Leading Article: Cussed retort to the preachers

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The Independent Online
ALL OPINION polls should always be treated with caution, and those that deal with public morality and private behaviour perhaps even more so than those asking questions about voting intentions just before a general election. What people say frequently bears little relation to what they think or do. Yet the poll published in today's Independent makes startling reading.

There is a common thread. The proportion of respondents saying homosexuality is 'not at all wrong' has risen by half since 1983. The proportion that says people need not marry before having children has doubled since 1989. The proportion that says children do not need a home with both a father and a mother has risen by a factor of almost three since 1986. And the proportion believing it is not at all wrong for married people to have sex with others has risen more than sixfold since 1983.

Different factors seem to be at work, of which changing sexual behaviour is only the most obvious. One such factor is the delay between the time when people change their beliefs and their behaviour, and the time when they become ready to talk frankly in public about them. In this sense, the poll seems to be a late ripple from the Sixties, when sexual habits changed most dramatically, and the Seventies, when the traditional two-parents-and-two-children family became much less common.

Another factor is a rise in public tolerance, as shown by the growing acceptance of homosexuals and children born outside marriage. This must be welcome. There was always something unfairly circular about the exclusion of known homosexuals from responsible jobs on the grounds that they might be liable to blackmail if found out. Likewise, children cannot themselves be blamed for the fact that the parents who conceived them were not married.

It is tempting to attribute some of the poll's findings to a kind of optimistic ignorance. But the surprising number of respondents who say that having one parent is no worse than having two may be better explained by an antipathy to government policy.

In their hearts, people know that many single mothers find it hard to make ends meet - and also find it more stressful and less rewarding to raise a child alone. They know also that children benefit from having the guidance and support of a second responsible adult. But people tend to react cussedly when politicians preach at them. A revival of family values may make us happier and economically more successful. But it cannot be prescribed, like a course of pills, by the social doctors of Downing Street or Smith Square.