Political Commentary: Back to hysteria, back to hypocrisy, back to the Sixties

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IT HAS become a cliche to say that sexual intercourse began in 1963. But what began in January 1994? Children out of wedlock, Casanova complexes, sharing a bed platonically with a friend, gerrymandering, profiteering - or weak prime ministers?

If none of these seems new, perhaps the real answer is a total collapse of the conventions about acceptable ministeria1 behaviour. Whether or not John Major survives, it is impossible to imagine any return to earlier codes: in this respect at least, there can be no re-invention of traditional values.

Politically, the 1963 comparison is starkly relevant: partly because of the potent brew of sex, corruption and hysteria, but also because of the sense of a progressive illness that could prove terminal. This was never true of, say, the Lambton/Jellicoe affair under Heath, Stonehouse under Wilson, Parkinson under Thatcher, or even the Mellor affair. It is also because of a similar build-up, with ever more baroque rumours, allegations and admissions against a background of soured government-press relations.

In 1963, the trigger was Fleet Street's fury over the imprisonment of two reporters for refusing to reveal sources following the Vassall spy trial, which revealed that a homosexual Admiralty clerk had been blackmailed into passing secrets to the Russians. In 1994, sections of the press feel a sense of betrayal: the tabloids have resented the high moral tone over royal exposes and the Mellor business adopted by a government they helped back into office in 1992. This, more than 'back to basics', has fuelled the lust for scandals that show ministers as hypocrites.

There are also important differences. When the Profumo scandal broke, Harold Macmillan was beginning to look tired: but he did not quite have Mr Major's talent for auto-destruction. In 1963, the Opposition did not sit back and let it all happen. On the contrary, it was the Labour bloodhound, George Wigg, who made the running, and first mentioned the rumours in the House, forcing Profumo's ill-advised denial. And Wilson kept up a steady pressure on the Prime Minister, leading to Profumo's eventual confession.

It was very much a case of the Opposition catching the Government on the hop, and Labour morale rose perceptibly. There was a strong sense of an alternative administration waiting in the wings.

For 1963 was also the year in which Harold Wilson promised a 'Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of the scientific revolution'. Wilson was able to make skilful use of the Profumo affair to show Labour as a party of regeneration, with a modernising, meritocratic programme, in contrast to the old school tie, high-living and morally loose Tories. By comparison, Labour in 1994 has yet to develop a memorable or distinctive message and has tended, mystifyingly, to shadow the Tories rather as Nigel Lawson used to shadow the Deutschmark.

However, there may be a sense in which 1994 is turning into a sort of echo of 1963: the febrile atmosphere of both years seems to have been a symptom of values in an exceptional state of flux. Misdemeanours which might once have been swiftly punished or quietly condoned have caused a great deal of fuss because people haven't known what to think.

On each occasion the supposed central issue has been whether what ministers do in private is a matter for public concern, and the typical answer has been: what matters are the implications for the conduct of Government. Yet now, as then, media excitement has focused on the private behaviour.

Philip Larkin was wrong: sex was not invented in 1963. It has always existed, of course, together with adultery - one of the reasons, presumably, why the Almighty put a prohibition into The Ten Commandments, alongside murder and coveting your neighbour's ass. What was new in the early 1960s was the idea that sex outside marriage might become acceptable - a possibility stiffly resisted by judges, many MPs and Sir William Haley, who wrote in a famous Times leader: 'It is a moral issue.' Profumo was doomed by the lie, not the act: nevertheless, the intensity of public interest aroused by the case was largely a product of a wider debate about sexual ethics. The sexual liberals won the battle of the Sixties. Far from stemming the tide, the Profumo debate accompanied a breaking of the dam.

In 1963, abortion was illegal, illegitimacy carried a stigma, practising homosexuals were imprisoned, you got expelled from university for having a member of the opposite sex in your room overnight, people talked about 'living in sin', and condoms were bought furtively from the barber.

Today, few believe that unmarried sex per se is sinful. Cohabitation is virtually as respectable as marriage, and there are regular television programmes on the delights of safe sex for people of both orientations. One-third of marriages end in divorce, one-third of children are born out of wedlock, the number of married people is rapidly shrinking, and barely half the population says yes to the proposition: 'People who want children ought to get married'.

Public opinion was divided in 1963 about whether to condemn Profumo unreservedly for his adultery. In 1994, if adultery were regarded as a politically hanging offence, you might scarcely have a government. It is reasonable to suppose that a high proportion of the many divorced ministers and MPs were once adulterers. In 1963, There were many ministers who condemned Profumo outright on moral grounds or at least did not defend him. Tim Yeo, by contrast, experienced an extraordinary rallying round by colleagues, no doubt in a spirit of 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'.

Yet nobody argues that sexual behaviour is a public morals-free zone. The present crisis seems to reflect, as the Profumo furore did in 1963, an utter confusion about what should, or should not, be permissible. Is it the degree of pain inflicted on innocent people that matters? Is it better if your wife stays by you, or if you marry the mother of your child? How many current mistresses are allowed? Should there be one code for those who can afford child maintenance, and another for the feckless poor? What if the adultery is with a man? Kenneth Clarke's formula, that the touchstone is the degree of embarrassment to the Government, does not help, since embarrassment depends on the application of rules, and it is these that are lacking. The year 1963 was one of transition: even five years later the climate had changed beyond recognition, and many taboos had been smashed. Perhaps the latest flurry of scandal will eventually be seen as a marker in a fast-changing pattern of behaviour, as divorce and single parenthood continue their exponential rise.

In the meantime, politicians who preach fundamental values would do well to contemplate a few very basic moral precepts - like, blessed are the meek, and it is harder for a rich man (or woman) to enter the kingdom of heaven than for Mr Blobby to pass through the eye of a needle.

Alan Watkins is on holiday.