible to be, a group of underclass trash who hung around fairgrounds to find child victims. They indeed killed repeatedly, in exactly the ways now credited to our “elite” perverts, and the similarity between those stories and the current charges bothers me. If someone were inventing “pedophile ring” crimes, this is what they would come up with.

Recently, one of the leading detectives in the renewed investigation remarked that “I believe what Nick is saying to be credible and true.” Based on reports to date, police have never referred to any actual corroboration of the charges, any piece of evidence that Nick gave that he would not have known if he had not been present at these crimes. Rather, we hear repeatedly of his “credibility,” a word that is thoroughly subjective: “I believe.”

When I say that X is “credible,” what we mean is that I find what he has to say believable, and that fact depends as much on my willingness to accept his statement as on any quality in his character or demeanor. This is a familiar theme in contemporary American debates over sexual assault, as when Rolling Stone found a witness who recounted fraternity rape stories, declaring her “credible” because it fitted their ideological needs to do so. Editors and journalists simply wanted and needed to believe. Seeking corroboration was unnecessary, and the mere suggestion of doing so would have blamed and demeaned the victim.

In Britain, too, there are ample reasons why authorities would now find Nick “credible” in the way they would not have done a decade or so back. The main new factor is the appalling case of disc jockey Jimmy Savile, who used his celebrity status to carry out a career of rape and molestation lasting half a century. Since 2012, desperately anxious to avoid new attacks on their integrity and competence, law-enforcement agencies have sought out and prosecuted celebrity sexual crimes from bygone years, commonly relying on the uncorroborated testimony of reported victim and survivors.

Sometimes, this exhumation of past horrors has undoubtedly served the cause of justice, but questions remain. Should an individual really be tried and convicted on the unsupported, uncorroborated evidence of alleged victims who report crimes from 30 or 40 years ago? Surely, we can now point to enough cases where such testimony has proved to be wholly fictitious, and malicious, so that real injustice resulted. Witnesses fantasize, and witnesses lie.

Perhaps British politicians of the Thatcher era were indeed sexual monsters. But we should pause before accepting what, on its surface, looks like a deranged fantasy.

Philip Jenkins is the author of Images of Terror: What We Can and Can’t Know About Terrorism [2]. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Pedophile Rings in Thatcher’s Britain—Myth or Fact?"

#1 Comment By David Lindsay On January 26, 2015 @ 1:26 pm

The similarity with “the Dirty Dozen”, who were ostensibly at the opposite end of the social scale, is only to be expected.

Especially among men, there has never been much of a line between the very top and the very bottom of British society: pederasty, drugs, illicit gambling, taking out awkward people, sending teenage sons to prostitutes in order to initiate them, and very much else besides.

#2 Comment By NortonSmitty On January 26, 2015 @ 4:00 pm

Well at least we know there are a few in the US, Google Franklin Savings and Loan Scandal or Jerry Sandusky

#3 Comment By Colm J On January 26, 2015 @ 6:10 pm

Over 80 per cent of the accusations against Catholic priests also related to adolescents. That didn’t stop the media invariably describing such cases as “child rape” and “paedophilia”. I notice a markedly more sceptical and restrained approach in the media towards allegations against members of the secular establishment – for some reason. Many of the “credible” accusations against Catholic clergy were never properly investigated by Church, state or media, but instead were accepted as “credible” on very flimsy grounds – e.g. the accuser had lived in the same town as the accused at the time the alleged abuse had taken place. And Catholics of all hues – liberal, conservative and traditionalist – were only too happy to accept the self-evident veracity of allegations against Catholic religious – even when the accused persons were no longer around to defend themselves. Liberal Catholics saw such cases as proof of the dangers of clerical celibacy (conveniently ignoring the many cases of sexual abuse among married clergy in other denominations), and of barring women from the priesthood, whereas Catholic traditionalists managed to convince themselves that these cases illustrated to the average pew-sitter the corruption of the post Vatican II Church. In their rush to grind axes, neither camp concerned itself much about due procedure or the quaint notion of innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. As for the allegations against prominent Tories in Britain: it must be noted that some former senior Tories themselves have in the recent past indicated that at least some of the allegations against former colleagues in government contained elements of truth. That doesn’t prove anything in itself but it does suggest that claims of covers up of establishment sexual abuse are not necessarily the ravings of that great bête noir of the corporate media – the “conspiracy theorist”.

#4 Comment By Colm J On January 26, 2015 @ 6:29 pm

It’s also worth noting the historic relationship between establishment grandees in Britain and “underclass trash” gangland figures, e.g the close friendship that both the Tory Lord Boothby and the very posh and well-connected Labour MP Tom Driberg (Labour) enjoyed with the notorious East End gangsters, the Kray twins, in the post-war era.

#5 Comment By Argosy Jones On January 26, 2015 @ 6:31 pm

I’m surprised that you haven’t mentioned the recent revelations about Jimmy Savile. It would seem quite relevant.

[Ahem: “The main new factor is the appalling case of disc jockey Jimmy Savile…” —ed.]

#6 Comment By cecelia On January 27, 2015 @ 2:12 am

I understand the skepticism one feels about these types of conspiracy allegations but unfortunately we now know that respectable and admired people do terrible things – Sandusky being an example. We know from the Epstein case that influence and wealth can be used to shield one from the full weight of the law as well as get one a pretend jail sentence. So cover ups happen. Powerful people are protected and good people often find it difficult to accept that such horrendous things are going on and so allow the bad guys to keep on doing bad.

Of course what makes people in the UK so suspicious is that the so called investigation into all these charges has been so amateur and is being delayed until after the elections. This needs investigation and resolution. It other wise contributes to a feeling that the government cannot be trusted and is owned by wealthy and often decadent elites. Clearly not good thing.

It is also of concern that the BBC clearly knew that all was not well with Jimmy Savile and yet he was permitted to continue on with his utterly repulsive activities.

#7 Comment By Andrew On January 27, 2015 @ 3:35 am

They knew about him, and others years ago. Operation Orchid was closed down by the secret service, as was the one involving the child brothel, Elm Guest House.

#8 Comment By Daniel Coxon On January 27, 2015 @ 12:27 pm

Why wouldn’t you expect politicians to be child molesters? By definition they have narcicistic personalties they must feed. They clearly lust after domination. Seems a perfect fit to me.
Prior to the ubiquity of the camera phone, people often dismissed claims of police brutality as the whinings of losers of liberals. Predatorial people seek power. On the more mundane level the jobs that attract pedophiles are teacher, cop, coach and clergy. The smart ones become doctors. The charismatic ones become politicians.

#9 Comment By Stephen Gould On January 27, 2015 @ 1:03 pm

Allegations of sexual perversity are not only very difficult to shrug off, they are also commonly used to discredit specific groups (cf. any number of Christian heretical sects – look at the etymology of the word “bugger”, and in more recent times, David Koresh’s group) in a way that bypasses most critical judgment. And yet sometimes, as the article observes, they are right. I recall reading in Private Eye about Cyril Smith’s “appetites” – stories dismissed because they didn’t lead to prosecution, and rumours about Jimmy Savile, and Gary Glitter, and any number of Catholic clerics, turned out to be right. There is no doubt that there were a number of gay British Tories who could not “come out” in those days, and rumours, both about identifying them and about their conduct, will get exaggerated in the retelling. Best attitude is to be properly skeptical – which is to reject the tales when there is no evidence, but to be willing to reconsider once there is, “lest ye commit the errors, the error that is Type 1, and the error that is Type 2″…

#10 Comment By James K On January 27, 2015 @ 8:29 pm

There have been two British cases recently in which abuse victims incorrectly identified a prominent man as their abuser: so even if a victim’s reports of abuse are credible, their identification of the perpetrator may not be.

And yes, the m.o. of the alleged murders does suggest a well-known gang that has been sent to prison for similar offences.

#11 Comment By Rob Stove On January 28, 2015 @ 5:40 am

Every now and then (and never more, of course, than in recent times) there occur allegations that Edward Heath was an active homosexual with adult partners, an active homosexual with underage partners, or both. What truth there is in these charges, I cannot say; and nor, it appears, can his biographers.

I was still a child when Heath’s prime ministerial term ignominiously ended, and I have only vague recollections of his 1970-1974 reign. Heath’s overwhelming spinelessness when it came to the communist threat – a spinelessness which in his case began during the Spanish Civil War, when the sheer fraudulence of his bulletins from Red-controlled soil approached Beatrice Webb’s romantic fiction – could have been the result of blackmailers. But there were plenty of other leading British politicians in his day whose anticommunism was just as feeble, without erotic proclivities being involved.

What is beyond dispute is that certain ladies found Heath very attractive. One such lady was the late Moura Lympany, eminent and much-recorded (not to mention, as portraits reveal, chic) pianist. Heath’s own musical talent, FWIW, was genuine enough.

#12 Comment By Colm J On January 28, 2015 @ 9:19 am

Presumably one of the cases of incorrect identification James K is referring to is the accusations made against the late Lord McAlpine a few years ago. I find this case (or at least the way it has been reported subsequent to the BBC Newsnight programme that made the allegations) completely baffling. McAlpine was scarcely a household name, but he was reasonably prominent in British political circles, and his photograph had appeared in the media many times, and was also available to view online. Yet in all the years since the abuse had allegedly taken place, his accuser had apparently never viewed a photograph of McAlpine until AFTER he went public with his allegations. It seems utterly extraordinary that the BBC would have made so little effort to ensure that the accuser was absolutely sure in his own mind of the identity of the man he was accusing. The end result of their astonishing journalistic irresponsibility was to discredit all accusations of sexual crimes made against establishment figures – an outcome that may have come as a great relief to plenty of prominent figures in the British elite.