Secret lives of the great and the good

They want to tell us how to live, but how do they shape up themselves? And do they do their own ironing? Diane Coyle finds out
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The Independent Online
Participation in the community is joyful, says Amitai Etzioni, the American guru of the communitarian movement. ''It's like eating spinach - it's an acquired taste but it's good for you,'' he says, citing sociological studies that show people who feel part of a community live longer, happier and healthier lives.

Etzioni is one of the people who have made community and family two of the most fashionable words in today's public policy debate. Politicians across the spectrum argue that we should not be talking about the Government's obligations but rather individuals' responsibility for their own well- being, that of their family and the wider community.

But how do the people who enunciate these values - the new moralisers - live up to their own standards?

This is not a frivolous question. It is impossible to impose a set of values on those who do not start out sharing them. Without some authority, moralising topples into authoritarianism. If family and community values are really going to gain ground, their disciples will have to develop the moral authority to influence people. Above all, that means setting a good example.

The Independent asked a sample of politicians and pundits who see the family or the community as all-important to answer a short questionnaire designed to reveal their own community involvement and their roles in their families. The message of their responses was that even those who care enormously about family or community values only rate fair to middling in the way they conduct their own lives.

None did their own cleaning, and only one (a woman) her own ironing, although the Liberal Democrat MP David Alton and the Labour MP Jack Straw both claimed to know how to iron. Housekeeping is obviously the first activity that a busy professional contracts out. Some of the men gave answers of the form, ''I don't but my wife does,'' as if that were pretty much equivalent to them expending their own efforts.

On the whole the respondents spent little weekday time with their children, although all the parents protected some core time for their families. Likewise, time spent regularly with members of the extended family was limited.

Most sent their children to a local state school. Lady Olga Maitland, an MP and chair of the pressure group Conservatives for Families, was an exception: her sons boarded at Eton. One other - Sally O'Sullivan, the editor of Good Housekeeping magazine - sends hers to a private day school.

The vast majority are NHS-users. Most use public parks, although Lady Olga seemed to think this description applied to her Norfolk estate. Most also use public transport to some extent. The ones who did not visit the local public library had access to another, such as the House of Commons library.

Most of the politicians regarded political activities as their service to the community - probably a reasonable view. The sample boasted few blood donors, although some had stopped for medical reasons, such as jaundice. Local activities tend to be restricted to school or church. Only two - the Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes and Amitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University in Washington DC - claimed a broader range of activities, although Professor Etzioni's was ''involvement in the communitarian network''.

All the respondents acknowledged difficulties in active participation in the community. These boiled down to lack of time and lack of motivation.

Labour's David Blunkett, who is a supporter of campaigning by local groups and is involved in his union as well as attending to an MP's normal constituency duties, admitted that he has no time for anything outside his work. ''August is the only time when I might get one or two free evenings a week,'' he said. ''You end up desperate just to put your feet up.''

Ms O'Sullivan said that time was particularly pressing for working mothers. ''If you are in full-time work and female, you tend to have time for only two things - doing your job and seeing your family. Men seem to bring in another element, even if it's only playing golf.''

Another working mother, the Daily Telegraph columnist Mary Kenny, described herself as a ''typical modern person, sitting alone with my computer'.' Living in a Kensington square where neighbours do not fraternise, she said: ''I'm obsessed by The Archers. They have become my neighbourhood.'' She claimed to yearn for events like street parties but said the neighbours were ''too snooty''.

Others thought involvement in the community was mainly a matter of will. Professor Etzioni thought most people could find an extra hour or two a day by watching less television.

John Redwood, the challenger in the recent Conservative Party leadership contest, said it did not matter much that some people were very active and others not at all: ''The point is that policy makers must take decisions which help, or do not penalise, those who are making a wider contribution.''