This morning’s papers report a growing push to prevent Tom Watson, the former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, from being elevated to the peerage.
Jeremy Corbyn has put his former rival’s name forward for a seat in the Lords. But in the wake of the official inquiry into the ‘Westminster paedophile ring’ scandal, victims of Watson’s high-profile campaigning are right to suggest that this is deeply inappropriate.
No party comes out of the report well. David Steel, the former Liberal leader, is resigning from both the Liberal Democrats and the House of Lords for turning a blind eye to a predatory MP, Cyril Smith, and may yet face prosecution. Margaret Thatcher also stands accused of showing favour to an MP, Peter Morrison, against whom child abuse allegations had been laid. Both Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman have been called to take responsibility for the “foolish and misguided support” offered by an organisation they worked for to the Paedophile Information Exchange.
These examples illustrate how welcome an advance it is that we are now moving towards an environment where the powerful are held to account for their actions. But that is a sword which cuts more than one way.
What Watson did, for reasons either foolish or knavish, ran well beyond the proper boundaries of even the most vigorous campaign for justice. He used his parliamentary platform to smear political opponents and amplify the unproven and now discredited allegations of Carl Beech (or ‘Nick’), and reportedly brought political pressure to bear on the authorities conducting what are meant to be impartial criminal investigations.
Not only did this cause huge distress to individuals such as Harvey Proctor and Leon Brittan, as well as their friends and families, but it made it harder for the police to do their jobs.
There is a very good case to be made for parliamentary privilege. Politics is ultimately not like any other calling, and it right that there remains an arena in which those elected to represent the nation can speak fearlessly. But with privileges come responsibilities, and Watson shirked them. This means it now falls to his fellow politicians, and to Parliament, to impose what penalties are in their gift. Self-policing institutions must actually self-police.
Nobody is entitled to a seat in the Lords. To allow Watson – or indeed, John Bercow, another Labour nominee – a place in the upper house would send a powerful signal that whilst MPs rightly won’t stand for the abuse of children, they’re prepared to take a very indulgent view of the abuse of power. And that will not do.