Mr Straw, I sympathise, now please shut up

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The Independent Online
We all know what Harold Macmillan said when he was asked what was the most difficult problem a prime minister encountered: "Events, dear boy, events." Like all good sayings, this is not entirely true. The rebellion against reduced payments to single parents was not the unforeseen consequence of some random sequence of disparate happenings. On the contrary: it could have been predicted several weeks in advance. Indeed, I predicted it myself, both the revolt and its dimensions. They were the result of Mr Tony Blair's intention to abolish a universal welfare system and to found, or perhaps refound, in its place the means-test state.

Whether this is a good or bad scheme, and how precisely it is to be implemented, are matters about which we can dispute at length. What is evident is that they were not put candidly to the voters last April - when Mr Blair saw more profit in mendaciously accusing the Conservatives of wanting to abolish the old age pension, something which today he does not exclude from his own plans. Nor were these matters put to his party. The poor things are now in a state of the utmost confusion.

Nor were "events" to blame for the Bernie Ecclestone affair. No doubt Mr Ecclestone is a good citizen and an honourable man. But for a political party, anyway for the Labour Party, even New Labour, to accept money from him is to ask for trouble. It is about as sensible as accepting money from, well, from Mr Mohamed Al Fayed. Trouble duly came about, which was compounded by some spinning on the part of Mr Blair's acolytes which was so fast that the top slid out of control and ended up in the ornamental pond.

The affair of Mr Jack Straw's son is different. This really does bear out Macmillan's saying. I have nothing much against Mr Straw. I can take him or leave him. That just about sums up my attitude towards Mr Straw. Nevertheless, he has my sympathy. His son I do not know anything about, except that we can all do silly things when we are 17.

And yet... and yet... having said this, having expressed my sympathy with the minister, and hoping as I do that the matter can now be declared over, I observe the operations of Providence. Truly, God is not mocked: Galatians vi.7.

Does anyone, I wonder, still remember Mr John Major's "Back to Basics" campaign? He inaugurated it at a party conference in Blackpool. It was not about sexual morality at all. Sex did not figure once in the speech. It was concerned with reading, writing, spelling, being able to do add ups and take aways, helping old ladies across the road, that kind of thing. It was at a time when Mr Major was going through his Orwell phase, after some youthful speechwriter had inserted a few lines from The Lion and the Unicorn into one of his own efforts.

But the press - not just the tabloids, all the newspapers - somehow got it into their heads that Mr Major had been talking about sexual intercourse, where appropriate, and where not. It is very difficult to lay down rules about this. As the divorce judge Lord Hodson once observed when it was urged before him that adultery could not have occurred because the parties were in a car at the time: " In my experience sexual intercourse is possible anywhere except on the ceiling."

Mr Major was not talking about this. He was not even talking about what his ministers or backbenchers might get up to. It was assumed that he was. So it is that this month we commemorate the fourth anniversary of the ignominious collapse of the campaign. It ended in January 1994 with the resignations, on account of extra-marital affairs, of Mr Tim Yeo and Lord Caithness.

Since then, Mr Blair and Mr Straw have been peddling their own version of "Back to Basics". It has a certain Miss Goody Two-Shoes quality. But it does not involve sex. Indeed, such activity is not only excluded from their censures but appears to be the only legitimate pleasure left to be enjoyed by the human race, as such to be officially encouraged, in both its heterosexual and its homosexual form. As for the other consolations: drinking is bad. Smoking is worse, much worse. And that is only tobacco, subject always to Mr Ecclestone's entreaties. Cannabis is to continue to be illegal, its legalisation not even to be discussed; rather like devaluation in Harold Wilson's government.

It is always embarrassing for a columnist to find himself in agreement with one of the policies of his paper. I have long favoured the legalisation of cannabis. However, I have the consolation of going well beyond anything urged by the Independent on Sunday. I would legalise all drugs, every single one of them, for persons over 18 on the simple basis that it is none of the business of the state to use its coercive power to determine what someone of full age and mental capacity may do to his or her own body's biochemistry.

The Labour version of "Back to Basics" had - presumably still has - another element. Not only was policy on drugs to remain unchanged. More: parents were meant to be responsible for their children's behaviour, not only over drugs but over other things as well. No line at a Conservative conference, apart from "This is an overcrowded island", was surer of a round of applause than "The ones to blame are the parents".

Yet anyone who has been a parent knows it is impossible to control or even know about every single activity undertaken by a child of more than, I suppose, seven. Good parents can have bad children, bad parents good children; brother is different from brother, sister from sister or brother from sister; even twins can turn out very differently, as Mr Mark Thatcher and Ms Carol Thatcher eloquently testify.

The discussion has been confused by at least two uses of the word "responsible". You can be responsible in the sense that you are expected morally and, up to a point, legally to look after your own children, to feed them, clothe them, send them to school and so forth. You can also be responsible in the different sense that you can be held to account - in lawyers' language, be vicariously liable - for their acts or omissions. Vicarious liability has often been introduced into our law for what seem to be good social reasons, even if it is unjust to individuals. Employers are held liable for dangerous premises, even though they did not know and had no means of knowing about the fault. The fashion is to treat parents in the same way, as if they were the owners of supermarkets which sold contaminated meat. Mr Straw has been prominent in urging this approach to the liability of parents for their children's behaviour. Happily children are not pieces of meat. I can only hope Mr Straw feels differently today.

As I say, I sympathise with him. He remains a bit of a humbug. But then, this is a government of humbugs. Lord Irvine made a fortune at the Bar, which would be unobjectionable if he did not reprehend others for doing likewise. Ms Harriet Harman sends her son to a selective school. Mr Geoffrey Robinson, as the boxing posters of my youth used to put it, needs no introduction. Mr Blair himself freeloads either with Mr Robinson in Tuscany or, in happy defiance of the separation of powers, with a friendly judge in France. I would not object so strongly if they were not so censorious of the rest of us.

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