The former Rochdale MP not only abused vulnerable boys but also a corrupt reactionary. So why did Nick Clegg pay tribute to him?
Tim Farron in his capacity as Liberal Democrat Party President has today warned that Lib Dems and Labour need to “answer serious questions as to who knew what and when” regarding the abuses of the sexual abuse of children by the late Rochdale MP Cyril Smith. Both Greater Manchester Police and the CPS has concluded that Smith should have been prosecuted when the allegations first came to light in the 1970s.
It goes without saying that whatever contributions Smith made as a public figure count for nothing in the light of these allegations. However, what I hadn’t realised before I did some research on the late MP was that even were one to overlook his paedophilia, Smith still had a pretty malign legacy.
For a Liberal MP, he was not actually very liberal. He was in many regards a prototype for an unfortunate subgroup of Liberal activists who have little discernable commitment to freedom but instead subscribe to localism which they interpret as parochial populism and use as a pretext for being a local ‘big man.’ He was after all “the only Liberal to oppose the abolition of capital punishment and abortion law reform (“We are the backstreet abortionists for the rest of Europe,” he declared).”
However, I would not make too much of this: I try not to hold people’s political convictions against them personally. More concerning are his efforts to help the Lancashire manufacturing giant Turner & Newall (T&N) conceal the dangers of Asbestos:
“T&N also relied on the assistance of Cyril Smith, the larger-than-life Rochdale MP and parliamentary pioneer of the Saturday-night television chat-show sofa. During the summer recess of 1981, Smith wrote to Sydney Marks, the head of personnel, informing him that the House would debate EEC regulations on asbestos in the next parliamentary session.
The letter asks simply: “Could you please, within the next eight weeks, let me have the speech you would like to make (were you able to!), in that debate?”
T&N’s draft is almost identical to the speech delivered by the Rochdale MP, stressing the need for less regulation and arguing that substitutes for asbestos should be approached “with caution”. “The public at large are not at risk,” said Smith. “It is necessary to say that time and time again.”
Writing in the local paper, he claimed to have “worked very hard on the speech and have spent hours, both in reading and in being at the works, trying to master the facts about safety in asbestos”.
A year later he declared 1,300 shares in the company. Six months after that J B Heron, the chairman of T&N, wrote to Smith again, thanking him for his assistance with the Commons select committee meetings which followed Alice, a Fight for Life, the Yorkshire Television documentary that highlighted the plight of T&N employees.
When last month the New Statesman approached Smith for a comment, he said: “If you’ve got the documents, it is all true.”
This was all known at the time Cyril Smith died in 2010. Which raises the question why Nick Clegg chose to pay him a warm tribute claiming: “He was a true Liberal, dedicated to his constituency, always showing great passion and determination.”