Tuesday Book: The rot began with Henry VIII

VIRTUE IS an interesting word. It can mean moral goodness or it can men the essence or power of something, as in "the virtue of steel is strength and malleability". Citizenship is also an interesting - and tricky - word. It can mean simply the legal inhabitance of a state or, in the Greek and Roman republican tradition, action with others for the common good.

The Romans had it both ways. Virtu - derived from vir, meaning man or manliness - came to mean the will and capacity for public affairs before it became a synonym for moral attributes. By the late 18th century, toasts were moved at opposition dinners in England "to Christian and Roman virtues combined". Machiavelli had taken the view that Christian virtues (such as humility, forgiveness and otherworldliness) had sapped civic virtues: the courage and will to create or sustain republics.

Manliness, then? Unhappily, yes. But Machiavelli did give an example of a woman with virtu. Her husband absent, the Countess Katharina was besieged. The attackers had seized her young sons and said they would kill them unless she surrendered the citadel. But she "exposed herself on the battlements" (exposed her "memberi sexuali", says the Italian) and replied that she would bear other sons to bring revenge. The besiegers went away.

Lord Alton, formerly the Liberal MP, is not talking about that kind of virtue. To a fault, his loud cry is for the greater exercise of the virtues of a good life - generally Christian, at times specifically Catholic when it comes to marriage, contraception and abortion - and to bewail the collapse of social morality. The rot began long ago, when "Henry VIII began his assault on marriage and the family". Ever since, "successive government interventions have made matters worse". We have talked enough about rights; so now for our duties.

There is much one can agree with in David Alton's forceful tract. He deplores the deliberate running-down of local government; the ethics of public and private organisations that laud individual choice over the common good; the lack of citizenship teaching in so many schools; and the attempt by the parties to monopolise political participation and loyalty. But I quote that quaint business about Henry VIII as a consumer warning of the many bees a-buzzing in this good man's bonnet. He does not always recognise that one person's honey is another's poison.

These 160 pages show him besotted with the didactic fashion for "bayonet points": short, punchy assertions meant to be self-evident. This is a clear text, but not particularly deeply reasoned. Talleyrand once said of Napoleon that he forgot you could do anything with bayonets - except sit on them.

We are given showers of examples of the horrors of today, footnoted to sensational accounts in the popular press. But is our society more depraved than in the past? Or is it simply more intolerant of violence, child abuse and murder? I find it hard to locate the "good old days" in the crowds at Tyburn and Newgate.

Alton has a bold moral fervour, but a sad lack of historical perspective and, at times, of common sense. The facts he bayonets us with are all true, as are the arresting tales of "welfare scroungers". But how typical are these lurid cases of abortions needlessly counselled, and so on?

Alton quotes with relish Disraeli's view of "lies, damned lies and statistics", and adds that "he might have said the same about academic reports for government departments". That kind of sweeping generalisation is irresponsible. It belongs as much to what Alton calls "the new irrationalism" as any of the alternative-lifers or postmodern trendies who see no grounds for "discriminatory" judgement in art or morality.

Lord Alton holds a new chair in citizenship at the Liverpool John Moores University. He is organising great things by stirring local schools to engage in volunteer work, and to raise questions of value throughout the curriculum. But I worry that his idea of teaching values always aims towards "a consensus". After all, we live in a society in which individuals, and groups of different kinds, hold different values.

Aristotle said that Plato made the mistake of "trying to reduce harmony to unison"; in other words, to abolish rather than to civilise politics. The aim of a citizenship education cannot be to resolve all conflicts of value, but to encourage democratic institutions with those values - such as tolerance and understanding - that allow controversies to be conducted peacefully. All the recent reports of national citizenship bodies - such as the one I chaired for the Department for Education and Employment - share this broad perspective. All of them David Alton ignores. Moving straight from a seat to a chair, he boldly reinvents the wheel for himself. If its path is too virtuous to be called crooked, it is certainly eccentric.

Bernard Crick