Leading article: Save the children

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David Cameron has been given a rough time since our revelation last Sunday that he was disciplined for smoking cannabis at Eton College. But the criticisms have come from unexpected quarters, and have been for unexpected things. It has been encouraging that almost no one has said how terrible it was that he tried cannabis as a 15-year-old. It is the kind of thing that young people do, and always will, even now when we know more about the psychological dangers. Instead, Mr Cameron has been criticised for hypocrisy, for insisting that the law must be enforced when he got away with a telling off and copying out lines of Latin for what was, after all, a criminal offence.

He has also, however, been attacked for things that are quite tangential to his drug use at school. Unexpectedly, perhaps, given that his membership of one of Oxford's most snobbish all-male drinking clubs was well known, he has been criticised for the photograph of the Bullingdon Club that we published last week. Eton and the Bullingdon may even be used by the Labour Party, as we report today, to portray Mr Cameron as the son of privilege. On both counts, we accept his plea that Britain should be a "second-chance society", glib soundbite though it may be.

Then he was called to account for his response to the south London shootings. The Prime Minister took exception to his description of Britain as "our broken society". John Humphrys of the BBC thought there might be a contradiction between his desire to "compel" men to stand by their families and his declaration that it is not the state's job to make children's lives better.

Yet, leaving party politics and logic-chopping to one side for the moment, there was much in Mr Cameron's speech on Friday to admire. He was quite right to argue against the instinctive answer to any social problem - which is that "the Government ought to do something about it". He was quite right to point out that state action can achieve only so much.

As he suggested, politicians ought to try to seal "porous borders" that allow guns to get into the country; they ought to ensure that fathers meet their financial obligations to their children; they should give police, teachers "and, indeed, any responsible adult" the powers they need to exercise authority. But family breakdown does not start in any of those places. Nor, of course, does it start with the failure of the state to provide tax breaks for marriage - although Mr Cameron came close to admitting that this policy of his was a symbolic gimmick.

The reasons why so many children have such difficult lives in Britain today are much more to do with the weakness of our culture of what Mr Cameron calls "social responsibility". This is not - or should not be - a party-political issue. Tony Blair made similar observations, striking similar chords, at the time of the murder of James Bulger, 14 years ago. The idea that rights should be balanced by responsibilities is hardly a novelty. And Mr Blair was justified in saying that we should be "careful" in suggesting that the terrible shootings in south London are "a metaphor for the state of British society, still less for the state of British youth today".

Let us, therefore, obey the Prime Minister's injunction and take some care to define the problem. The Independent on Sunday has devoted considerable coverage to the pressures on young people. Today, we report new figures that reveal the extent of problem drinking among children. Recently, we have reported on dangers of antisocial behaviour orders in demonising rather than changing young people. We have expressed support for Mr Cameron's thoughtful comments that were paraphrased and mocked as his "hug a hoodie" speech. And we have reported on the widely underestimated prevalence of depression among young people.

That said, we do not share either the pessimism or the partisan spirit with which last week's Unicef report on "Child Well-Being in Rich Countries" was greeted. It was reported as if an entire generation were going to hell in a hand cart - and that it was all Mr Blair's fault. Yet it remains true that most young people in this country today have never had it so good - despite being over-tested and subjected to the pressure of many often contradictory expectations. There are serious problems that afflict a minority of them, and British society does have a deep-seated problem with its lack of respect for children. But these are problems that go back long before the election of this Labour government, which has done some good things in the fields of child poverty, education and social exclusion.

However, it is fair to say that, over time, the Government has become too absorbed in institutional reforms, bureaucratic target-setting and a rights-based legalism. Mr Cameron performed a valuable public service in reminding us all that "family values" need not be dirty words - and that we all have a role to play, instead of expecting "the Government" to do it all for us.

Childhood well-being, he reminds us, is about parental time and guidance. It is about families that talk to each other, and a society that values childhood. Children need to be put under less pressure but at the same time be given better-defined boundaries, as Tony Sewell argues on page 38. These are truths that need to be more widely appreciated. The Independent on Sunday has campaigned for some time to encourage families to eat Sunday lunch together - a campaign supported by the Conservative leader. But the solutions do not lie solely within the nuclear family, as Mr Cameron also acknowledges. Part of this, inevitably, is a matter for the Government.

This newspaper has campaigned among other things for better provision for those - especially young people - suffering from mental illness. And this week, Baroness Meacher proposes an amendment in the House of Lords to the Welfare Reform Bill to provide psychological therapy for incapacity benefit claimants suffering from depression. It should be supported, as should a refocusing of NHS priorities in favour of therapy for the depression and anxiety that takes up so much of GPs' time.

However, Mr Cameron's idea of "social responsibility" also fills that space between the nuclear family and the Government. Interestingly, for the leader of a party that has put so much emphasis on individual freedom, he spoke on Friday of encouraging "a culture of intervention", in which all responsible adults see all children as their responsibility. This is not, he hastens to add, about "taking on a gang of dangerous thugs". It is more about leading by example, about treating children with respect and expecting respect in return.

"If there is one small action I think we should all undertake to do more often," Mr Cameron said, "it is to engage directly in the lives of the young people we see around us."

This is a significant moment. It is probably the first time since this newspaper was founded in 1986 that it has been able wholeheartedly to approve of something said by a leader of the Conservative Party on social issues. That is unequivocally a good thing. If we are arriving at a social consensus that we must value childhood more, Britain will become an infinitely better place.

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