Moral rhetoric improves with humility

Click to follow
IT WAS party conference time, and the Self-Reliant Gent swept into his conference hotel. Who? Well, he might have been a journalist, or a professor or a minister of the Crown . . . but he was indubitably sturdy and self-reliant. He was also irritated. It had been a vexing day. The first-class British Rail carriage, paid for by 'the office' was a little cold. The car which had been arranged to meet him was late.

And so he flung his cases in the direction of a porter, was led to his room, demanded sandwiches and whisky, and stretched his soft body on the bed. From his inside pocket he pulled the snapshot of his family that he carried and arranged it on the bedside table. There were the boys. They were, he supposed, doing all right. He did not know. It was an expensive boarding school and he took the headmaster's word for it. Then the Self-Reliant Gent called reception and booked a window table for dinner.

He eased himself up and padded to the desk. Normally, he lived inside a cocoon of expense-account comfort and it was disturbing when things did not run to plan. Now, however, the Great Brow cleared. He sat and began to write. 'The

dependency culture,' noted the smooth white hand, 'is a very great evil indeed. Everywhere, the actions of the state sap initiative. Everywhere, they produce a soft, passive and petulant people . . .'

To point out that those who most enjoy hectoring the feckless poor generally have a pretty soft time of it themselves is an old game - essentially the same as the centuries- old complaint about waddling parsons. But to rely as unquestioningly as so many people do on tax breaks and mortgage-interest tax relief,

on company-funded private health care and tax-deductible expense accounts, and, for that matter, on the bland reassurances of private schools which themselves depend on charitable status, is also a kind of dependency, approved by the state.

Distorted by decades of lobbying, the Welfare State can be the Pampering State for have-lots as well as have-lesses. It may not be as total a culture as depending on a weekly Giro cheque and state schooling. But it's hardly a model of admirable self-reliance either. If Conservative Britain wants to regain the moral initiative, it needs to squint at itself.

This goes for family values as well as dependency. It may seem

a cheap point, but it cannot be avoided: the old-fashioned morality party has suffered the occasional embarrassment close to home, and seems unembarrassed by it. John Major was determined to hang on to David Mellor. He is a naturally tolerant and liberal-minded man (indeed, they both are typical products of the Sixties in their own ways), and the strictures that can be hurled at anonymous millions seem harsh if applied to one's friends.

I'm certainly not saying that politicians with sexual organs and a bank balance should belt up. Morality is at the heart of social life and therefore our political discussions about it - the very word comes from the Latin for custom. Without a moral language, politics is a sour and arid trade. But the trouble with banging on about 'old core values', as the Prime Minister wants to, is that such language is too powerful and resonant to be a reliable political weapon. It twists in the hand.

Moral rhetoric also requires humility. Translating the language of values into effective policy has always been a chancy game. Cutting welfare payments without ensuring there are other sources of legal income merely increases crime.

As one speaker at the Liberal Democrat conference pointed out, this has its own redistributive logic: bored teenagers steal consumer items they cannot buy; the rise in burglaries forces insurance companies to raise premiums; middle- class people find themselves subsidising the lives of poorer families. Only it happens via Eagle Star or Legal & General, rather than the Inland Revenue and the Treasury. The distribution system is probably faster but less fair than that provided by the Department of Social Security. In a Darwinian fashion, it rewards the bold and athletic rather than the old and the law-abiding. Still, it's a system, and an increasingly popular one.

Similarly, the case for decriminalising some drugs is made with more force every month; yet even if the Home Secretary was utterly convinced of its usefulness and rightness, Tory rhetoric would ensure that a U-turn on this was impossible. Then there's the debate on prisons: deterrents or crime academies? The language of values is useful; but policy intended to reform behaviour should be approached in a sceptical mood.

Daily, politicians are losing influence as a class. What they still have going for them is their status as minor celebrities. They are discussed in the papers, they appear on television, they are, in a modest way, national characters. They will never have half the influence of whoever writes Casualty and Baywatch - the true moralists of our day. But equally, they have, if they choose to be serious, every opportunity to catch our attention.

They won't, though, until they establish their bona fides. And there's no sign of that. If sacrifice is needed, will it come from the Tory heartland vote, too? Do wealthy tax dodgers worry the Cabinet as much as gymslip mums? The problem of teenagers getting pregnant to jump the housing queue is, I suppose, a real one: but at times during the Tories' Blackpool conference you got the impression that it was the gravest single issue facing Her Majesty's ministers. It was certainly more discussed than unemployment or the taxation of food.

Almost every senior Tory expresses worry about the decline of respect for politicians, and lack of interest in their words about great social issues. One reason is close to home and easily remedied: however inconvenient it may be, we can all understand the difference between morality and propaganda.