The Goddard Inquiry is worse than Watergate

Photo from Senate Watergate hearings.

Photo from Senate Watergate hearings. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Goddard Inquiry is similar to the Watergate crisis, but worse. Even though they have different origins, they deal with the same issue. They are both about politically corrupt acts by those in power. In particular, they are based on the lies the politically powerful told the public. In Nixon’s case, he lied about his knowledge of, and complicity in, the cover up.[1] In the UK, we see similar behaviour. From the Home Office that cannot find files, to a civil servant in charge of probity who destroys records and flouts the Freedom of Information Act, we see a regime that appears institutionally incapable of dealing with politically powerful predators. What is common to both is that they are both about an abuse of power and an abuse of trust.[2] However, four things make the Goddard Inquiry worse than Watergate: scale, scope, duration and consequences.

Scale. In Watergate, though the rot was limited to the President and his immediate circle with various ripples of corrupt behaviour. In the UK, the Goddard Inquiry has revealed the whole public sector is complicit. All parts of the Crown are complicit. We have reports of Cabinet Ministers, MPs, Police, Judges, Civil Servants, and Intelligence Officers who are complicit. Moreover, unlike Watergate, this goes to all levels from Central Government to local government. No public authority that is immune.

Scope The deeper issue, though, is that Watergate while part of many smaller related scandals was a single event that was the culminating point. By contrast, the Goddard Inquiry has already indicated the institutional abuse was not limited to a single period or a single region.

Duration. The institutional abuse was going on for decades and was known by the Crown from decades. We know this because there have been prosecutions and there have been people charged and sent to prison. The difference, though, is the Crown has been immune. It simply refused to address the claims and allegations. Moreover, it failed to address the consistent and overt abuse of power by the privileged and powerful. The predators were able to avoid prosecution for always-unknown reasons. (no one ever seems to explain why the police always turned away or why they were never prosecuted) has never been held to account nor has it ever given an account of why it failed to act. Why did the Crown decide that it was in the public interest to protect paedophile predators and not investigate them? How can the UK public accept a government that puts its interests before the law and before the safety of vulnerable children? Why is it more important for the powerful to be allowed to rape children than to bring them to account for what they did when it was known?


Like Watergate, the Goddard Inquiry will have consequences for the United Kingdom. How each country responds, though, reflects their different political ethos, the difference in their regime, and the difference in what the public expect. We will see this in three areas. The first is trust, the second is leadership, the third is transparency and accountability.


After Watergate in the United States, people stopped trusting the government. From the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War revelations, we can see a dramatic drop in public trust in the government. The graph, copyright of the PEW foundation, shows the decline over 50 years.

The same would occur in the UK except with little or no effect. The public will lose confidence in the government and most importantly in the Crown. The government may rely upon the English cultural reaction of resignation and equanimity in the face of such horrors as institutional abuse over decades. However, trust will decline. For most, it will simply be something they always suspected and so it comes as no great surprise. They are resigned to the fact that the powerful will prey upon the weak and the institutions will fail to protect them. Only those who expected otherwise will be outraged and even among that minority most will soon be distracted by the next issue. However, there is an important difference between Goddard Inquiry and Watergate in terms of leadership.


Once Watergate’s scale became known and the President’s complicity clear, he had to resign. The same is unlikely in the UK. No one will resign over the revelations. In the UK, the closest equivalent to the President is the Queen. The Queen will not abdicate over this scandal. Even if it depended on what she knew, when she knew, and what she did about that knowledge, it is very unlikely that she will abdicate. Even though it and other scandals that involve her government, her ministers, and those who have sworn allegiance to her, she will not abdicate. In fact, even though the United Kingdom faces a political crisis that affects all parts of the government at all levels, no one will take responsibility. At least Nixon had the decency to resign.

Nixon had to resign as he was, amongst other things, involved in public statements designed to thwart the investigation. Barbara Jordan, citing the Constitutional Convention in which the articles for impeachment were developed, explained how the betrayal of the public trust is central to the abuse of power.

The President has engaged in a series of public statements and actions designed to thwart the lawful investigation by government prosecutors. Moreover, the President has made public announcements and assertions bearing on the Watergate case, which the evidence will show he knew to be false. These assertions, false assertions, impeachable, those who misbehave. Those who “behave amiss or betray the public trust.”

We can consider that those who failed to provide the relevant documents to the Wanless Review betrayed the public trust. They ensured that at a crucial time the Government could claim that nothing had been found.[3] The Government was able to deny the allegations of a cover up. They betrayed the public trust. At least Nixon had the decency to resign and to apologise.[4]


After Watergate, the US recognized the problems with government that behaved in secret. Other revelations showed the country the dangers from a government that hides from the public and that it allowed an abuse of power to flourish. As Earl Warren Supreme Court Justice noted in response to Watergate revelations,

When secrecy surrounds government and the activities of public servants, corruption has a breeding place. Secrecy prevents the citizenry from inspecting its government through the news media.…

It would be difficult to name a more efficient ally of corruption than secrecy. Corruption is never flaunted to the world. …If anything is to be learned from our present difficulties, compendiously known as: Watergate, it is that we must open our public affairs to public scrutiny on every level of government.[5]

Immediately after Watergate, the country reacted by seeking more openness, accountability, and oversight of their government. Shortly after Nixon’s resignation, the House and Senate held elections and the Republicans, Nixon’s party, lost significant numbers of seats. The new legislature passed bills to reform campaign finance, amend the Freedom of Information Act, and require financial disclosure by key government officials.[6] Even though, the secrecy battle continues and remains problematic, it is easier to fight because of the efforts that were made in Watergate’s aftermath. In one sense, the investigative journalism was born.[7] The difference, though, was whether one chased scandal for circulation or whether one pursued stories to reveal corruption and protect the public interest.

In the United States, the political fabric changed with open meeting laws now part of many states constitutions. The public demanded openness and accountability and the governments both state and federal responded by passing laws to ensure they existed.

In the years immediately following Watergate, however, the states with open meeting laws rushed to expand them and those without hastily enacted their own. 17 Today, open meeting laws have become so important to the appearance of open government that over half the states make some mention of open government in their constitutions.

17 Id. § 1.1, at 3–4. Chief Justice Warren famously remarked: “If anything is to be learned from our present difficulties, compendiously known as Watergate, it is that we must open our public affairs to public scrutiny on every level of government.” Earl Warren, Governmental Secrecy: Corruption’s Ally, 60 A.B.A. J. 550, 550 (1974).[8]

In the UK, we find that the government is now taking steps to reduce its accountability by reforming the FOIA. The government believes that if it is more transparent, that is it publishes more information, it will be more accountable. The government ignores that FOIA is about what the individual wants to know from the government not what the government decides they should know. In effect, the government’s initial response to the scandal is to curtail the public’s ability to hold it to account.[9] Is this the way an honourable government or decent civil servants act? In the sense of accountability, we can begin to see the framework for excuses and defences to any demands for reform.

At the same time, though, the United States constitution provided a standard to judge the President. As the United Kingdom has no written constitution and the Queen is the source of all laws, there exists no written standard to judge the Crown and the government. Where the Crown is judged is by the courts, which owe allegiance to the Queen, or Parliament, which owe allegiance to the Queen. The difference is clear. As Barbara Jordan pointed out in citing James Madison.

James Madison again at the Constitutional Convention: “A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.” The Constitution charges the President with the task of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, and yet the President has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregard the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, conceal surreptitious entry, attempt to compromise a federal judge, while publicly displaying his cooperation with the processes of criminal justice. “A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.”

In the UK, the Crown’s will is absolute, which means that it can never be accused of subverting its own laws as Parliament can change its laws to suit its will. It is accountable to no one.


Despite the same type of political crisis in which the powerful abused their power and behaved corruptly, the Goddard Inquiry and Watergate are different. Although the Goddard Inquiry still has to run its course, we can only be hopeful that the consequences will be as wide ranging as they were after Watergate. However, as set out above, the chances of that are low. In so many reviews, we find, like the 7/7 attacks review that no one was to blame and lessons would be learned. In relation to the Goddard Inquiry, we already see this strategy. No one was to blame for the failure to tell the Wanless Inquiry of the lost documents that related to Leon Brittan.[10] It would appear, that in the UK government and Crown no one is to blame or responsible.[11] When the Crown and the Government are only accountable to themselves, who would hold them to account?

[1] Watergate is actually a series of scandals that culminated with the President resigning. Barbara Jordan describes the President’s complicity in this speech.

[2] Few people will be aware that before Watergate Richard Nixon was considered by many as a trustworthy person who embodied integrity and could be trusted. Even though he had his detractors, the public was favourably disposed to him before the Watergate scandals. (insert link)

[3] Then some files were found (Although Teresa May initially said that they believed that the files were duplicates that Wanless and Whittam had already seen it ( and Wanless and Whittam had to issue a supplement to their report.

[4] It is noteworthy that the Anglican Church has apologised for its role in child abuse as has the Catholic Church.

[5] Governmental Secrecy: Corruption’s Ally Earl Warren American Bar Association Journal, Vol. 60, No. 5 (May, 1974), pp. 550-552 American Bar Association


[7] See Watergate’s Legacy and the Press: the Investigative Impulse By Jon Marshall

[8] See also Case Western Reserve Law Review Vol. 61:2 Notes Open Meetings and Closed Mouths: Elected Officials Free Speech Rights after Garcetti v Ceballos 549- 600


[10] What is disappointing is that neither Wanless nor Whittam appeared to request or seek help from the National Archives on this review. Even though the review was on historical records, and including experts from the National Archives may have helped them to understand the need to look for “unstructured” records, they do not appear to have solicited their help. One must never underestimate a bureaucracy’s ability to keep its secrets even as it appears to cooperate.

[11] This approach seems to be the Crown’s default approach.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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