At last, the Blair regime has found its voice

All these measures are explained in a prim, patient manner redolent of utter ethical certainty
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The Independent Online

It is a regrettable fact that snobbery of one kind or another is never far below the surface of the English character. Sometimes of the traditional, social kind, it can also be professional or racial. Right now, its favoured form would seem to be moral snobbery.

It is a regrettable fact that snobbery of one kind or another is never far below the surface of the English character. Sometimes of the traditional, social kind, it can also be professional or racial. Right now, its favoured form would seem to be moral snobbery.

Turn on the radio in the morning, open a newspaper, and there will be a government minister scolding us about something or other from a position on the high moral ground. Charles Clarke might be sneering at the old-fashioned views of the Prince of Wales. John Reid could be reminding us firmly of the informed choice that the government will expect its citizens to make about where to smoke or what to eat.

Tessa Jowell will be in there somewhere, patiently explaining why "the politics of behaviour", as she calls it, is important for all of us, while the increasingly lordly Peter Hain will be writing smugly about "the progressive power of government as a force for good". The joker in the pack, John Prescott, will roar with dismissive laughter when asked about fox hunting on the Today programme. Most of his constituents care little or nothing about the issue, apparently.

It takes a few years in power for a government to find its common tone of voice. That of the Thatcher regime was hectoring and impatient; John Major's lot managed an unattractive wheedling noise. The Blair tone is that of a schoolteacher whose apparent reasonableness conceals a brisk and brutal way with those whose general attitude reflects badly on the rest of the school.

So Sir is not against people having fun - it is why huge casinos will soon be introduced - but, on certain issues, guidelines will have to be introduced. For those confused by the new rules, prefects known as "life coaches" will be on hand to help. Then, of course, there is some behaviour which is so unacceptable that it will have to be banned altogether. All these measures are explained in a prim, patient manner redolent of utter ethical certainty - government as a force for good, in Hain's words.

As the triumph of Bush in America has reminded us, the morality card can be played to good effect in politics under the most unlikely circumstances. British moral values, as played by the present government, are subtler. The right of people to harm themselves through gambling is defended, but not their right to eat unhealthily or to smoke in public. Any hint of conflict between these positions is greeted by a handy new formula. The government believes in protecting kids and those affected by the behaviour of others but, apart from that, as Tessa Jowell puts it, "the freedom of adults to spend their time and money as they choose should be respected; autonomy is a right, not a privilege".

And so, inevitably, we reach the one area where autonomy will shortly cease to be a right - that of hunting with dogs. Now that the battle to ban has finally been won, the various arguments that have been trotted out to justify the campaign have quietly been dropped. Nobody really believed, it turns out, that hunting was more cruel to foxes than poison, snares or wounding. The old denials that class envy was at work have been abandoned, most notably by Peter Bradley MP, secretary to the Rural Affairs Minister who declared that here was "the last hurrah of the feudal system, class war".

One can learn a lot from a government at moments like this; it is feeling at ease with itself, mildly triumphant. Now that he no longer has a bill to get through Parliament, John Prescott can tell John Humphrys that hunting had never been much of an issue anyway - it was just that people disapproved of animals being torn apart for pleasure. In more circumspect terms, Tessa Jowell made the same point in a Sunday newspaper. "On hunting, we support the right of the majority to live in a humane, modern society, which does not treat the killing of animals as 'sport'."

Behind these words, the true hypocrisy behind the Government's moral position is exposed. They are, of course, a lie. Throughout the long campaign to get hunting banned, senior Labour figures have assiduously and anxiously reassured the millions of voters who like to go fishing that there is no threat to them. That inveterate champion of the natural world, Tony "If animals had the vote, I would be Prime Minister by now" Banks, has cheerfully admitted his fondness for hooking a fish and watching it thrash about, impaled through the lip on the end of his line until, exhausted, it is landed by the great activist.

It is worth remembering that, for the vast majority of politicians, hunting was never the great moral issue that they liked to pretend: it was merely an obvious way to appease those in the discontented heartland of old Labour, to draw blood on the other side with, so the theory goes, little political harm. As Peter Bradley, parliamentary private secretary to the rural affairs minister, put it rather brutally, "This is not the politics of envy, but the politics of power."

But it is more than that. Beyond the issue itself, we have witnessed a pure, perfect example of a government using a fake morality as a smokescreen, exuding a bogus sense of concern while busily furthering its own political interests.

terblacker@aol.com

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