Is moral leadership enough for those who have been left with nothing?

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The Independent Online
"The first need of any society is order. If order is to be produced in men and women, what kind of preparation for it is that which leaves the children as wild as young ostriches in the desert? When for the first 10 or 12 years of life there has been no discipline either in life or body ... is it to be expected that they will quietly and industriously settle down in mills, workshops, warehouses or at any trade, or in the orderly routine of any family ...?"

This was a Victorian appeal for a proper system of public education. It was composed by the Manchester Education Aid Society in 1868. Tony Blair, in his Cape Town speech 128 years later, said: "The absence of prejudice should not mean the absence of rules, of order, of stability ... Let us not delude ourselves that we can build a society fit for our children to grow up in without making a moral judgement about the nature of the society."

He was not talking about schools. He was saying that "it is on the values of the extended family that the decent society will be built". But there are parallels. Tony Blair, too, is into taming wild ostriches.

The Victorian argument goes in two stages. The duty of government is to enforce order - not just the collective order of subjects afraid to break the law, but the individual order of men and women who live by moral rules. And what is the purpose of that sort of order? It is to produce obedient, hard-working employees in the service of industrial capitalism. As Karl Marx tartly observed, "If the silkworm were to spin in order to continue its existence as a caterpillar, it would be a complete wage-worker."

Tony Blair's argument is slightly different. He too believes that the duty of government is to restore a personal moral order - by education, but above all by empowering the family as the carrier of moral values. And what is that order for? Left-wing sceptics think that its purpose is really the old Victorian purpose - to breed the discipline that capitalism requires. But this is not what Blair says.

He wants a united society - "inclusive" and "cohesive", as the jargon goes. Blair's perception, confirmed by every statistic, is that in the past 17 years social divisions have widened and that in countless ways free-market, small-state policies have damaged the bonds between human beings. The damage is not only to the solidarity created by "civil society" through institutions from trade unions down to funeral clubs. It is to the bonds between men and women, and within families. It is a cliche to say there is a crisis of authority - but there is. If there was once a language for taming wild young ostriches, it is vanishing in the turmoil.

And what is so good about social unity? Sometimes Tony Blair uses old- fashioned nationalist rhetoric about a "new, strong Britain" based on a revived sense of unity through community, mutual responsibility, stakeholding and all that. This is antique stuff. Bronze Age kinglets on Salisbury Plain probably told their people that a divided kingdom could not prosper or resist its enemies. But there is also a new, 1990s element in Blair's hunger for moral order. This is the idea of society as an end in itself.

It's as if a human society were a sort of animal - a sick species of ostrich, perhaps an endangered one - and government were an enlightened game warden. The creature has its natural habits, diet, environment and even diseases. The job of the men in bush-jackets is simply to help it to survive as itself. In its "natural" state, this social ostrich enjoys personal fulfilment and stable relationships; it nurtures and cares for its young, its old and its disadvantaged. But the past 20 years have seen its habitat polluted, its breeding grounds opened to cold winds by the felling of protective forest. Now, however, the good wardens are coming. They will clean the waterholes and replant the windbreaks. They will patrol against poachers who scatter the herd and drive parents off the nest.

As an ideology, it's conservationist rather than conservative. But it's also optimistic. This wondrous living web of human society will make its members happy and "moral" if it is allowed to function naturally. Government should only intervene to keep it functioning, to clear away obstacles that prevent families and schools and communities from producing their normal output of warmth, mutual support, guidance - in a word, morality.

There is nothing new about rulers acting to preserve morality. But they did it by punishing immorality. Kings left the repression of criminals, heretics and deviants mostly to the Church and the local magistrates. The family as such was assumed to be indestructible except by violence, and was left to get on with it.

Gladstone saw politics as a moral crusade. But he did not pass laws to make the poor moral. Instead, he urged "those intelligent and really governing classes", those who had the vote, to understand their Christian duty to lighten the burdens of "the noble-minded artisans and peasantry of England". As a Victorian, he saw family failure as an affront to God and a source of disorder, but thought it was no business of the state. Later still, socialists practised social engineering in the name of equality and justice. Society to them was a heap of raw material to be built into useful modern shapes. The family, a fetid kitchen where reactionary values were always simmering, became quite suspect. The socialists assumed that jobs and security would be enough to improve human behaviour.

Meanwhile, pioneer anthropologists were describing African communities as delicate social fabrics woven out of duties and rights around a framework of kinship. But for many years nobody thought of looking at Britain in that way.

The Labour politicians of the 1990s are different. They are soused in sociology and weaned on the notion of society as a living organism. And they have learned from two kinds of disaster. The first is that the welfare state can no longer be afforded. The second is the growth of "exclusion", the slither of communities into workless, lawless, hopeless places where all forms of solidarity except the street gang are dissolving.

This is not like the "Distressed Areas" plague of the 1930s. Whole regions were afflicted, but resolute state action - the steering of industry to areas of mass unemployment - could assist recovery. The family, though tormented by hunger and ill-health, on the whole maintained its authority. But what we have now is a multitude of small pockets of disaster on the periphery of almost every city and town. In the culture of an Irvine Welsh novel where jobs are not even a memory, the young scavenge for money on the street. Because the collapse of a household no longer threatens its members with starvation, the family loses its control and eventually loses its point.

In old westerns, there comes a point when the defenders fall back from the stockade to the log cabin. And then they thrust guns into the hands of women and children, and show them how to shoot. Tony Blair and New Labour can no longer protect society at the welfare-state barricade, and their last hope is to teach the family to handle its own weapons and defend itself.

They may not succeed. Legislating to reinforce morals may be meant to increase freedom but often ends by diminishing it. And the whole vision of a self-regulating Decent Society built around family authority may be too bookish to survive in the real world. But it's true that all over the country men and women are fighting in dire conditions to feed and school their children, to give them a sense of belonging and mattering, and to transmit to them the thought that other people belong and matter too.

Never mind "order" and "national unity". At least Tony Blair has seen that if they fail, we all fail.