Leading Article: Prurience proves an irritant to democracy

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THE CIRCUMSTANCES of Stephen Milligan's death involved a stripping away of human dignity that must have left many people feeling diminished. Dying, like sex, is rarely a dignified performance. This week's public scrutiny of both must surely prompt some soul-searching as to why we have become so obsessed about observing in detail one man's private sexual life and death.

'Prurience' is derived from the Latin root prurire, meaning 'to itch'. Although the word has come to mean an unhealthy concern for sexual matters, it still carries some of its original meaning. Scratching an itch provides relief, but it is often temporary. In a similar manner, satisfying prurience offers only immediate gratification. A person may rapidly want more of the same. After Stephen Milligan, British prurience will surely need to observe the sexual destruction of another character, and then another.

This is, of course, a variety of scandal unique to Britain. For decades, French governments have come and gone amid the perfume of the boudoir without noticeable damage to the country's political and economic success. Across the continent, books and videos of a frankness unacceptable in Britain are freely on sale. In Rome, it is possible to purchase lurid magazines from the same news-stands that sell the Vatican's own newspaper. But who could say that the Italian family is in danger of destruction? Even in Calvin's Geneva, the austere Swiss may purchase whatever they fancy. But Swiss society - secure, conservative and almost crime-free - hardly feels a need to get back to basics. Politicians who offered such panaceas would be laughed at.

One hypocrisy of the Government's 'back to basics' campaign was that it played upon a variety of British prurience which, in fact, pre-dated the foolish moralising of John Major's ministers. This confused mixture of curiosity and shock reflects a fierce ambivalence that many people still feel about sexual knowledge. There is a fascination with every detail of supposedly esoteric sexual techniques, be they oral sex or auto-eroticism. The media is packed with guides on how to do what, when and how. Yet when real human beings are revealed to be practising unusual means of arousal that fascination is mixed with, at best, belittling sympathy and, at worst, horror.

The Prime Minister echoed popular opinion when he concluded that Mr Milligan must have been terribly lonely to have indulged himself in the way that he did. Yet the MP's family has indicated that he was, in fact, reasonably happy. The title of Alex Comfort's book The Joy of Sex might well be applied just as much to Mr Milligan's private pleasures as it is to more conventional techniques.

The question that remains after the exposure of the intimate details of Mr Milligan's death is: where will such public relevations end? The British appetite seems insatiable. The notion of what may be deemed to be private is ever diminishing. Years ago the events in Mr Milligan's home, not to mention Gillian Taylforth's car, would not have become public property. Alas, as Malcolm Muggeridge said: 'We English have sex on the brain, which is a very unsatisfactory place to have it.'

The most dangerous aspect of this obsession is that it has become linked with a new British desire to challenge institutions in authority, be they the Royal Family, governments or the Church. There is a vicious tone to this. It seems to spring from a sense that they have let us down and can only blame themselves for the low regard in which they are held by the public.

But instead of making a healthy, full-frontal attack on these pillars of society, the public prefers to watch the exposure of trivial human frailties. No doubt the spectacle can be as exciting as the cut and thrust of real political debate. But it cannot pass for the workings of a mature, critical democracy, in which public figures should be measured by their political principles rather than their sexual practices.