The new age of confusion

Britain suffers from the toxic combination of liberal social values and poor social cohesion
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A 12-YEAR-OLD Rotherham girl has just produced a baby and made her mother - who had her at the age of 14 - a granny at the age of 26. She is alleged to have named as the father of the child the ex-boyfriend of the mother, though he disputes the honour. Got that?

In the ritually meaningless language of officialdom it was announced that the girl and her baby were "continuing to do well". What exactly is "doing well" in this situation? A newspaper picture of the girl shielded the face. But her youth was painfully apparent in the way that the hospital gown draped heavily around her fragile shoulders: she was a child dressed in the borrowed robes of precocious adulthood.

Once we had gymslip mums to worry about. Now we have dynasties of teenage pregnancies begetting more teen pregnancies, and so on unto the seventh generation - which will at this rate of early reproduction turn out to be within one person's lifetime.

The crisp recommendations that sexual gratification should be delayed from one lobby, and the bouncy confidence on the other that more sex education will reverse the tide of precocious motherhood, wilt in the face of the evidence. Britain has the highest teen birthrate in Europe, with 9,000 girls bearing children under the age of 16 and more than a quarter of that number bearing them under 14.

It is time for both ends of the social policy spectrum to admit that their pet theories about teenagers and sex have failed. The moral fundamentalists are backing a lost cause because their vision of a society in which marriage is the only acceptable form of family organisation is too limiting and inflexible nowadays to command broad acceptance, Even the Oxo family in those cloying ads is to be axed, as being at odds with our more fragmented lifestyles.

Right-wing ideology has been geared to an idealised view of the family, in which a legion of Lynda Bellinghams opted out of the workplace and back into the home when they had children, finding oodles of self-fulfilment in the task of crumbling cubes for a wholesome family dinner. This strain of family Utopianism is thundered out with aplomb in a new polemic by the columnist Peter Hitchens, entitled The Abolition of Britain. What strikes me - apart from the fact that Mr Hitchens' inflexible Utopia would be my own idea of the inner circle of hell - is how isolated a platoon moral Conservatives now are among the great armies of political thought.

Mr Hitchens' demands that divorce be made harder, that women should leave the workforce and embrace the home as the only natural site of their fulfilment, and that men and women should have more clearly delineated roles in society, would have counted as a mainstream Conservative rant a decade ago. Today, it is treated with some embarrassment by the more realistically inclined Tories, and with contempt by the younger ones.

The left meanwhile has clung for far too long to the easy illusion that it was enough to provide sex education and then expect the social security system to pick up the pieces when the cap- and condom-wielders fail to get their message into the persistently deaf ears of teenagers. Slowly, far too slowly, it has dawned that the net result of this moral laissez- faire is an accelerating spiral of hopelessness and poverty, both material and spiritual, which hits the most vulnerable members of society hardest.

Tony Blair isolated the reason why the modern centre left should not shirk from responsibility for this state of affairs in a speech to Labour conference when he spoke of the bitter yield of failed social policies, right and left, as "more unhappiness", widely spread through large swaths of Britain.

It is a simple point, but well worth remembering amid all the sound and fury of our respective clashing convictions. As a society, what we owe to children is to prevent them growing up in circumstances where unhappiness, mediated though poverty, ignorance and low expectations. is guaranteed to flow from one generation to the next. Britain suffers from the toxic combination of liberal social values coupled with poor social cohesion. We absorbed the permissive creed of "anything goes", only to graft it on to communities ravaged by joblessness, poor housing, ghastly schools and crime.

We stubbornly draw the wrong conclusions from other countries. The rate of illegitimate teenage birth in the Netherlands is a quarter of our own, a fact routinely subscribed to the famously graphic sex education, begun at a young age. Yes, Dutch schoolchildren learn about the technicalities of preventing conception in a more structured and thoughtful way than the crazy paving of British sex education. But outside the cities, Dutch society remains closely knit and heavily disapproving of departure from social norms. We cannot simply import these conditions, even if we think it desirable to do so. The Government badly needs a fresh approach to teenage pregnancy. It is committed to halving the under-16 pregnancy rate over the next 10 years, but its policies are slow to evolve, unco-ordinated and liable to be interrupted by the latest spasm of reaction to an attention- grabbing story. In response to the Rotherham case, it rushed to announce plans for a tightening of the contorted state of the law on under age sex.

Certainly, it is wrong that a man who sleeps with an under-age girl should get away with a veritable selection box of excuses, and that so few cases are ever prosecuted. A dramatic case in which a girl is barely past puberty, while the man is fully mature, is easy cause for outrage. But the vast majority of under-age sex cases involve young men and women on the cusp of 16. Are we really going to start prosecuting 16-year-old boys who impregnate their 15-year-old girlfriends, or - to be on the right side of the Equal Opportunities laws, arraigning 16-year-old girls who sleep with 15-year-old boys?

The age of consent has always been a legal fiction - in the sense that consent can be freely given beneath the age of 16 by anyone old enough to be cognizant of what consenting to a sexual act means. Until 1885, English Common Law did not recognise a minimum age for sexual relations, beyond the stipulations of old Canon Law which allowed a girl to wed at 12 and a boy at 14 - and that was after it was amended, by the more progressive Church fathers, from 11 and 13. The separation of consent from physical ability to procreate was pursued by Victorian campaigners such as Josephine Butler, who saw the lack of a minimum age for marriage and childbearing as a major factor in limiting poorer women's aspirations and education.

Since it was set at 16 in 1929, the age of consent has always been a rule of thumb for sexual conduct. As an enforceable law it has always been suspect, and honoured more in the breach than in the practice. Finding ways to make girls aware of the consequences of thoughtless sexual relations is far more important than the age at which they have sex. It tells you something about our languid progress on these matters that only recently have local education authorities had the bright idea of bringing into the classroom real live single mothers to tell their own stories of how isolating and frustrating it is to shoulder the responsibility of raising children before you have grown up yourself.

The hardest thing to teach vulnerable girls is a sense of self-worth. After three decades of popular feminism, we still have not made much of a job of it. There has to be a way to tell girls like Rotherham's youngest new mother that there can be more to life than repeating the dreary patterns that their own teenage mums have set before them.

We cannot call ourselves social reformers, much less worthy heirs to the feminist pioneers, if we do not pursue that goal. But we should have the humility to admit that that the old dogmas have failed. That is what being a true liberal means.