Don't ram duty down young throats

Blair's speeches may appeal to po-faced Puritans, but today's youth is interested in a new kind of responsibility
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The Independent Online
It's been a busy week for Blair. One minute he was putting his party on a "war footing" in preparation for an early general election. The next he was claiming the moral high ground at the Spectator's annual lecture and expanding on his Clause IV declaration that "the rights we have need to reflect the duties we owe".

Inevitably, many will read this as Blair's alternative to "back to basics". After all, he was speaking under the aegis of the Spectator - a bastion of grey fogginess that often seems hostile to the 20th century, let alone women. And his speech offered all the trappings of a return to tradition - revisiting the sacred texts of old socialists like Tawney and Robert Owen and rooting his own politics in a particularly British socialist inheritance.

But Blair has modified earlier signs of social conservatism. He was keen to point out that this was not so much a return to the past as a revisiting of it. We were not to be nostalgic for a bygone age. There could be no turning back to an age in which women were chained to the kitchen sink.

Much of Blair's core political analysis - that the old collectivism of the left and individualism of the right has left us without an ethical anchor - is surely correct. But the language of duty (mentioned 29 times in his Spectator speech alone) is fatally flawed. The dictionary definition of "duty" involves people fulfilling moral or legal obligations. But to me it conjures up images of Sunday school teachers telling you what you can't do without explaining why, teachers shrieking: "Do as I say" because they have lost the respect of the class, and bosses who assert their authority for the sake of it. Duty implies an unthinking behaviour which is increasingly at odds in a society in which many values are relative and many of our so-called moral givens - like belief in God himself - can no longer be assumed. In short, it is an old-fashioned word that has a fuddy-duddy image.

And herein lies Blair's political dilemma. Clearly, he wants the youth vote as well as the votes of middle-aged Middle England. That is why he made some very definite overtures to young people - recognising, for example, that politicians cannot expect duty if they do not in turn tell the truth or accept their responsibility to give the 263,000 unemployed under-25- year-olds a stake in society.

But these overtures are unlikely to be successful if his core defining philosophy is about duty. For the great danger is that the emphasis on duty will allow a moralistic minority - the po-faced puritans - to feed off Blair's lecture as hungrily as they fed off "back to basics". These puritans see the Sixties as the root cause of all contemporary problems. They hate the permissiveness they brought, the new-found freedoms they gave women and basically dislike anyone who dares to be different. And that's why they see "rebuilding the traditional family" as the panacea for society's ills and why they lambast single parents as amoral symbols of our libertarian age.

But the truth is that these puritans are the moral minority in a country where the majority of people have rejected organised religion and welcome freedom, albeit within an ethical framework. By contrast the language of responsibility, which Blair also used, could prove to be much more popular. A responsible person is defined as someone who is trustworthy and morally accountable for his or her own actions. It is less stern in tone, there is an element of choice and an assumption that respect must be earned, not simply asserted. Basically, it is a more modern expression of the obligations that we all owe to each other (young and old), to the environment and to future generations.

Because what the puritans ignore is that there is a new burgeoning ethical agenda. The young as well as the old understand that autonomy is meaningless if there are no defined boundaries, and that while independence is the prerequisite for interdependence, a narrow and selfish individualism is destructive. Many polls have described the deep-seated cynicism of young people about politicians and party politics, fed up as they are with empty promises and the lack of political vision. After all, it is younger generations who are likely to pay the price for past profligacies. It is they who may not be able to rely on a reasonable pension or a reliable health service, they, too, who will have to pay the costs of a deteriorating environment. Moreover, they expect to have to look after themselves, not only in relation to jobs but also in relation to health - where research by Audience Selection last year found that young people are far more self-reliant than older people.

This sense of self-responsibility makes young people suspicious of a morality that feeds off scapegoats and stigmatises minorities. They are uneasy about the kind of predetermined morality that is rammed down their throats by hypocritical politicians, rabbis or archbishops who have little experience of real life and who see only the costs, and never the benefits, of the greater freedoms achieved since the Sixties.

In this sense the young are defining a new kind of responsibility, whether it be the M11 protesters, the New Age travellers or the animal rights activists. They are doing so with ethics and value systems that are less bound up with orthodox religions and are instead more in tune with new forms of spirituality, the ethics of the green movement, the egalitarianism of the women's movement and the humanist tradition.

Theodore Zeldin in his wide-ranging and lucid book The Intimate History of Humanity sees these movements as attempts to reclaim some of the spiritual meaning that organised religions have lost, and he sees young people playing a central role in this quest to redefine ethics and responsibility. While others "scurry back to old beliefs", Zeldin talks of young people "nibbling at new ideologies" through which they can exercise personal responsibility.

And that is why, perhaps contrary to conventional wisdoms, on many issues young people are as responsible as the old, sometimes more so. Socio-Consult, a market research consultancy that monitors the direction of British values, finds that 38 per cent of 18- to 20-year-olds want careers which make it possible to be "politically and socially involved" (a much higher commitment than any other age group) and 64 per cent of 15- to 17-year-olds agree that "mankind deserves to die out if we do not start caring properly for the environment".

If Blair is content to play safe, to ride the wave of public support and win over Middle England, this speech will probably have done enough. But the real challenge is to go farther: to link politics to the new ethics of personal responsibility and thus connect with a dislocated generation that has no sense that it is represented in the mainstream debate. For, as Theodore Zeldin put it, "the current weariness with old-fashioned politics represents not lack of interest in the common good but near despair at the difficulty of contributing to it, and at the regularity with which idealistic leaders have made compromises with hypocrites despite themselves, or with the dogmatic, despite their principles".