What a state we're all in

If my marriage fails, I - and not the state - am best placed to explain why to my children
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The Independent Culture
THERE IS only one moral way to teach morality, and that is by example. It is the way all the great religious leaders have gone about it, and it is the reason why we so much despise hypocrisy in public life. Teaching by example creates a bond of trust and continuity.

That is why, particularly in this morally pluralistic culture, the moral education of children should remain the preserve of their parents, the people who for good or ill have the greatest influence over their development. While I happen to agree with David Blunkett that the traditional two-parent marriage is "important", I feel perfectly capable of instilling that ideal in my children myself (well, in partnership with my husband...).

If, God forbid, my marriage fails at some time in the future, I again feel that I, not the state, will be best placed to explain why marriages sometimes break down and what the implications of this are for my children. If my children were to be wrestling with these kinds of trauma at home, I would be pretty annoyed if they were going to school to be told about the joys of "stability and love in relationships", just at the time when they were feeling betrayed and guilty about the end of their parents' own marriage.

And if my views, like those of many people I know and respect, were quite different to those that from September next year will be taught in schools to children over seven, then I would be even more annoyed that while I was teaching my children one set of strongly held and morally sustainable values, they were going to school and being taught quite contradictory ones.

For while Blunkett says that teachers will not be preaching to children about marriage, but instead "setting, in a framework, the way in which we know that stability and love in relationships, expressed through marriage, is an ideal that we would want to promote", he seems to forget that the framework for the upbringing of children already exists.

It is not school, but family. This increasing emphasis on the schoolroom as the place where moral education takes place is, contrary to its espoused aim, an undermining of the family unit as the primary building-block on which a socially cohesive culture is built.

The hidden message behind this rush to enshrine schools as the disseminators of moral values is that we are a nation of people unable to be trusted with the moral upbringing of our offspring. When Blunkett declares, "we are not ordering or dictating to anyone, we are simply saying that for many children there are no role models", he is in fact saying something even simpler. He is saying that he does not approve of many of the adults whom he is, as an elected MP, charged with representing, and does not believe they can handle bringing up their children properly.

The further implication is that those who are bringing their children up well, must be doing it in the prescribed New Labour fashion and so will encounter no clashes with official morality policy as it lends an increasingly intrusive helping hand.

Along with all the usual criticisms of New Labour leadership style - the control freakery, the holier-than-thou nannying and so on - there are signs here of a much deeper failure of leadership. This is the failure to understand, respect or trust the people you are leading, or properly to engage with the culture you are seeking to influence.

Morality is organic, and is constantly rewritten by cultural consensus. Until recently it was not considered immoral (or even possible) to rape your wife. Now, at least in theory, it is. Here, not only in this particular example but in society's treatment of women generally, we have made great strides in the last 30 years. It is these very years that are supposed to be characterised by moral failure. While rewriting the sexual contract has undoubtedly had a huge effect on the old moral certainties, the majority of these changes are not for the bad. It is simply that they are too new, too raw and too different for the culture to have absorbed them all, worked out their implications and settled them into a calm new moral order. Men and women are still confused. We cannot help our children by pretending that those understandable confusions are in fact moral failures.

It is foolish to believe that a set of limpid moral certainties can be laid over this fissured behavioural landscape through the simple expedient of teaching children a set of values which their parents and grandparents have so vehemently rejected in the recent past.

Morality is not fondant icing. You cannot drape it over a culture of stodgy sponge, thin jam and artificial buttermilk and create a pretty cake, any more than you can teach schoolchildren a set of values that may be deeply divorced from their experience of life in a country whose people have had much to cope with. As we have wrestled with the breathtaking speed of change in sexual morality, we have also been racked by inequality, subsumed by materialism and crippled by 20 years of utterly immoral government (some of the key tenets of which this Government adopted in order to gain its own power).

One of the greatest failures of the morality perpetrated by the Thatcher government was the propagation of a culture of victim blame that deliberately and callously created more victims, victims we recently called the underclass but now call the socially excluded. But while much New Labour rhetoric suggests that this is understood, the blaming of victims continues. While, for example, I don't think it is a good idea for 12-year-olds to conduct sexual relationships and become pregnant, the idea that these young girls' misfortune should be a clarion call for "a new moral purpose" is distasteful to me.

Can Tony Blair really mean to blame children for their "immorality"? Or is it because he blames their parents that he wishes to remove the right of all parents to conduct their children's moral education themselves?

The real tragedy is that these children have been robbed of their innocence and have plunged into adult pleasures and responsibilities when they are far from ready. How is encouraging schoolchildren to start preparing themselves for marriage and childrearing when they are eight years old, going to help with this?

This idea is another kind of victim blame, except that this time all parents are punished along with those who have slipped down the fissures and find themselves unable properly to parent their children. And many children will be punished too, as they are taught that what is "right" is not what the parents they love, whatever their flaws, are doing. What kind of security is this clash going to bestow on anyone?

This latest initiative does not help and support parents. It judges them and finds them wanting. It will not promote social cohesion, but will create a different set of haves and have-nots - those whose sexual mores are Government-approved, and those whose personal and private morality fails to achieve the New Labour gold star.

What we need to do is to work out ways of protecting our children from the increasing complexities of adulthood, instead of attempting to hothouse them in the virtues of one particular idealised version of adult behaviour. There are many ways of setting an example to children and in all sorts of respects our culture conspicuously fails in its duty to do so. To charge teachers with turning this tide, along with all the other responsibilities we have laden them with, is asking them to move too far beyond their remit. But what else can be expected from politicians who have moved so far beyond their own remit?