Why not bring back the chaperone – the woman who would accompany a young woman if she was meeting a young man? We ask as the latest manifestation of “me, too” appears: claims of everything from rape to molestation in schools.
The reflex from some will be to dismiss the entire phenomenon as snowflakery. This would be a mistake. Most people disapprove of bad manners, misogyny, unwanted “sexts”, upskirting, porn (as opposed to erotica) and treating others as ends rather than means – let alone of serious crimes such as rape.
A website called Everyone’s Invited is pullating with claims, and the inevitable consequence is calls for an independent inquiry. The easiest course for the Government to take is to adapt one that exists already: the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), and its strand on abuse in residential schools.
The argument for doing so is an inquiry will empower witnesses to come forward, give evidence, allow the police to reflect on it, proceed if they judge it necessary – and justice will duly be done. This reasoning is as important to challenge as it is easy to accept.
First of all, the police would have no formal role in such an inquiry, at least if IICSA is the model. Whether they were to so or not, the order of events described above is problematic. It is at least arguable that to make public complaints, however treated, before police action prejudices natural justice and any trial.
But even if that hurdle is vaulted, there is a second, bigger obstacle: IICSA is an inquiry into institutions, not individuals – at least, so far. Any inquiry that doesn’t deal with allegations against people will inevitably be denounced as a sell-out by enraged accusers.
If it does deal with them, then investigations, like rain in the gospel story, will fall “on the just and unjust”. On the plus side, serious abusers and rapists will be found, tried and sentenced. On the minus, there will be miscarriages of justice.
Is it really so long since the Operation Midland scandal, which trashed the reputation of Leon Brittan, Field Marshall Edwin Bramall, and Harvey Proctor, the last of whom lost his home and job? All on the word of a proven liar, Carl Beech, whose claims were so obviously fantasises that this site called them out at once?
Indeed, were it not for Proctor’s mix of calculation and courage, Beech might never have been rumbled at all – since the press conference which the former called, in order to protest his innocence, became a stone which unleashed the avalanche that buried Beech’s lies (which a senior police officer described as “credible and true”)?
That’s the mix of good and bad that will come of an inquiry which deals with individuals. What of one that deals with institutions only? In that case, there’s no need to peer into a crystal, imagining the certainty of Karl Beech equivalents, when we can read the book: the story of IICSA itself.
To cut its long story short, it has since its inception lost two chairs, its entire original panel, and its original remit: significantly, its revised one went further than the original, giving the inquiry powers to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of evidence, from people as well as institutions.
This was an injustice in itself to Baroness Butler-Schloss, the inquiry’s original chair; to Fiona Woolf, its second, and to the entire panel, which had done nothing wrong. Woolf, remember, was cast out after it became known that she had lived in the same street as Brittan, and invited him and his wife to dinner three times.
Yet this many-headed beast, with its twelve strands, waddles ponderously on – at a cost of over £100 million to the taxpayer, and rising. It is easy to say that it should never have happened at all but forget the circumstances in which it did.
The original inquiry came about when claims of child abuse in relation to public figures had reached a frenzy, and it appeared that the media might begin to identify people, truly or falsely. (Let alone social media – the ungoverned spaces beyond the Fleet Street pale.)
Is it really all so different now – other than that claims are being painted on a far bigger canvas? They began in the private schools as part of a wider story: part of the collective loss of self-confidence of established institutions in the western world.
Are their heads and governors driven by an urge to write wrongs, or by fear of the mob? Or by something else – namely, the need to protect their finances in case they’re sued? It’s significant that the state schools named so far tend to be some of the better known ones, where parents and former pupils are more likely to be “lawyered-up”?
This will be less so what Alastair Campbell once referred to as the “bog standard comprehensives”, especially outside the Greater South-East, where parental elbows are less sharp and attitudes a bit less contemporary, with consequences both for the better and worse.
That mix of parents, money, former pupils and lawyers is ominous, by the way. Expect actions and counter-actions if individuals are dragged into inquiries – or, come to think of it, in any event. That lawyering-up is happening anyway in relation to some present claims, both on social media and elsewhere.
These calls for an inquiry are a ferret that will duly reverse, urged on by politicians who either know no better or should do so, when a media that publicises the claims of accusers duly turns to those of the accused – including the innocent, in some cases.
The suggestion at the start of this piece for a chaperone revival wasn’t just a journalistic device to grab attention. John Prescott once referred to New Labour as traditional values in a modern setting. Much of what we’re seeing is Victorian values in a woke setting.
At its heart are relationships between men and women, and how they are treated in different times in different places. That men as a rule are stronger than women (in physical terms) has consequences that must be policed – as must be their tendency to aggression.
Sometimes, as in the age of the chaperone, the mood is for strictness. At others – the swinging sixties and turbulent seventies come to mind – it is for laxity. For the last few decades, the pendulum has been counter-swinging back, but towards a new norm.
Though with a difference: where once you might be considered damned because you were a sinner and saved because of your faith, you can now be judged saved if a woman and damned if a man. Doesn’t this follow, after all, if the presumption is to declare someone, of whatever sex, to be a victim just because they claim so, as Beech did?
None of which is meant to suggest that government is helpless – or should do nothing. It can help protect women directly, through ensuring the vigilant use of police and courts. In the case of the current allegations, it should encourage those with complaints to come forward.
And it can help less directly, too: for example, by using its resources to help families: see Miriam Case’s piece on this site today about the tax system. What it should not do, having been bitten by IICSA, is fail to be twice shy. Everyone’s Invited is a noble slogan, but the problem with inviting everyone is you never know who might turn up.