Another factor, though, was that some younger people did not realise just how different social attitudes were on the left in the 1970s.
It happened that I discussed this era in a book chapter that I published in 2005.
This is an era in which books with titles like Escape from Childhood were written. John Holt’s work contains chapters on, among other subjects, ‘The right to vote.’ ‘The right to work’ and ‘The right to drive’. Reading him today it is hard to resist the idea that Holt was not so much calling for a change in our attitude towards children as calling for the abolition of the very concept of childhood. See for evidence his rather stern chapter on ‘How children exploit cuteness’.
The chapter that reads most strangely today is the one entitled ‘The law, the young, and sex’. One would not, I think, come across a passage like the following in any current book:
Some people have voiced to me the fear that if it were legal for an adult to have sex with a consulting child, many young people would be exploited by unscrupulous older ones. The image here is of the innocent young girl and the dirty old man; few worry about the young boy having sex with an older woman. Here, too, we are caught with the remains of old myths – in this case that only men were sexual, that women were pure and above it – from which it follows that any young girl having sex with an older man must necessarily be his victim.This is not a simplistic call for the ‘sexual liberation’ of children; if anything, it is an anguished examination of Holt’s own internal conflicts on the idea. But such ideas were in the air in the 1970s. When I worked in Birmingham, which dates it as late as 1981 or 1982, pamphlets from the Paedophile Information Exchange [PIE] could still be found among a tableful of literature from other municipally approved good causes in the Central Library.
There is some coverage of this period in Christian Wolmar’s book on childcare scandals, Forgotten Children, but he treats it largely as a plot by a few paedophiles to infiltrate more respectable movements. This approach tends to underestimate the extent to which a broader strand of educated opinion was prepared at least to entertain the idea of something like the sexual liberation of children.Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman were the public face of the NCCL in the 1970s, but ultimately they were its employees , so it is not clear how far they were responsible for the organisation’s policies. (Jack Dromey flew beneath my political radar in those days.)
But I note that Patricia Hewitt has broken her silence and apologised for the NCCL’s stance in those days. I find this preferable to Harriet Harman’s self-righteousness - however much she hates the Daily Mail.
Times have moved on, thank goodness. As I concluded with something of a rhetorical flourish in that chapter, the problem with abolishing the concept of childhood is that you also abolish that of child abuse.
Not that everything has improved over the past 30 years or so. We have made parents nervous of photographing their own children at sports days, but the most vulnerable children of all - those in public care - do not seem to be much better protected.