Leading Article: Build a moral society, but a liberal one

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The Independent Online
Out of tragedy emerges an activist. Frances Lawrence would never have made her public plea for a more moral society had her husband Philip not been stabbed to death by a teenager. Or at least if she had, the country would not have listened. Likewise the Dunblane parents would never have supported such a determined campaign against handguns had Thomas Hamilton not murdered their children. Theirs is a valiant attempt to create meaning and purpose out of horrific events and we should applaud them for it.

But the very fact that these movements are emerging in response to emotive but isolated incidents is enough to make many people suspicious. After all, were it not for the front-page headlines day after day on the violence of Dunblane and the death of Mr Lawrence, we wouldn't be listening to Mrs Lawrence or supporting the Snowdrop petition against guns.

However, just because something is driven by emotion doesn't make it wrong. Too much emotion is not the weakness in this nascent moral majority. That, surely, is one of the ways in which representative democracy works. Far more troubling is the possibility that in the short term the hand- wringing will have no impact at all on the real problems in the country, and in the longer term could deteriorate into hostility and intolerance towards people who resist its more sweeping admonitions.

When making laws and judgements, we need to distinguish between synthetic hysteria fuelled by media hype and genuine deep-rooted public desire for change.

Emotional reactions to news reporting can indeed make us irrational. Fear and anxiety for the safety of our children makes many parents over- cautious about letting their offspring go out alone, despite the fact that they are no more at risk from dangerous strangers today than they were 20 years ago. Media hype and public panic is stopping young children properly developing a sense of independence and responsibility.

So yes, we should be cautious and tread carefully in our search for authenticity. Exaggerated fears and emotions should not be the basis for moral judgements and public policy.

However, sometimes it takes a tragedy to raise support for a very sensible campaign. In the US it took the shooting of a president, and a public campaign by the man who was caught in the crossfire, Jim Brady, to build enough political support for new restrictions on gun ownership. No matter how much the general public might have believed in it before, it took a human drama to mobilise enough grassroots support to defeat the powerful gun lobby.

Likewise in Britain, most of us would always have agreed that hand guns should be kept out of the home, but it took a tragedy to get us angry enough to bounce the Government into the right action.

Similarly Mrs Lawrence and the public figures who jumped on her bandwagon yesterday are right to call for the re-moralising of society. A selfish nation of atomised individuals is indeed an immoral place to be. The Catholic Church has said as much this week. John Major, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown have all concurred, in different ways.

But we should question hard what lies behind this cacophony of anguished voices. Aside from the sensible calls for controls on dangerous weapons the demands are rather nebulous. Supporting parents and family life is all very well, and doubtless those parents and families who already practise what is preached by the media, the politicians and these emerging grassroots activists, will nod their heads with enthusiasm.

But uniting all those who already believe that their children should be inculcated with a sense of social responsibility won't have much impact on the lives of teenagers like Learco Chindamo, the youth who stabbed Mr Lawrence. Nor will appealing for children to read books rather than watch telly help those troubled violent young people who never properly learned to read.

Re-moralising society is pointless if "society" really means the articulate middle-class "New Victorians" who already instinctively agree with and adhere to every precept. It is pointless if the people in trouble and causing trouble are not a part of mainstream society in the first place. An effective grassroots moral campaign will be one that reaches out to those who are excluded and alienated, not one that just fuels the resentment and outrage of insiders.

In fact it would be a campaign that built on the achievements of Philip Lawrence, a headmaster who tried to instil ethics and hope in troubled teenagers, rather than on the empty proselytising of some politicians. Re-moralising the majority to persuade them willingly to give more through taxation or, even better, through their personal time, to help solve social problems would be a great achievement indeed.

Even more troubling, when this growing moral majority realises that its hand-wringing is ineffective, it is likely to become increasingly intolerant of the people it failed to help and failed to reach. The illiberal elements are already in place. Calls for strong two-parent families can easily degenerate into condemnation of other family arrangements, no matter how successful and loving these may be. Tony Blair was worryingly hesitant when asked for his views on gay couples with children.

Frances Lawrence was right to speak out, just as the Dunblane parents were right to channel their energy into the Snowdrop campaign. They speak with far more moral authority than politicians these days, and their voices deserve to be heard. But we should be careful how we in the public, politics and media react to the stories they tell. We should not be striving for a society that indulges in blanket condemnation on the basis of prejudice. We need a more moral and less violent country. But we want to live in a liberal land as well.