Political Commentary: Back to basics never meant calling in the Sex Police

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EVELYN WAUGH complained that the Conservatives had not put the clock back a single second. At the last Conservative conference Mr John Major set out to propitiate his spirit. He called on the government - the party, all of us - to go back to basics. At the same gathering various ministers had attacked single or unmarried mothers. They did not distinguish between the girl who had become pregnant to acquire a council house and the woman with numerous children whose husband had absconded.

No matter. The idea got around that Mr Major and the colleagues had suddenly discovered morality, in much the same way as middle-aged maiden aunts were at one time supposed to discover sex. With the Prime Minister and his chums likewise, sex came into it. In England, morality means sexual morality, much as an argument means a row. A spirit of Calvinistic austerity was assumed to be stalking the land.

Then it all went wrong. Several Conservatives were found in what used to be called compromising positions. It would be tedious to go into all the details of the cases. The latest occurred last week, when Stephen Milligan was found dead at his home in circumstances reminiscent of a play by Joe Orton.

To put matters in perspective, I have engaged in what we old journalists call research, and looked up what Mr Major said:

Do you know, the truth is, much as things have changed on the surface, underneath we're still the same people. The old values - neighbourliness, decency, courtesy - they're still alive, they're still the best of Britain. They haven't changed, and yet somehow people feel embarrassed by them. Madam President, we shouldn't be. It is time to return to those old core values, time to get back to basics, to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting responsibility for yourself and your family and not shuffling off on (sic) other people and the state. Madam President, I believe that what this country needs is not less Conservatism. It's more Conservatism of the traditional kind that made us join this party.

This passage was preceded by attacks on government policy since the 1960s in three areas: criminal justice, education and housing, though over the last he admitted that mistakes had been made in the 1950s as well. All Mr Major had to say about personal morality was that we should accept responsibility for ourselves and our families.

Lady Thatcher might have been expected to approve this particular section, and to view the rest of the passage in a vaguely benevolent light. But, properly understood, the whole passage was an attack on her, or on the society which she had created during the 1980s. Mr Major was attacking Thatcherite values: harshness, hardness, competitiveness, greed, devil-take-the- hindmost. He was recalling an earlier England in which we may have hanged and flogged criminals but where, if you wanted to know the time, you asked a policeman with a fair expectation of receiving a civil answer.

This is the England depicted by George Orwell in The Lion and the Unicorn and purloined by Mr Major's speech writer with his talk of warm beer and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion. It is the England of Mr Major's more original suggestion, now, alas] discarded, that British Rail should be reconstituted as the Great Western Railway, the LNER, the LMS and the Southern Railway.

It is easy to poke fun at this notion of the past, though for myself I prefer it to Lady Thatcher's vision of the future. But that is not the immediate point. The point is that Mr Major's speech had nothing whatever to do with the personal morality or sexual practices of ministers, backbenchers or citizens in general. Well, you may say, people assumed that it did. More fools they. It is like saying, as some literary critics have done, that Milton was a bad poet because he exercised a deleterious influence on subsequent poets. Well, it may not be quite like saying that: but it is to blame - in Mr Major's case, to pillory - someone because his words, clear enough in themselves, have been misunderstood.

This misunderstanding has largely been both deliberate and cynical. Several classes of person have been involved. The newspapers are terrifed of a privacy law. So they say that what recent cases really show - from Mellor through Yeo and Caithness to Milligan - is that the politicians want to protect themselves. The papers demonstrate what colossal humbugs they are, exhorting the rest of us to get back to basics while engaging in the most questionable activities in their own lives.

I should like to be able to write that this is an intellectually contemptible argument. Unhappily I cannot. The politicians, I am afraid, do want to protect themselves, as last week's events illustrate. The police and other public services may or may not have behaved properly over the release of details about Milligan's death. Certainly several MPs have protested vigorously. But there was no equivalent parliamentary concern over the early release to the Sun of an account of Miss Gillian Taylforth's adventures with her consort.

Accordingly the papers have an interest in saying that 'Back to basics' meant no adultery within the Conservative Party - or, it often seems, no sexual activity of any kind, apart from intercourse in an approved position between married persons. The Opposition has the same interest because it is the Opposition. Not least, the friends of Lady Thatcher have, not an interest exactly, but more a source of profound satisfaction in depicting Mr Major as an incompetent.

So he may be. But 'Back to basics' does not involve - never has involved - having the Sex Police at the keyhole of every Conservative bedroom, or library for that matter. Indeed, I am told that, after a hard day's administering, judging, sharepushing or whatever, there are solid citizens who find it relaxing to slip on a woman's dress while they enjoy a cigar and a glass of port. No doubt this applies to column-writing as well, though I have always found an ordinary dressing gown perfectly adequate for my own requirements.

Milligan (whom I never knew) went further than this. We all have our funny little ways. But I cannot for the life of me see why his practices, strange and unusual as they may have been, made him any the less fit to be an MP or the minister that he might have become.

For while it makes sense of a sort to impose a code of morality when one exists, it makes no sense at all to try to impose one when nobody is at all certain about who is allowed to do what to whom or, indeed, to themselves. Thus Lord Parkinson was forced to resign for returning to his family and refusing to marry his mistress. It appears that Mr Tim Yeo is being penalised for the same reason. Poor Milligan did not, as far as is known, father any children. It makes no odds. He has gone to meet the Great Whip in the Sky. I would like to think that his death had inaugurated an era of toleration. All the signs are the other way.