Back to basics - and forwards: David Starkey reflects on this week's NOP/Independent opinion poll

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR's 'Back to Basics' is much more than a response to the moral panic triggered by soaring crime statistics and intensified by the James Bulger case. It is nothing less than an attempt to set a new political agenda for the new century. The problem is simple: what, if anything, do we wish to keep of the great wave of liberalisation of the Sixties? 'Back to Basics' began as an attempt to repudiate everything: this week's NOP/Independent poll suggests that our attitudes are far more ambivalent. Whether this is mere confusion, or the foundation of a new moral consensus, remains to be determined.

The ambivalence is clear enough. On the one hand, having discovered sex in 1964 we are not going to give it up in a hurry. The poll shows steady or even strengthening public support for every aspect of the permissive society: homosexuality, adultery and illegitimacy are condemned by ever decreasing majorities, while premarital sex is declared 'not at all wrong' by 51 per cent. In short, the sexual revolution is here to stay and is irreversible. The converse is equally clear. The 'moral majority' is not a force in this country - and it is scarcely a majority.

Ministers of religion need not recognise this fact. They are servants to the truth as they see it, not to majorities, and their place is crying in the wilderness. The wilderness, on the other hand, is rarely attractive to politicians. If they wish to enjoy the milk and honey of office, they will have to forgo the pleasures of preaching (they are in any case wasting their breath, as only 2 per cent of respondents to the poll were willing to take moral instruction from politicians). What the public wants from politicians, instead of sermons on personal morality, is the creation of a society in which individuals are free to pursue their personal pleasure and self-exploration, whether through sex or drugs (33 per cent wanted marijuana legalised), and free from the threat of crime or violence.

And to preserve this personal space, people are prepared to get very tough in a most un-Sixties way: to prevent criminals from reoffending comes top of the reasons for imprisonment, retribution second and rehabilitation a poor third. The crime wave is attributed to lack of discipline in the home and school, to a loss of respect for authority and to inadequate police powers. Seventy per cent want hanging brought back.

So the people have spoken. They want a Sixties personal freedom combined with a Fifties public order. They want, it might be countered, to have their cake and eat it.

For are sex and a violent society really so easily separated? Does not a pleasure- centred view of sex lead to family breakdown, inadequate child care and soaring juvenile crime? The answer is almost certainly yes. According to the Independent poll, however, most thought that a single mother could bring up children as well as a married couple. Either the majority is, not for the first time, flying in the face of reality, or, more likely, it is challenging Peter Lilley's apparent view that because lone parenthood is riskier, fewer resources should be devoted to it to 'encourage the others'.

Instead, the public is saying that more resources should be devoted to problem families. The sanctity of welfare has been recognised by Kenneth Clarke, who increasingly seems to dispose, whereas Mr Major merely proposes. 'Back to Basics' cannot mean undoing the welfare state. Instead, welfare is indispensable to help to reconcile personal freedom and public order in the new social consensus.

But it should be a new form of welfare that, like the consensus, is both tender and tough. The proposal to increase childcare allowances to enable single mothers to work is a step in the right direction. Workfare would be another. But it must be presented as a means of introducing the always or long-term unemployed to the disciplines of work (which the poll suggests we want) and not merely to reduce public expenditure (which cuts increasingly little ice with the public, as opposed to Tory backbenchers and the City).

But what of discipline and authority in the broader sense? Are these compatible with a hedonistic personal morality? The Anglo-Saxon tradition suggests not. Since the Victorians, at any rate, there has been a sense that private virtue and public probity go hand in hand. But this connection is a temporary and cultural quirk, not an eternal verity. The French for example, take the opposite view. They have a jealously guarded private sphere in which sex (they like to think) is cultivated almost as assiduously as gastronomy; and they have a public, cultural sphere which is more decorous and rule-bound than anything conceivable in England.

One of the reasons for this is their attitude to education. French schools do not waste their time inculcating morality. Instead, and far more profitably, they teach the rules of grammar and arithmetic, the discipline of logic and the authority of culture. The verdict of the Independent poll is for more discipline in schools: I would suggest as a modest proposal that we replace inner- city comprehensives with French lycees. The tough attitude to crime revealed by the poll might suggest that we are ready for the French police force as well. But that is another story.

Seen in this light, our new social consensus of private freedom and public order is just part of the process by which we are becoming more European. Europe has notoriously cut across party divisions. And the new moral consensus does so, too.

Neither the Tories, who are broadly agin the Sixties, nor the Labour Party, which is for them, come anywhere near answering the new mood. The best shot has been made by Tony Blair with his 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,' but this is a slogan on a particular issue and not a new political language. In theory the Liberals Democrats, as the middle party, are ideally placed to develop it. But Paddy Ashdown - action man, not thinking man - has chosen to present them as neither Conservative nor Labour. The new moral consensus needs a language that will draw on both traditions. Probably we require a figure outside politics, a new Beveridge, to formulate it. And Beveridge of course was a Liberal.

(Photograph omitted)