IT was a huge PR coup in more ways than one. Roly-poly MP, Cyril Smith, was coming to my kids’ primary school speech day, to present prizes and glad-hand the award-winners.
Back in the naïve mid-1980s, the larger-than-life character, with a girth to match, was the Liberals’ darling – a bluff, northern charmer, deflecting the fall-out from the torrid, homosexual scandal that sank Jeremy Thorpe, the party’s former leader.
Yet, I wasn’t overjoyed at the prospect of Big Cyril’s road show coming to school. And, couched in as much tact as I could muster, I said so to a teacher, who, quite reasonably asked what my reservations were.
As a newsman, I was privy to a rumour mill that marked the 30-stone politician as having ‘form’, not that I could divulge, in plain English, to the teacher that what I knew was incendiary: the recurrent buzz that Smith might not be an appropriate adult to have around kids.
The satirical mag, Private Eye, had alleged in 1979 the Liberal Chief Whip – once Labour mayor of Rochdale – had put youngsters at a boys’ home across his knee, pulled down their pants and spanked them.
Plus, I’d heard from reporters covering Smith’s local patch, political contacts, even coppers of my acquaintance, all of whom whispered the same mantra…investigations into Smith’s ‘extra-curricular activities’ were shelved because of ‘pressure from above.’
Proof and hearsay, however hot, aren’t the same. And, apart from the Eye’s snippet, no journo had dared make public further innuendos, because none fancied a second career as a mini-cab driver.
Besides, it’s not always wise to assume where there’s smoke, fire rages. The Sun made that monumental boob when it accused Liverpool fans of picking the pockets and urinating on the bodies of some of the 96 supporters who died in 1989 Hillsborough Tragedy – which is why, even today, Britain’s best-selling tabloid remains a pariah newspaper on Merseyside.
Smith, though, was far from stupid, as Simon Danczuk, author of the new book, ‘Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith’, claims.
‘Once you looked beyond the jolly clown…there was a sickening, dark heart,’ insists the writer. ‘This wasn’t just about abuse, it was about power – and a cover-up that reached from Rochdale all the way to the very top of the Establishment.’
Now Labour MP in Smith’s old seat, Danczuk alleges his predecessor – knighted for political services in 1988 – was part of a Westminster-based network of sex abusers, which Lib-Dems, police, even MI5, had been complicit in covering up for decades.
Danczuk says he has affidavits from eight boys abused by Smith at the Cambridge House hostel, in Rochdale, in the 1960s and they make for grim reading.
Smith, who had helped found the home, was seemingly given ‘free rein’ to administer punishments and is said to have taken pleasure in spanking boys ‘for their own good’, while conducting ‘medical examinations’ of the half-naked kids.
Up to a month ago 144 complaints had been lodged against Smith – a friend of serial sex-abuser, Jimmy Savile – some from victims then as young as eight.
And, incredibly, Lord David Steel, the former Liberal leader, admitted last week that when he’d quizzed Smith about the Eye’s report, the fat man agreed it was true.
So why didn’t Steel act?
‘These allegations were already very old,’ he insists. ‘They had been investigated by the police, as Private Eye stated, and no action had been taken. So there was nothing more I could do. He wasn’t an MP at the time of these allegations – he wasn’t even a member of my party.’
Meanwhile, while describing the charges against Smith as ‘repugnant’, current leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said that when all his MPs and peers were asked two years ago whether they’d heard of the abuse claims ‘no-one said they did.’
Given what I’d been told – three decades earlier – from a host of disparate sources, I find it inconceivable the entire parliamentary Lib-Dem mob hadn’t heard a murmur on their antenna, far more attuned to Westminster tittle-tattle than mine.
Political affiliations aside, Danczuk agrees with that assessment.
‘They are a party in denial,’ he asserts. ‘I find it incredible they are claiming that they didn’t hear the rumours about Smith.’
But, apart from what we northerners call ‘cloth-eared’ folly – for the benefit of ignorant southern folk, that’s a meld of selective deafness and a rebuttal of reality – among Smith’s old cronies, Clegg, Steel and Co. should know the law of unintended consequences takes no prisoners.
So, despite investigations being launched by Rochdale Council and Greater Manchester Police, the Lib-Dems’ refusal to hold their own probe into what’s inevitably being dubbed ‘Smithgate’ is a decision they might live to regret.
Child sex abuse – even the mere whiff of it – is no longer dismissed as a trifling deviation to be swept under the carpet, as it once was.
The Savile scandal and its devastating impact on the smug-as-a-mug BBC, again years after the culprit was dead, should concentrate Lib-Dem minds and demand a large dose of proactive humility, not a dead-bat, do-nothing defence.
Similarly, in a week that’s seen showbiz power-broker, Max Clifford, stripped of his swagger and banged up for eight years for sex offences against young girls, it’s not unreasonable to ask who, in my own trade and close to him, knew what murky secrets lurked behind the slick façade of the man who made Fleet Street rumble.
Like Savile, Smith will never see the inside of a courtroom, but it’s likely his considerable political clout far extended anything the perv DJ or contemptuous Clifford could ever match.
And, though the fat man is – as yet – guilty of nothing more than being the posthumous subject of a swirling welter of allegations that he was a heartless, predatory paedophile, his activities deserve and demand thorough public scrutiny, especially by the Lib-Dems.
Perhaps, too, it’s time we all need a reminder of Edmund Burke’s sage quote: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’