‘We must think about these victims as much as we consider the reputation of [Edward] Heath.’

So said Angus Macpherson MBE, Police and Crime Commissioner for Wiltshire and Swindon, last week. His words were simple but also extraordinary and ominous, and they spoke volumes about the way we live and think now.

He’s the ultimate authority over Operation Conifer, investigating claims against Sir Edward Heath, who died in 2005 aged 89. The inquiry, or perhaps campaign would be a better word, costing £1.5million so far, was launched theatrically in August 2015 on the front steps of the former Prime Minister’s Salisbury home. From there the appropriately named Detective Superintendent Sean Memory, then Wiltshire’s head of crime, tried to rally ‘victims’, who he patently believed were out there.

‘This is an appeal for victims in particular if you have been the victim of any crime from Sir Ted Heath or any historical sexual offence, or you are a witness,’ he declared to the watching TV networks and social media, ‘or you have any information about this, please come forward.’

Naturally thousands did, including believers in ‘Satanic abuse’ who made what the police later called ‘fantastical claims’.

The word ‘victims’ stood out in Commissioner Macpherson’s statement as his main priority, rather than just solving the case. No one asked him how he knows that the late PM had any ‘victims’ or why he was making such a statement when there has been no trial and no verdict.

He seems preoccupied with the feelings of people who believe they were abused. The policeman of 2017 wants above all to hear victim statements. He consults Freud on repression rather than the Oxford Handbook of Police and Policing. Crime novels and TV detectives are still popular with the public but it seems that laboriously sleuthing for clues belongs to the age of Conan Doyle and Miss Marple.

Throughout the years of this costly investigation the police have couched their language in current sympathetic terms such as ‘victims’ and ‘survivors’. Rather than the world of Morse, Macpherson’s statement took us into the kind of therapy culture which now pervades all our lives. Freud’s ideas about repression and releasing repressed memory, his ‘talking cure’, has helped many people, latterly giving a voice to children, but it has now entered our language and culture half-digested, channelled through social media, acquiring along the way the neurosis and narcissism it was originally supposed to contain.

The Freudian idea of repressed memory has always been popular with the public. Dramatised brilliantly by Hitchcock in Spellbound (1945), Vertigo (1958) and Marnie (1964), it suggested that talking therapy could find the key to ending the symptoms of deep trauma. In Hitchcock’s time the issues were mainly to do with heterosexual repression; now the theory has become linked with an ever-increasing social anxiety focused on paedophilia.

In 1989 an American called George Franklin was accused by his daughter, Eileen Franklin-Lipsker, of the rape and murder of her eight-year-old friend, Susan Nason, in 1969. Twenty years later Eileen claimed to have recovered memory of her father’s alleged crime. Despite having no recall of this for two decades, she insisted she was reminded of the killing when she looked at her own daughter. Franklin was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1990, the first man to be jailed on the basis of a ‘recovered memory’. The judge called the former fireman ‘wicked and depraved’.

There followed a number of high-profile cases which seemed to support the psychiatrists who believed it was possible for children to recover memories of abuse years later. Others, including Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology from the University of Washington, who testified on Franklin’s behalf, disagreed.
‘There is no good scientific support for it,’ she said. ‘We should not be dragging people through the courts on folklore.’

In 1996, Franklin was exonerated but ‘memory wars’ about the validity of repressed and recovered memory broke out between doctors and therapists. In the UK, ‘swingers’ from the Sixties and Seventies, a time when it was fashionable to defy the repressive mores of the Victorian past, have fallen prey in a more puritanical age to victim culture. Several celebrities have been convicted after the use of historical claims in court, based entirely on memory. That has been complicated by financial compensation awarded to some ‘victims’.

The use of ‘recovered memory’ as evidence in court has been discredited but many therapists still insist that if a person believes he or she has been abused in the past, then it must be so. It used to be the customer who was always right; now it’s the patient, or in Freudian terms ‘the client’, whose feelings carry most weight.
That thinking has almost managed to overturn the belief which evolved over centuries that hard evidence is needed to prove a person is guilty. Before the days when evidence was seen as essential in a trial, it was possible to say that your neighbour had cursed you and turned your milk sour, or threatened your children and made them die. Words like that, often in times of hardship and pestilence, caused the execution of thousands of vulnerable women across Europe. The targeting of vulnerable outsiders as a response to anxiety still afflicts some south Asian and African societies where women and children are beaten, ostracised and killed after an accusation of witchcraft.

A Wiltshire police spokesman recently stated, somewhat desperately, that Operation Conifer ‘is not a witch hunt’. But Macpherson’s faith in the concept of victimhood as evidence suggests that it is.

I once taught a history class in a prison. Most of the students were lively, intelligent African men. We studied a chapter about witchcraft in Europe and I tried to show that the obsession with witches was what is now called a ‘social construct’, often a response to poverty and warfare. Perhaps because of the continuing chaos of their own lives, by the end of the class the students still believed that old people in their villages turned themselves into balls of fire, entered houses and killed people. They’d never seen it happen, but for them it was true.

The police obsession with proving paedophilia against elderly men using hearsay surely reveals how close we still are to people in the past and to tribal societies in poorer parts of the world. Use of the internet has not changed this; it has intensified the problem. Paradoxically, advanced technology has sent us all back to the village, and it is often as dark as any in Katanga.

It used to be said that a lie could be round the world before Truth had got its boots on. Now it’s been round the globe several thousand times before Truth is out of the shower. Villages were always tricky places to live but social media has provided an almost compulsive method of channelling lies and slurs, allowing millions of people to make anonymous attacks on their community leaders, neighbours, friends and colleagues, for all those ancient human motives: fear, jealousy and greed.

The use of ‘victim culture’ and the dangerous discarding of the need for evidence suggests that many people, including the police, do not yet have the mental or moral resources to live successfully in this village. Like people in the past, we live in a world of anxiety subject to irrational behaviour, in this case the police trying to get a dead man metaphorically exhumed to see his remains displayed in the public market place.

The hot ashes are being raked over and the crowd has gone home to get drunk, but still no one knows whether the accused was guilty, whether there were any victims. As in the 17th century, that doesn’t matter much; the horrible rumours and allegations against him meant he was guilty and already condemned.