We all enjoy a good ponder about what's good and bad. The Archbishop of Canterbury may be right in his claim that morality has been privatised. Most people don't look to the church or to the law to provide them with all their moral answers. But it doesn't mean we are any less concerned about living a good life, just because we develop our own views about what a good life should be. Morality is as important to us as ever, albeit in a different way.
So we shouldn't be surprised when a politician wants to tell us how moral he and his tax plans are - as John Major did this week.
Politicians are understandably keen to persuade us that right (and not just the pursuit of power) is on their side. But when John Major tried to recapture the moral high ground by claiming that the criterion for morality was tax cutting, he made a mistake. For a start, invoking the m-word is always a risky strategy; the British public is touchy about the kinds of moral statements it will accept from politicians. But more important, he is overstating his case - it just isn't plausible to most people that tax cutting per se counts as a moral precept to be revered. The Prime Minister is right to try to persuade us that our government is moral, but he is going the wrong way about it.
Last time the Prime Minister tried appealing to our ethics, his Back to Basics campaign was spectacularly scuppered by the apparent lack of ethics among Tory MPs. The fact that party representatives were having affairs all over the place would not have been so much of a problem had the Prime Minister not staked his political reputation on his disapproval of all things adulterous.
When politicians try to tell us how to live our lives, there is bound to be trouble. We don't want them, church leaders or anyone else to preach at us from the high ground - especially when they are clearly all capable of making the same mistakes and misjudgements themselves. Ian, Cindy and half the cast of EastEnders may well be making a mess of their lives, making foolish decisions, and generally behaving badly towards each other; but at least they are making their own decisions and not following the dictates of politicians or government officials.
Wherever we have truly important moral decisions to make, we want little more than broad guidelines from government. Beyond that, whether we marry, when we divorce, whether we have abortions, who we sleep with, what we watch on television and where and who we worship should all be as free as possible from state intervention.
But government can't opt out of moral questions altogether; nor should it. For a start, we need moral behaviour and integrity from our government and our politicians. One of the reasons Tony Blair has made such capital out of morality is because his own Christian socialism is so eminently credible and respectable. We like the fact that he believes in something, and has strong moral values - so long as he doesn't force them down our throats. In multi-cultural America, a president has to have some religion to get elected, even if most of his voters have different religions.
John Major, too, clearly has his own personal moral creed: decency and propriety matter to him greatly. But he has considerable ground to make up, and his card is marked by the rest of his party, some well-known members of whom have engaged in sleazy behaviour. Whether it be cash for questions, misleading Parliament or secretly encouraging arms deals, members of the Conservative Parliamentary Party have not done Mr Major credit.
No wonder, then, that the Prime Minister felt the need to counteract voters' views of his government as sleazy. But he needs to prove his own integrity, not just label his favourite policies "moral". To claim that the criterion for moral behaviour in government is tax cutting is missing the point. Even the most ardent state slashers among us would concede that the advocates of tax increases to pay for the health service or for pensions can cite moral arguments in their defence. Similarly, using the evil red eyes to characterise Tony Blair is a great political gimmick, but it is, frankly, nasty, and does "moral" Mr Major no good. The public may agree that Tony Blair is wrong, but we don't think him evil.
Britain could do with some moral government. We need politicians who are honest, open and accountable - politicians who have integrity and who believe first and foremost in leaving as many moral decisions as possible up to individuals themselves. Beyond that, we as voters can then decide which set of values we want to govern our communal activities, such as taxing and spending, for the next five years. But if we disagree with Mr Major over exactly where tax levels should be set, we don't expect to be branded immoral. Governments that are truly moral don't need to keep telling us so.Reuse content