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Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith – S. Danczuk

March 19, 2016

SFTCThere is no doubting that Smith was a remarkable man and a very good MP. He would answer calls for help at two in them morning, was seen out and about amongst the people of his constituency and he got things done. He was born into extreme poverty. An accident at school resulted in a medical condition which meant he couldn’t control his immense weight. This made him feel an outsider, which is probably why he cared for people on the margins. However, it might also explain why he exploited some of them.

That abuse ranged from disciplinarian style ‘spankings’ and rape to forcing boys to fellate him. Some were as young as eleven.

The book is easy to read and has an engaging style. It shows the rise of Smith from an illegitimate child, in the 30s, through members of the Young Liberals, to Liberal agent, then as a Labour councillor and alderman, to Mayor of Rochdale, when after an argument over rent rises, he resigned from the Labour Party to form his own party which predictably when nowhere, and in 1968 he re-joined the Liberal Party, displacing the prospective candidate for the 1970 General Election, which he lost. In 1972 the Labour MP for Rochdale died.

The book also charts Smith’s involvement in the cover-up of the dangers of asbestos, becoming a paid lobbyist for Turner Newall (the world’s largest asbestos producer). For a man who started out championing the underdog, his callous disregard for thousands of people dying agonising deaths is shocking.

It reveals at least 144 complaints were made against Smith during his life and police even caught him with a boot full of child porn in the 1980s, but on every occasion he escaped justice.

At one stage, Smith campaigned for the ‘reinstatement of Christian values’ (he had a Unitarian background) though it turns out that he was pro-capital punishment and anti- abortion. He also supported homophobe chief constable James Anderton.

Thatcher, Steel and Clegg come out of this badly.

It gets a bit repetitive towards the end.

One wonders what draws authors to particular topics and crusading actions. The author was exposed as having sent explicit texts to a teenage girl.

SFTC 2 Quotations:

‘And then, on another night, we were told to expect Smith. We were all excited. We called the parents of our Young Liberals and told them Cyril would be popping round. Lots of people wanted to come.

‘The flat was full of party members, including a good number of younger teenage activists, when he arrived — late, as I remember. We thought he wasn’t going to turn up, but then there was this pounding at the door and he was lumbering up my stairs.

‘He made a grand entrance like he always did.’

He’d been invited to rally the troops but before long things turned sour. ‘He was very crude. He got very lewd and loud and told smutty jokes,’ she recalled. ‘People were getting uncomfortable.’

After a chair broke under him, Smith moved and sat down next to a 14-year-old boy, and Julie watched with horror as his hand moved slowly towards the youngster’s groin.

The embarrassed lad jumped into the air. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at Smith in amazement and disgust. Julie’s husband, recently retired from the police, acted. While Julie took the young boy into the kitchen to calm him down, her husband put his hand firmly on the MP’s shoulder, leaned in close and whispered in his ear.

His voice shook with disgust: ‘We would not take a penny’

‘He told him not to make any trouble and to go quietly. Cyril got up and quickly made his way out.’

But Julie and her husband felt such behaviour could not be ignored. So the next day, he phoned the Liberal Party regional office and complained. He then phoned Liberal Party headquarters in London.

‘I know my husband got through to David Steel’s office. [Steel was then leader of the Liberal Party.] He wanted this story to get through to the top of the party. He was very explicit about what had happened.’

Julie’s husband told the police, too, but they decided not to follow the matter up.

The Liberals, however, realised the seriousness of the matter, and a few days later, an organiser came round to see her. He offered to give them £200 in ‘expenses’ to cover any ‘inconvenience’ they’d suffered. It was more than Julie earned in a month as a teacher.

Julie and her husband were aghast. They knew he was trying to buy their silence and turned the offer down flat.

‘We wouldn’t take a penny,’ she told me, the disgust still there in her voice.

It was a watershed moment. The couple’s involvement in the Liberal Party stopped there. They didn’t want to be part of a party that brushed incidents like this under the carpet.
I learned how in 1978 Smith had made an offer — via a story in his local weekly paper, the Rochdale Observer — to fund a free place to a public school for a young boy from a single-parent family.

The 11-year-old boy who won this scholarship is now in his late-40s and contacted me with his story. It is heartbreaking. After his mother responded to the newspaper article, Smith visited the family and said he wanted to offer a place at Reed’s School in the Surrey countryside just south of London.

He promised to take the boy to see the capital for the first time and give him a tour of the school.

Imagine the boy’s excitement when the two set out on the train. ‘I was very nervous,’ he remembered more than 35 years later. ‘I sat watching Cyril demolish this huge breakfast of eggs and bacon. I was overwhelmed by it all.’

He abused an 11-year-old at the Liberal Club

They went to the Houses of Parliament, where he was introduced to David Steel. He saw the famous green benches, gazed on the statues representing mercy and justice in the House of Lords.

If Smith had set out to impress, he’d certainly delivered. As they wandered around together, no one batted an eyelid at the sight of him alone with an 11-year-old boy.

There then followed a quick tour of Reed’s School before Smith steered them back to the magnificent National Liberal Club in Whitehall for the night.

The boy was tiring now. ‘Let me show you to your room,’ Smith smiled as they went upstairs and into a modest-sized room. It had just one bed. The boy froze, realising they’d be sharing. ‘I thought that perhaps, err . . .we’d have our own separate . . .’ he began to say but Smith put his finger to his lips and shushed him.

He lifted him onto the bed and began to undress him. The boy knew this was wrong, especially when Smith insisted he take his underpants off.

As Smith attempted to fondle him, the boy fought him off. He was shaking with fear. When he returned home, the boy told his mum he couldn’t go to Reed’s School. He didn’t want the free place.

She couldn’t understand and was initially resentful. She begged him to reconsider.

‘This is a wonderful opportunity for you,’ she argued. But she sensed something was wrong and eventually let it lie.

The experience soured the young boy and his attitude towards school changed overnight. He became withdrawn and lost interest in his studies. He flunked his exams at 16 and spent years in the wilderness. It took him a decade to get back on track.

As he and I talked about these awful events he’d clearly tried very hard to forget, I sensed how difficult it was for him to look back.

‘My mother blamed herself,’ he said quietly. ‘I didn’t tell her for ages and it’s been hard for her. She blames herself for leaving me alone with Cyril.’

Nick Clegg disowned all responsibility and refused to open an inquiry into the allegations

‘But he was the town’s MP,’ I protested. ‘How could she have known?’ Others, I’m convinced, must have known.

I made an appointment to see Lord Steel. I wanted answers from the man who led Smith’s party when allegations of his abuse of boys first emerged.

There was always bad blood between Steel and Smith — they simply did not get on — but Steel always recognised how important a figure the ebullient and outspoken Smith had been for the Liberals and their public image.

‘You have to remember the background to Cyril coming in the party,’ Steel told me as we sat in his office in Westminster. ‘The Liberals had a bad election in 1970; we were down to six MPs. A little puff of wind and we would have been almost obliterated. But the by-election in 1972 [when Smith won Rochdale] was the start of the revival.’

But while Smith was an electoral asset, his popularity came with a price, and Steel’s voice hardened as he recalled the problems Smith caused him. ‘He was used to getting his own way. Partly because of his size, he had a demeanour that would put some people in awe of him,’ he said.

Steel told me he confronted Smith about child abuse allegations against him reported in the satirical magazine, Private Eye.

‘We were having dinner in the Members’ dining room [in the House of Commons] and I said: “Cyril, what’s all this in Private Eye about?”

‘He said: “Yes, it’s true I was interviewed by the police, but you see I had this role in relation to the children’s home as a councillor.” There was no more to it than that.’

I was struck by the lack of curiosity Steel had showed in accepting what Smith told him.I put to him Julie’s account of her husband reporting Smith groping a boy at a Liberal by-election campaign meeting.

Steel replied: ‘I never heard anything about this. ‘I don’t think they would have spoken to anyone in my office. I never heard anything more about that kind of thing after the Private Eye article. Not even whispers.’

What about the 11-year-old boy Smith had taken to Parliament the year before and introduced to Steel before he went on to molest him at the Liberal Club? ‘I may well have met him but I wouldn’t have known he was going to spend the night with him,’ he answered.

Some of his poise had gone and he suddenly seemed older than his 76 years. In interviews I’d heard previously about Smith, Steel had sounded prickly and defiant. But now there was a sense of resignation to his voice. ‘I feel sick about it,’ he said. ‘It was all new to me when this broke. Quite horrifying.’

I asked: did no one ever tell you what Cyril was up to? In the police it seemed to be an open secret. ‘No, they didn’t,’ he replied and held his hands up in a gesture of surrender.

He went on: ‘My brother was a police officer and he never said anything. I had protection officers when I was leader and no one said: “There’s something funny about this Smith guy.” Whether people were protecting me, I don’t know.’
Later I wrote to Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg urging his party to hold a proper investigation into who covered up Cyril Smith’s abhorrent actions. I thought we’d reached a stage where everyone now realised the past must be confronted.

But like Pontius Pilate, Clegg disowned all responsibility, refused to open an inquiry and said no political party could do justice to the breadth and scope of these allegations. It felt like a door slamming in my face.

But, though it continues to fall on deaf ears where the political establishment is concerned, the story of Cyril Smith and those who concealed his activities cannot and will not remain buried.

Too much has come out already, and I can’t help thinking there is much, much more still to emerge.

‘Suddenly on the screen, there was footage from Euston of a guy approaching young boys at the station,’ Karl said. ‘It was a dirty old man trying it on with boys.’

There was a murmur of recognition. ‘That’s Cyril Smith,’ someone piped up. ‘Everyone realised it was him,’ said Karl.

So they were being shown a training video of Cyril Smith grooming boys? ‘Pretty much, yeah,’ he shrugged.

But didn’t you wonder why no one was doing anything about Smith? ‘I thought at the time someone should be doing something, but you don’t step on other people’s toes. I presumed Transport Police were dealing with it.’

Another former officer gave me details of Operation Cleopatra, which was launched in 1997 to investigate child abuse in children’s homes and schools across Greater Manchester.

One they looked at was Knowl View, a residential school in Rochdale for children with learning difficulties, where Smith had abused boys.

In 1999 this officer submitted a file recommending Smith be prosecuted for child abuse. But once again this fell on deaf ears. ‘They decided not to pursue him and I never saw my report again,’ he explained.

T his had been going on for 40 years, ever since the police made their first inquiries about Smith and boys. But no one ever did anything. And the key question remains: why not?

I’d heard so many stories by now that I had no doubt this was a problem that extended further than Cyril Smith. I knew there must be other politicians involved. Why else would he be protected?

Other stories were now appearing in the newspapers linking MPs with the murder of children during depraved, violent orgies. I spoke to other officers about this and pressed everyone who came to me about it for information. But one thing held them back. There was an incredible fear of speaking out.

As the stakes were getting higher, I’d be passed on to colleagues who’d panic when I approached them and suggest I talk to someone else. Everyone I came across seemed to be touched by the same anxiety. And then I realised why.

The phone rang one afternoon and a woman said she wanted to talk about child abuse stories she’d seen in the newspapers. She was a lawyer who used to operate in Barnes, South-West London, and had represented a young client who had worked at Elm Guest House, which had long been suspected of being run as a gay brothel.

‘The police began to give him a hard time,’ she explained. ‘The questioning was getting a bit aggressive.’ When she tried to intervene, the police officer took her to one side.

He pulled out a police statement and flung it at her in disgust, she recalled. ‘He was angry and told me to read it because that’s why he had to push the lad.’

Up until that moment, she didn’t know much about what had happened at Elm Guest House. But as she began to read the statement before her, a chilling realisation of how serious this was began to dawn on her.

‘The statement was from a young man and detailed how his father had raped him and then told him he would be raped by other men there,’ she said. ‘Among those who had raped him were politicians.’

We were getting dangerously close to things that powerful people did not want ever to be made public. And those helping to break the silence were now coming under worrying pressure from above.

O ne of the stories I’d told in my book came from former Special Branch detective Tony Robinson, who revealed how a sex abuse dossier had been seized from Lancashire police by MI5.

I spoke to him again early this year after my book had come out. There was anger in his voice as he described a call he’d received out of the blue from Lancashire Police towards the end of 2014.

Now recovering from a serious illness, the frustration and tiredness in his voice were palpable.

‘A young officer called me and wanted to talk about Cyril Smith,’ he said. ‘I’ve been retired 31 years and never heard anything from the police. And now I suddenly get this call. It was obvious they were trying to warn me off. I found it very unnerving.’

A febrile mood was forming in police circles and I could only imagine the kind of calls that were being made, the pressure they were being put under.

‘Everyone’s trying to keep a lid on it,’ Robinson complained. ‘We really need to clean out the Augean stables.’

Steve was another informant who emerged from the past, after my book was published, with a harrowing story of Smith’s activities, this time at the Buckley Hall Young Offenders’ Institution in Rochdale.

He was 18 when he arrived there as an inmate at the beginning of the Eighties — and it wasn’t long before he encountered Smith.

Cyril — who appears to have had the run of the place — walked into his cell one afternoon and quietly closed the door. Before Steve had time to question who this giant of a man was, Smith was in his face, scolding him.

‘You’ve been a bad lad, haven’t you?’ he hissed. ‘I hear you’ve been giving other lads cigarettes. Hand them over.’

When Steve protested that he hadn’t got any cigarettes. Smith made him take his clothes off. ‘I need to search you thoroughly,’ he told him. He then told the naked teenager to bend over and he abused him.

The experience was so distressing that Steve trashed his cell, screamed for hours and beat his fists against the door until they bled.

But no one would believe him and he was eventually taken to Manchester’s Strangeways Prison and put in solitary confinement.

Back at Buckley Hall, Smith continued to be a frequent visitor.

No one challenged him and he was able to wander around the place and prey on boys for years. One police officer told me he suspected Smith had keys to the place.

Afterwards I lay on my bed for hours, staring at the ceiling and wondering what had just happened

His hold over those in charge there was such that a teenager named Dave, the prison’s table tennis champion, was ordered to play an exhibition match against Smith in December 1974 in front of inmates and staff — and to deliberately lose it to the superobese and unfit MP.

Four decades later, Dave described for me how ‘we were all assembled in the hall and this huge guy, like the Michelin man, came in. The top brass were fawning over him like he was royalty. I hadn’t a clue who he was. We began to play and, without thinking, I raced into a 7–0 lead.

‘I looked up and the screws were glaring at me. I’d better slow down.

‘I knew if I won another point and beat him I’d be in serious trouble. So I hit shots long, into the net, wide, anywhere but in.

Everyone could see I was throwing the game. When Smith won, he held up his arms and cheered.

“Well done, lad. You pushed me all the way there,” he said, lifting me off my feet. He buried my head in his giant folds of fat and fondled my buttocks. I was gasping for air.

‘Afterwards I lay on my bed for hours, staring at the ceiling and wondering what had just happened. What on earth was a person like him doing in a place like this?’

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