Leading Article: Crime is a threat, but adultery is not

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The Independent Online
IF THE British are becoming markedly more liberal in their attitudes to issues such as homosexuality, adultery and unmarried parenthood, as yesterday's Independent/NOP survey indicated, the same cannot be said for their attitudes to crime and punishment. The results of the second part of the survey, published today, suggest either no relenting since 1985, or even a toughening of attitudes. The responses from the lower economic groups were conspicuously more retributive than those from higher income groups.

The deduction seems clear. People believe increasingly that each person's private life is just that: private. If couples want to have sex before marriage, or if a married person wants to do likewise with someone other than his or her partner, it is increasingly acceptable for them to do so. The implication is that since such behaviour does not affect anyone else, it should be tolerated: a view which the amateur moralists in the Government do not seem to share.

No such liberalising trend can be detected in public responses on crime and punishment. Whereas people do not feel threatened by adultery, they do by crime. The lower they are in the economic pecking order, the more at risk they feel: the poor are more likely to be victims of crime and less likely to be covered adequately by insurance. Their vulnerability is reflected in their attitude to punishment, whose deterrent effect they tend to overestimate: nothing in the experience of countries with the death penalty, for example, suggests that it has any significant deterrent effect.

The polls suggest the Government has been tactically wrong as well as politically unscrupulous in making scapegoats of unmarried mothers, whom respondents believed to be coping well, even if sometimes seeking to jump the housing queue. But they suggest the Government has been shrewder, if no less unscrupulous, in promising to lock up more offenders for longer terms (a policy widely considered counterproductive).

Majority support for harsher punishment came predominantly from those aged over 55, in lower income groups or who said they vote Conservative. Quite how the contradictory liberalising and retributive trends will affect Tory fortunes will be an interesting feature of the next general election.