What about the left's moral values?

Putting traditional morality at the heart of politics is an old trick, possibly the oldest in the book

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Here we go again: morals are back as a big political issue, not just in the White House but in the Chancelleries of Europe. "Values" have shot to the top of the political agenda, emboldening European politicians on the right and alarming the centre-left, which has got used to seeing a steady decline of religious influence even in traditionally Catholic countries. In the stunned aftermath of the American presidential election, an anguished debate is already beginning in Europe about how secular politicians should respond to the return of a discourse that is traditionally seen as belonging to (and favouring) the religious right.

Here we go again: morals are back as a big political issue, not just in the White House but in the Chancelleries of Europe. "Values" have shot to the top of the political agenda, emboldening European politicians on the right and alarming the centre-left, which has got used to seeing a steady decline of religious influence even in traditionally Catholic countries. In the stunned aftermath of the American presidential election, an anguished debate is already beginning in Europe about how secular politicians should respond to the return of a discourse that is traditionally seen as belonging to (and favouring) the religious right.

The rhetoric is familiar: pro-family, anti-abortion and anti-gay, in both Europe and the US. The most prominent European right-winger to react so far to George Bush's victory is Rocco Buttiglione, Silvio Berlusconi's Minister for Europe, who has bounded back from his historic rejection last month as EU commissioner for justice and home affairs. Mr Buttiglione has placed himself at the head of a campaign to restore the "freedom" of Europe's Christians and roll back the secularism that is, in his view, leading the continent into a disastrous and possibly terminal decline.

Mr Buttiglione's dream of recapturing Europe for the Church may be just that, after decades in which millions of ordinary people have turned away from the prescriptions (and proscriptions) of clerics; it is hard to imagine, for example, the Catholic Church being able to enforce its teaching on contraception and abortion in countries such as Spain and Italy, where the declining birth rate shows how few of the faithful take any notice of it.

Since the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, the Church has been ejected from the private lives of millions of people and Mr Buttiglione may be misguided in thinking that he and his allies can put it back.

In the shorter term, the embarrassments of John Major, whose talk about Victorian values misfired in a series of hilarious sex scandals involving Conservative MPs, are fresh enough in the minds of British voters to sound a cautionary note for Michael Howard.

Even so, Mr Buttiglione's campaign, essentially a more sophisticated, European version of the "values" argument that swung crucial votes to Mr Bush last week, needs to be confronted. In recent months Mr Buttiglione has been more circumspect in his pronouncements, equivocating on the question of whether he regards homosexuality as a sin, but he has in the past characterised "homosexual behaviours" as "an indicator of moral disorder" and described Aids as a "divine punishment". He has also proposed paying women not to have abortions and giving men more rights in a woman's decision to have a termination.

The problem for most secular politicians of the centre-left is that they are uncomfortable with talk about morals or values. The epithets "traditional" and "family" attach themselves seamlessly to such nouns, allowing Mr Bush, Mr Buttiglione and Pope John Paul II to characterise their opponents as godless, selfish, promiscuous and immoral. For Mr Buttiglione, a secular Europe inevitably equates with one in decay, in which "fewer and fewer children are born, fewer and fewer people find in their heart the courage of getting married and entering into this beautiful adventure of building up a family".

As a statement of patriarchal values, full marks; as a case for the superiority of traditional or religious morality, nul points. There are other, equally viable models of the family than one based on lifelong marriage; it is ironic that some of the people who most want to get married, gay and lesbian couples, are denied the opportunity to do so by religious conservatives. But what we need to be aware of is that putting traditional morality at the heart of politics is an old trick, possibly the oldest in the book, and it comes in two parts.

The first is that the religious right's definition of morality is narrow and exclusive, focusing on private life, private property and sexuality - the latter often intertwined in the patriarchal notion of women as property.

For centuries, ordinary people were kept in a state of anxiety about their immortal souls, worrying endlessly about having sex outside marriage or with people of the same sex, or giving birth to "illegitimate" children. There is no doubt that this ruined lives but it also had the enormous advantage for venal politicians of circling the wagons around sexuality, leaving just about everything else in a state of unregulated anarchy.

This is what has happened in the re-invigorated debate about morality in the US, where religious conservatives inveigh against the so-called "gay agenda", threaten doctors who perform abortions - sometimes they even kill them - and argue that single mothers should not be allowed to teach in state schools.

The collapse of Enron, wages too low to sustain families and tax cuts that hurt the poor are not defined as moral issues, even though the World Health Organisation has reported a return in the US of diseases more usually associated with poverty in developing countries. Mr Bush's campaign was predictably silent on this point, which brings me to the second advantage right-wing politicians gain from defining values as narrowly as possible.

For most people on the centre-left, Mr Bush's administration consists of a bunch of a rapacious businessmen who are quite happy to destroy the environment as long as it furthers the interests of their friends who own big corporations. Much the same could be said of Mr Buttiglione's boss, Mr Berlusconi, and it is no accident that all these men rely heavily on images of their own families to deny this scandalous reality. It is a device borrowed from the Victorians, who cleverly defined the home as the locus of morality at a time of capitalist excess: you are supposed to look at Mr Bush and Laura holding hands, flanked by the twins, and forget all the kids living below the poverty line or the young American soldiers killed in an immoral conflict in Iraq.

The challenge facing liberal politicians on both sides of the Atlantic is whether to try to beat the right at its own game - what we might call the Clinton strategy - or to take a different road. Bill Clinton threw chunks of red meat to religious conservatives, supporting the death penalty in public although I am told he opposes it in private, but crucially failed to shift the terms of the debate. That is why Robert Reich, a member of Clinton's first Cabinet, declared last week that the Democrats must start speaking in moral terms - but about social justice, not sex, guns, abortion and school prayers.

In Europe the centre-left starts at an advantage after decades in which a clear secular morality, based on notions of equality and human rights, has already emerged. This is not the moment to panic or compromise, even though Mr Buttiglione speaks a language that frightens European politicians who are disheartened by Mr Bush's victory - not to mention those, like Tony Blair, who need a diversion from the war in Iraq. We have our own values and we need to stand up for them, exposing "family values" as the electoral fraud they have always been.

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