Saturday, 3 August 2019

From Gilles de Rais to Dolphin Square

One explanation for the criminal career of Carl Beech is that he was a convincing witness: a con man, in other words. But as any confidence trickster will tell you, they succeed through the gullibility of others. There has to be an appetite for belief that can be exploited. That there was a longstanding and murderous paedophile ring at the apex of British society was unlikely, even before the lack of corroborating evidence became too obvious to ignore, but what stands out about Operation Midland is the lack of scepticism among the police and many of the journalists drawn into the case. Elite conspiracies do occur, but they are usually about the pursuit and retention of political power and/or money. Criminal sex-rings are usually much more mundane affairs, as the various grooming and children's home scandals have revealed. Of course, this is not to say that figures in the public eye don't engage in criminal activity or sexual abuse; but organised conspiracies on such a scale, rather than the opportunistic leverage of fame and access practised by individuals like Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith, are vanishingly rare.

The feature of Beech's stories that appears to have captured the imagination of the police, press and politicians like Tom Watson and Zac Goldsmith was precisely the combination of an elite conspiracy and sex crimes. Both are credible in isolation and supported by extensive precedent, but the combination itself was implausible. The suggestion that the post-Savile context excused the police's generosity in believing those who claimed to be survivors of abuse ignores that this willingness was not applied generally. The standards of objectivity were clearly relaxed far more once any sort of celebrity moved into focus, indicating the extent to which media expectations were at the back of the minds of many (we really should get round to Leveson 2). One reason why the police should have been sceptical about Beech's claims is precisely that rumours about the existence of a "murderous VIP sex-ring" centred on Dolphin Square (where the ley-lines of many conspiracy theories intersect) have circulated for decades without being substantiated, and much of the incidental detail he provided simply recycled those well-known rumours.

Along with other manifestations of occult crime, such as myths about snuff movies and satanic ritual abuse, the trope of the powerful defying both man and God's laws goes back centuries to historical figures such as Gilles de Rais and Elizabeth Bathory. Awful crimes may have been committed by both, but the political exaggeration of them at the time reflected Late Medieval societies in which the landed aristocracy was becoming increasingly subject to the state, with its laws and emergent public opinion. The key feature of these cases, like later fairy tales such as Bluebeard (partly inspired by de Rais), is the physical destruction of social inferiors who lack rights, particularly children and servants, or, in the case of Bluebeard, wives. These are crimes of quantity rather than quality in which conspicuous consumption is the raison d'etre for the nobility. This critique is a thread that runs through French philosophy and social theory, particularly in its engagement with sexuality, from the Marquis de Sade to Georges Bataille (who wrote a book on The Trial of Gilles de Rais).

During the Early Modern era, elite sexual conspiracy theories usually focused on royal favourites and "foreign" dynastic imports, such as the 1st Duke of Buckingham and Marie Antoinette, thereby dramatising the corruption of the absolutist state. The sexual dimension still reflected the idea of a predatory nobility with perverse appetites, though increasingly this was seen as a threat to developing bourgeois morality and the notion of political virtue rather than just the traditional threat of the "waste" of the common people. After the French Revolution and the dominance of political conspiracies in the reactionary imagination, notably those involving Freemasons and Jews, sex faded into the background as money increasingly came to the fore (a shift captured in the works of Balzac). During the nineteenth century, financial scandals became increasingly public through joint stock companies, banks and the growth of the state. At the same time, sexual "deviance" became much more of a private matter as the "hysterical" were increasingly isolated in asylums or shunted off to the colonies.

This reaches a morbid conclusion with the public eruption of the emblematic unknown sex-killer, Jack the Ripper. He provides not only a template for the modern psychopath - adrift in an amoral, industrial society - but also a blank canvas on to which popular prejudices can be projected, hence theories about his identity run the gamut from lowly immigrant to member of the royal family. As such he is both a harbinger of the future and an echo from the past, teetering on the lip of the modern era. That era would also see the re-emergence of the sexual conspiracy trope in the wake of fin de si├Ęcle anxieties over national vigour at the height of empire, hence the significance of homosexuality (the trial of Oscar Wilde etc) and miscegenation (the "white slave trade") in the lurid imaginary as the nineteenth century draws to a close. In these cases the tolerance of deviance by elites is the scandal. The long century of The News of the World was a tale of establishment weakness and sexual inconstancy, in which the latter was routinely inflated into constitutional crisis or a conspiracy against the state, from Edward VIII's abdication through the Profumo Affair.

This phase is coming to an end, partly because organised sexual abuse has proven to be a quotidian evil rather than the preserve of the rich and famous (and despite the inadvertent glamorisation of #metoo), and partly because post-2008 it is clear that political power and money is where the real action is at. In this context, Carl Beech's consciously antique claims should have rung alarms bells among the police because they so neatly conformed to two wider frames: one that imagines the 1970s as a dark time before the necessary "cleansing" of the 1980s, and another that believes contemporary anxieties can be alleviated through the archaeology of past crimes (the vogue for cold cases etc). The first is an attempt to expiate our guilt over the social destruction of the last forty years, which sits in uneasy tension with the sentimentalisation of the old (white) working class. The second seeks to assure us that the guilty will eventually be brought to book at a time when the architects of such crimes as Iraq and the financial crash remain unpunished and in many cases considerably richer and no less influential. Watson and Goldsmith's real shame lies elsewhere.

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