There are days, I must admit, when I look down from my plinth and yearn to return to earth, to be one of the mass of ordinary mortals who drift around in the quagmire of moral relativism quite unaware of what they are doing. I have to say some of them look well enough on it. Some of them even seem capable of making moral judgements all by themselves; clearly they do not realise that civilisation is falling apart. I blame the teachers, the social workers, the parents, the bishops, the Royal Family, the underclass, the middle class, the politicians, young people, people who were young in the Sixties, people over 60, television, drugs, cars, computers, feminism and anyone else who knows me.
In short, once you create a moral vacuum then every anxiety can be sucked into it. But what good does this do? Presumably those who want to reinstate morality count themselves as moral beings. They just presume other people are not. No one in the moral crusade is saying: "I haven't a clue about right or wrong. No idea, mate." Nor will anyone admit that often we know full well the difference between right and wrong, but choose to do wrong; and we cannot merely be "educated" out of such choices.
If the nation, via the babblings of Blair Inc, is to be remoralised intravenously, which parts of the nation are we talking about exactly? And why now? Sure, we can list the tragedies that have fuelled this debate, from James Bulger to Dunblane to the murder of Philip Lawrence, but that isn't enough to explain this moral gush.
Morality reaches the parts that conventional politics fails to refresh. The province of morality is now located firmly in extraparliamentary politics, whether we are talking about the environment or animal rights. For all the many thousands of words written on the subject in recent weeks, it is actually fairly uncontroversial to suggest that we should lead better lives, be more concerned for our fellow human beings, encourage a sense of civic pride and community spirit. The question is not even about how practically we might achieve this. Polly Toynbee, writing in this paper, provided a good list of where we might start.
Yet this latest moral panic points to some deeper changes in society. First, the middle classes are suffering what were traditionally working- class insecurities. The certainties about jobs, homes, even spouses for life are no more; but they need something to mark their distance from the rabid underclass.
Second, politicians have less and less actual power to effect change in a global economy and can only fiddle at the edges. This means they need to come up with a big idea that doesn't cost anything. As the American election is showing, some even dispense with big ideas altogether, except the one that a downsized government won't even bother making promises it can't keep. The result is that a terrific burden is put on civil society to pick up the pieces that neither the leftist state nor conventional party politics will. No wonder, then, that we are questioning what it takes to make society more civil.
Third, we are still living in the aftermath of Thatcherism, which changed the way we think about the relationship between the individual and society, the private and the public. She politicised private aspiration and privatised what had formerly been the public sphere: so that health, education and, yes, morality became reduced to a matter of individual choice rather than collective need.
Into this morass there comes a new sense of collectivism, epitomised by Tony Blair, who is aware that much of the population remains personally liberal but fiscally conservative. His collectivist instincts cannot be articulated in any way materially - this smacks too much of socialism - so they inhabit the vaguer (and cheaper) realm of spirituality.
I am not saying that the solutions to all moral problems are purely economic, but to offer waffle about values to teachers whose classroom roofs are falling in is worse than useless. We care or we don't, and we show how much we care by how much we are prepared to pay for provision, not just for our own children but for other people's too. While we may not seek to redistribute wealth, we still want to distribute our version of morality to the moral have-nots.
Those who feel that this rabble are a dreadfully low-life bunch of moral relativists clearly do not live in the same world as I do. Most children seem to me naturally moral, most people try to lead good lives. But then if you want a return to moral absolutes and law-and-order policies that are effective, perhaps you live in a town twinned with Kabul. There is nothing more frightening than moral fundamentalism. We live in a secular and liberal society in which women's lives have changed enormously in the past 50 years. Family life has changed, too. If we want to draw up a few redefinitions, that's fine, but who are they for? And what should they be?
Nothing I have heard over the past week or so on family life has defined a family quite so clearly to me as the following: "The `family' group, whatever its size, must stay together throughout the journey. The members of the `family' group need not be related." This bit of philosophy comes not from those agonising about other people's families and their appalling lack of morals, but from a British Rail leaflet explaining who is entitled to use a Family Railcard.
I'd vote for this definition. Mind you, I'd vote for anyone whose election pledge was to ban the word "moral" from their pronouncements. The word has already been emptied of all meaning, but those intent on claiming the moral high ground have failed to notice, so busy are they wittering on to each other about how bad other people are. Down in the lowlands, the mess of everyday life may get stuck on your shoes and some souls may be demoralised, but it is not "remoralisation" they are after, but the chance to lead a decent life. If anything is immoral, it is the idea that mere talk will give them that chance.Reuse content