Whitehall has announced the creation of a panel on bio-ethics. The Government has noted "signs of concern, particularly among younger, working-class women" about cloning, genetically modified food and gene research.
"There are issues here which are debates about the nature of life itself," said Stephen Byers, the Government's Captain Sensible, adding gravely that the public must be "taken with" scientists on the road to enlightenment.
Rarely have policy makers outed themselves so boldly as the puppets of public opinion. Nothing of interest to young, female, working-class voters can be ignored - that much is taken as read. But what if middle-aged, middle-income men in key marginals, or upwardly mobile, married women in the South-east who once voted Lib Dem, were to declare themselves in favour of cloning. Would that make it all right?
Cloning humans may be right or it may be wrong. It offers a chance to redress the misery of infertility and to evade hereditary illnesses. It also treats the genetic core of a human being as manipulable, with profound consequences for the way in which we look at what it means to be a person and thus the uniqueness of human life. Dealing with our new- found ability to re-create people will be the dominant scientific debate in the next century, just as managing with the destructive potency of the atom bomb has towered over this one.
Wherever you stand on cloning, the ethical status of this awesome innovation cannot be determined by recourse to the sensibilities of a room full of Manchester machinists on a wet Friday afternoon. The state of affairs in which an entire government, full of people who have plentiful time and resources to consult experts and take decisions, ends up passing the buck back to a harassed and under-informed group of voters, is a recent one. It is ably mocked in Warren Beatty's new film Bulworth, about a politician who suddenly bucks the pollsters and starts speaking his mind. Beatty's own view of the dominance of focus groups is arresting.
"If someone wants to win an election, he can't lead; he must follow, because the technological means are such that you can get so much information so quickly you just follow it, and I think that basically, that's a bunch of bullshit," he said in a recent interview.
Or as the revolutionary Ledru-Rollin put it more concisely in 1848, "I am their leader: I must follow them."
Not for the first time, the Government is mistaking squeamishness and distaste for solid reasons to act. When the Health Minister Tessa Jowell issued the weird edict that surrogacy, while legal, was to be discouraged by limiting the amount of money that might be paid to the host mother, she was imposing her own aversion to surrogacy (or was it that of some focus group the week before?) on the existing law.
Of course, our morality is socially conditioned. Laws can work only if most of us believe in the principles on which they are based. But making rules according to the public's wandering whim is a recipe for bad legislation. A consistent majority favours restoring the death penalty. Successive governments have nonetheless concluded that the taking of life is a punishment so barbarous that it has to be disallowed, whatever its social utility. We do not always regard the plebiscite as the last and commanding resort of truth.
One of the most intriguing comments on the matter was offered by Prospect magazine, which recently polled people on how much they wanted to be polled by government. It found that 43 per cent of respondents thought politicians should be prepared to take decisions that go against the majority view.
Most people would concede that, great though the power of common-sense caution may be, it cannot be applied without modification, as a tourniquet on progress. Public opinion on science is notoriously fickle. Had a focus group in the 18th century been asked whether scientists preaching that new-fangled vaccination theory should be allowed to inject patients with small doses of cowpox, they would probably have said "no". Everyone was against test-tube babies until they cooed over the first pictures of Louise Brown.
At present, genetics sounds scary because the only accessible image we have of it in practice is Dolly the sheep. That will change once the benefits of tissue-cloning are seen in the bypassing of hereditary diseases and the replacement of missing limbs. The "Frankenstein doctors" who are "playing God" in the headlines today will become the "miracle-workers" of tomorrow - until the next morally ambiguous case comes along.
The Government's approach - test to see how squeamish the public is, and stop the scientists right there - will not hold. Scientists have been round this course many times before, and will respond by presenting the most persuasive example of the benefits of their work
The divide between cloning tissue and cloning people, which the regulatory bodies are now seeking to keep intact, will soon prove porous. Existing fertility treatments allow the creation of countless eggs and up to three embryos a cycle. Ask a woman who has had several bouts of ovulatory stimulation, with the attendant cancer risk, whether that is more acceptable and natural than replicating embryos by cloning, and she would be tempted to opt for the clone. The regulatory intent of the Government will, I predict, be shattered within a few years.
But politicians have an erratic interest in cause and effect. They are generally in favour of bans as the most effective solution to a dilemma, regardless of whether the banning will have any effect. The most ludicrous piece of legislation was the decision to outlaw handguns in the wake of Dunblane. No one realistically expected to see a fall in the gun crime figures as a result; the outlawing of guns became a symbol of good intentions, and pity for the victims of a terrible crime. Logic was powerless to resist.
Focus groups are a useful research tool for anyone with something to sell to the public - a vacuum cleaner, a policy, a set of political beliefs. You won't find me moaning about New Labour's use of them. The party's embrace of this method of polling before the last election was a sign that it was seriously prepared to reconnect with the voters and address their concerns and reservations. Polls are a useful tool of democracy, a link between the governors and the governed. But they are not an alternative to thought and leadership on the great matters of the age.Reuse content