WHEN tales of paedophile rings at the heights of society are revived, you begin to wonder about older folk tales of British life.

Whatever became of threats to national security? What happened to the idea that abusive individuals are risks not just to themselves, but to the state? And don't we pay vast organisations to keep us, and our children, safe?

There can be very few middle-aged journalists who didn't hear a thing or two, once upon a time, about Jimmy Savile. His behaviour was, as they used to say, "common knowledge" even to young journalists in the sticks who wrote now and then about pop music. Perhaps there was a naïvety in the assumption that the famous oddball must have known the difference between young women and the abuse of children. Perhaps we were too scrupulous to accept some shreds of innuendo and creepy anecdote.

Loading article content

The shreds turned out to be part of a vast fabric of supremely arrogant criminality. Not only did Savile get away with it, it seems he never doubted that he would get away with it. There is a mystery in that. As each new layer of brutality is revealed, someone will always report that this character was "too powerful". To which the only question is simple: What?

The fact of Savile's power is not in dispute. They actually gave him the keys to Broadmoor. People in government, who these days manage only regrets, gave him licence to hire and fire, to decree policy, to ravage as he pleased, and to escape all questions. But that's not quite the point. The charity fundraising, peroxide-doused comedy geek with no discernible broadcasting talent was a power in the land? How did that happen? You could ask the same question of Cyril Smith when a like excuse is produced. The obese Liberal politician who once entertained party conferences with his home-spun home truths never occupied ministerial office in his life; he held no more real power than any local MP. Chief constables, civil servants and Special Branch officers did not rise or fall on Smith's whim. Yet he was also "too powerful" to be stopped?

You hardly need to join the dots. The succession of "historic" abuse cases only begins to make sense when you decide that those protected enjoyed protection. Those with true power exerted themselves, in other words, to keep safe those who were doing immense damage. Why would you do that? Because Savile was the only inept DJ capable of running a marathon for charity? Because Smith - the only secret the Liberals ever managed to keep - could be passed off as a national treasure?

Most people are not naïve, I think, about the vileness in the world. What is possible all too often becomes likely when the worst of the species see an opportunity for cruelty. But the idea that individuals could be nonentities and, simultaneously, "too powerful" makes as much sense as the belief that the Home Office could mislay a bundle of papers containing the most serious possible allegations about some of those in positions of high responsibility.

Leon Brittan's memory is not as perfect as once it was, so it seems. The lawyer's forensic skills he was once so proud of have decayed a little. We have established, nevertheless, that his lordship did once receive a pair of dossiers from the late Geoffrey Dickens MP, and that, says Brittan now, their contents were examined appropriately by civil servants. The successors to those civil servants reviewed the matter last year and pronounced themselves satisfied. They just can't lay hands on the papers.

Those same state employees keep a lot of files. Not so long ago, when Labour was in government, some of them said they were capable of running vast systems that would have seen every adult in the United Kingdom carry a biometric ID card. Crime in England and Wales is the Home Office's biggest and most serious responsibility. The war on terror, policing, the courts: for these vital tasks the efficiency of the department's civil servants is essential. But, oops: lost - or was it destroyed? - the Dickens papers.

I have no idea whether there was an organised paedophile ring in Westminster in the 1970s and 1980s. It's not for me, or anyone else, to condemn on the basis of old rumours. But anyone who cares about children wants to know, and wants to know with a certain human urgency, how so many dire things in British life happen, whether thanks to "too much power", "protection", or the kind of official laxness that seems, to put it no higher, uncharacteristic or downright implausible.

What system of review doesn't award a high security rating to the kind of allegations supposedly made by Dickens? The suggestion that the police were in some manner involved is not unreasonable. What of the intelligence services? If nothing else, abusers - even alleged abusers - in public life are vulnerable to blackmail. Someone might also have paused to consider the alleged victims, of course, but we probably shouldn't burden the Home Office unduly. That wasn't meant to be much of a joke. Part of the problem with all these "historic" cases is that the language might deceive too many people into believing that hideous events are things of the past. Sue Berelowitz, the deputy Children's Commissioner in England, reminds us that too often we don't know what goes on within families, that there is an "almost complete" lack of research in these matters, and that the voices of children still go unheard.

The cops, whose predecessors never managed to track good old Cyril down, now examine "historic" events at a kids' home in Rochdale. A guest house in Barnes, west London, to which numerous allegations of party times for the great and good are attached, is under investigation.

None of this is trivial. A lot of it isn't especially new. The argument from the likes of Nick Clegg that we must trust in the police to do their work in relation to the Dickens tale fails, and fails utterly, to generate faith that power deserves any more trust today than in did back in the 1980s.

Savile, Rolf Harris, Max Clifford, or some unnamed political figures: celebrity and fame, so-called, don't truly explain the abusers and the entitlements they claim. The assumption that you can never be named, far less blamed or convicted, is more revealing of British society than any number of inquiries or reports. Worse is that there are some people, even miserably absurd people, who are truly too powerful to be called to account.

The Home Office might yet run down those annoying pieces of paper, but I wouldn't hold my breath. A department with an "indicative budget" approaching £12 billion, with MI5 at its disposal and much else besides, could probably spare a couple of researchers to establish who decided to destroy files of importance. That's not likely to happen, either. The fundamental response from those in power is blunt: So what are you going to do about it?

To keep children safe in such a circumstances is more difficult than we know. The powerful protect their own, but above all they protect power itself.