Pitfalls in the path of Ethics Man

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The Independent Online
THE LABOUR leader's conference speech last week - with its talk of truth, values, wrong and right - was clearly intended to serve notice that Ethics Man will be to Blairism what Essex Man was to Thatcherism.

After the speech, a right-wing commentator said: 'This ethics stuff that Blair is pushing. It's clever. It's the perfect strategy for the times.' That seemed to me evidence of how ruined our age has become: the unblushing assumption that moral comment from a politician is merely tactical.

Margaret Thatcher once memorably put a monetarist gloss on the parable of the Good Samaritan by explaining that he was able to give help only because he had been able to become rich. You rather fear that a Nineties exegesis of the tale would run: 'Bloody clever move, crossing that road to help. That Samaritan obviously has a good PR agent.'

In promoting propriety, Tony Blair looks to be the right man for these wrong times. The rise of a politician more like a lay preacher than any in modern history has nicely coincided with events at the temple of Toryism, where lightning flashes and rats scuttle in the basement as Lord Archer cowers in one corner, declining to answer questions about his share deals, and Mark Thatcher skulks in another, denying arms-dealing but reluctant to explain his sudden accession to the ranks of millionaires. And, all the while, ominous footsteps at the rear herald the arrival of Lord Scott with his report on the arms-to-Iraq affair.

This stream of Tory sleaze - or what may easily be misunderstood as sleaze in the absence of fuller explanations - has led to a perception that the public is 'hungry' for ethical politics. Perhaps that is putting it too strongly, for the national conscience is a complicated matter. There is, for example, a strong case that higher taxes are morally right, yet they are epically unpopular. But if we accept that a general appetite exists at least to snack on morality, we need to ask whether Mr Blair and a Labour government would be capable of serving it up.

There was an underlying assumption in Blackpool last week that Labour politicians are inherently more ethical than Conservative ones. Some evidence exists for this. When the Sunday Times offered pounds 1,000 to backbenchers to ask parliamentary questions, it found no Labour takers. Labour recently rejected a large offer of campaign cash from a foreign businessman. And, practically, some temptations are simply not open to Labour. One of the sleaziest aspects of recent administrations - vast salary increases for executives of privatised national industries and seats on the boards for ex-ministers who supervised the sales - is a side-effect of a specifically Tory economic policy.

It is also the case that the Labour Party contains a number of moral exemplars. I am not referring to sex (which we will come to shortly), but to public conduct. There is Neil Kinnock, of whom nothing in his leadership became him like his relinquishing of it. For all the talk of private depression and resentment, Mr Kinnock has behaved with a personal dignity and loyalty towards his successors that the past two Conservative prime ministers would have paid a lot of money for.

At the same time, Gordon Brown has been a model of how to bear thwarted ambition with fortitude, and John Prescott a paradigm of loyalty, a quality not inevitable in deputies. Perhaps the stitching will start to unravel if, nearer the general election, the opinion polls slip; but for the moment Tory snobs may like to reflect that Messrs Kinnock, Brown and Prescott have provided a rather better demonstration of manners - indeed, of stiff upper lips - than either Baroness Thatcher or Michael Portillo.

Even so, I worry Mr Blair is making a big mistake in so openly positioning Labour as a cleaner, nicer team. A characteristic right-wing defence of irregular dealings - heard from the Iran-Contra hearings in Washington to the Scott Inquiry in London - is that inconsistencies and cock-ups are almost inevitable because of the 'complexity' of modern political administration; that the right hand may actually not know what the left is doing. When a London theatre presented a play based on the Scott Inquiry, this defence - from ministers and civil servants - often caused enough laughter to stop the show.

I laughed, too, but my secret fear is that there is some truth in this argument: modern government involves an ambush factor that no pieties about propriety can easily remove. As prime minister, Mr Blair could look after his own soul. One virtue of his youthfulness is that his children are too young to embarrass him with alleged arms dealing.

Even so, prime minister Blair would be intensely vulnerable to any ethical smudges and moral dodges already solidified in the Whitehall system. He might at any time be undermined by a smoking memo - with illegal or immoral implications - half-read and initialled by one of his ministers knocking off a red box in a rush late at night. It is not hard to imagine seemliness becoming the bear-trap for a Blair administration that chastity has been to the Major government.

There is even the risk that, in a spectacular double own-goal, Mr Blair's ethical crusade will be taken by swing voters (sincerely) and newspaper editors (cynically) to include personal sexual morality. Although Britain is a Protestant country, it has the very Catholic tendency to confuse morality with sex. Mr Blair's speech in Blackpool was actually ominously close to a 'back to basics' campaign.

Again, the leader himself can reasonably gamble on keeping his own marriage intact, but he would be at risk from the weaknesses of colleagues. Some people argue that politicians of the left are naturally less libidinous than those of the right, and recent history seems to bear this out.

The right, though, has had the power. Human flesh is weak; political flesh weaker; and political flesh given a ministerial title and a government driver is a total pushover. Would Antonia de Sancha have welcomed sex with David Mellor if he had not been a Cabinet minister? Perhaps not.

So, welcome to Mr Blair and his colleagues, to life in the moral blaze - assuming, of course, that ethical medicine really is what the electorate wants. As I have said, one commentator in Blackpool thought that this ethics thing was a brilliantly cynical manoeuvre. My fear is that it is not cynical enough.

Essex Man was an invitation to people to be bad. Ethics Man is an invitation to be good. It would be a happy day if there were now more votes in the latter than the former, but I cannot yet quite share Mr Blair's faith.