Private tolerance and public panic

In these schizoid times, personal liberality contrasts with a mood of moral hysteria over the breakdown of 'family values'
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The Independent Online
There is a moral tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. So Tony Blair must hope, as his South African speech this week stakes out his claim to moral and family values. But it is a dangerous tide to ride, balanced on a wave of fear, surfing in on a flood of moral panic. Perhaps in the face of this fin de siecle hysteria, it is the way to victory. But if so, who is there now to speak words of calm and common sense?

It leaves the electorate in a turmoil of panic: society is out of control, the family done for, children are running wild, schools teach nothing, crime is rampant, respect is dead, the cult of instant gratification is rife. The very word "moral" now belongs so firmly with the alarmists that it is virtually unusable by anyone else. Tony Blair's words were thoughtfully chosen, but the underlying message was loud and clear. He was riding a storm we might have hoped he would try to pacify.

We live in curiously schizoid times: so much public comment is at variance with most people's private experience. In the real world people are more liberal than ever before. They are less censorious, more open-minded about cohabitation, homosexuality, babies born out of wedlock and divorce than at any time in history. Soap operas tell the story very well. Within families and among communities of friends and colleagues, we are tolerant as never before. Freedom brings more diversity, more choice - but the flip side of freedom is more risk, danger and dislocation. It is exceedingly difficult to have one without a measure of the other. Though of course Blair is also right to assert, "Social morality is not in opposition to liberty, but in fact the only way in which the individual can enjoy freedom".

Despite private tolerance, however, the public mood - generated by politicians, the right-wing press and think-tanks - is increasingly illiberal and intolerant. Tony Blair laid down very careful caveats - no, he is not scapegoating single parents, working mothers, gays nor even sex, drugs and rock and roll. Yet alarm bells still ring at his words. His speech was designed so cleverly for the front page of the Daily Mail (to whom it was given first), with the triumphant headline "Blair's family values crusade", which chills the cockles of more liberal hearts.

But is that what it takes these days to win elections? If so, quick-fingered Blair is a mighty fine prestidigitator - now you see it, now you don't. He puts the family values cards down on the table but before you have time to inspect them he whisks them away again. By magic, all that is left is a perfectly decent speech about decency, peppered with blameless words such as "community", "duty", "responsibility" - who could gainsay these values? Yet he leaves behind a moral taste in the mouth, a word upon the breeze. It's a very clever trick - but it won't do. It will not even wash with the right: the Mail leader column demands to know exactly what he is going to do to shore up family values, especially in tax and benefits. What indeed? Are his family values, perhaps, going to be cashable in more money to the poorest mothers and children on benefit?

This is not, I think, cynical populism on the part of Blair. But he is attempting the very nearly impossible. He is trying to harness the moral concerns of the traditional right and weave them in with the moral concerns of the liberal left about the state of the poor and the dispossessed. This is how he hopes to solve Labour's underlying problem - how to make what is now a very large, reasonably contented, well-off majority care about the underclass. Perhaps it is the only hope of gaining general consent - though some of us might prefer the language of generosity, and altruism.

The effect, though, is to demonise the poor and to frighten everyone else with the curious idea that what happens on sink housing estates is somehow typical of the way we all live now. It was ever thus. The Victorians used to love to scare themselves silly with horror stories of gin mothers, rampant prostitution, gangs of child thieves. Tub-thumpers have always pointed with relish at the moral derelictions of the dregs of society as proof of a general malaise.

But a society that is fed a scary self-image of social calamity is unlikely to do the right things. It is now firmly imprinted in the public mind that we are a disaster zone. The words trip off the tongues in every radio phone-in - single parents, wild children, sin and crime - hit the panic button!

The truth is more complicated. But who is to tell it? When even the party in power paints a catastrophic picture of the society it has presided over for the past 17 years, where is the voice of moderation and common sense? Of course we have some serious and intractable social problems. What are we to do with the young unemployed, the uneducated, the hopeless and criminal tribes that prey on the rest of us? How do we break into the cycles of neglectful and abusive parents who are themselves the victims of generations of bad upbringing?

But most children grow up to be law-abiding citizens, better educated than ever before, with more social mobility and choice about how they want to live than they ever had in the golden Fifties. Some things are worse. Crime is worse. The poor are more alienated. More people, especially children, are poor. But if we sink into a sea of hysteria, we will never tackle those problems one by one. How do you generate public support for problem-solving approaches to crime and unemployment if politicians give us only the arid language of fear and despair, not of hope?

Why, incidentally, do politicians assume the word "family" is a political synonym for "good"? Not for nothing is Philip Larkin's most famous poem one of the nation's most popular. More seriously, though, if morality is reduced to "family values", then public attention is diverted from some rather more pressing moral questions.

How will history judge our morals? I continue to hope they will be surprised that apparently decent, prosperous people could live so happily cheek by jowl with those who have nothing. They will wonder why we were so complacent about the sleaze, dishonesty and low expectation of altruism seeping into our politics and public life. They may be angry that we were so deliberately selfish about the fate of the planet. They will wonder why so much emotional energy was squandered on the misdeeds of the poor and so little on the fraud, corruption and greed of the rich.

No, there was nothing to take issue with in Tony Blair's speech and much to agree with. Yes, we want the Decent Society he describes - of course we do. But it is a great deal more difficult to achieve it if the voters are whipped up into such a moral turmoil about "social disintegration", "social breakdown", "family breakdown" and "the growing tide of lawlessness", that the only remedy seems to be more punishment and a better burglar alarm.