The moral high ground is a chilly place to be

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The Independent Online
If we learnt anything from John Major's administration, it is that the moral high ground is a peculiarly dangerous place for politicians. The Tories were so keen to champion the traditional family that they became the first government in 140 years to introduce divorce-reform legislation, a move that cannier prime ministers have left to back-benchers. Even as the Family Law Bill was being published, abolishing "quickie" divorces and intoning that "the institution of marriage should be supported", some of Mr Major's MPs were enthusiastically engaging in extra-marital affairs which exposed his moral agenda to ridicule.

Tony Blair's government is not, at first sight, an obvious source of sex scandals. Although the Blairs themselves embody an updated version of family values, the Labour Party embraces a wider constituency; it has several openly gay and lesbian MPs and a Cabinet minister, Chris Smith, who came out about his homosexuality a long time ago. But extra-marital sex is not the only activity that can trip up governments. A sensible Labour prime minister, alerted by Mr Major's example, would have thought very carefully before embarking, as New Labour has done, on a series of moral crusades.

This is Caesar's-wife territory and the difficulties the Government now finds itself in suggest that, flushed with triumphalism after its electoral victory, it failed to see the fissures gaping ahead of it. What it lacks in political vision it makes up for in terms of moral conviction, and in its readiness to use legal and financial sanctions to make us toe the line. That is why it matters that Jack Straw's son allegedly sold cannabis to a Mirror reporter.

Mr Blair's administration is not only intransigent on the subject of drugs but has made much of parental responsibility when youngsters come into conflict with the law. It has even gone so far as to suggest curfews on children and a system that would make parents legally responsible for the behaviour of their offspring. This means that, according to their own moral agenda, cabinet ministers have something to account for in circumstances like these - and a painful lesson to learn about human nature.

THOSE of us who, unlike politicians, live in the real world, know that teenagers from well-regulated households, not just those living with single mothers on crime-ridden council estates, do not always share their parents' values. It is the forthright pronouncements of New Labour, not the behaviour of journalists, that has made this case a political issue, and one with ramifications beyond the question of press freedom raised by the Attorney- General's decision to seek an injunction to prevent the Sun naming William Straw.

Like many readers of this newspaper, I do not believe possession of cannabis should be a criminal offence. I support not just decriminalisation but legalisation, which would mean that the 17-year-old boy who is said to have sold a small quantity of the drug would not have broken the law. But members of the Cabinet are not in this position. They have chosen to lecture the rest of us on how we should behave on a variety of subjects, from recreational drugs to bringing up children, and it is now apparent that their advice may not always work in practice.

It would be nice to believe that this episode, which can hardly have contributed to a festive atmosphere in the Straw family home over Christmas, will make New Labour think again about the moral authoritarianism that is already a hallmark of its brief administration. The Home Secretary's protestations that he wanted to talk openly about what had happened, at a time when a government law officer had gone to court to gag newspapers, shifted the focus to press freedom - undoubtedly an issue but not, I think, the most important one.

In the seven months of Mr Blair's government, Labour's squeaky-clean image has been tarnished by the following events: Robin Cook's abrupt decision to leave his wife when his affair with another woman was about to be exposed by a newspaper; the double standards revealed by the Formula One affair; Geoffrey Robinson's role in curbing tax breaks for savers while enjoying the benefits of an offshore fund; and now an alleged drugs scandal involving the son of a minister. With that track record, the least we can expect is that members of the Cabinet will keep their views on morality to themselves for a few months. But don't hold your breath.

A WHOLLY unexpected and alarming feature of the Government's behaviour is the way in which it seems to have declared war on women. You would think that an administration so anxious about the social and financial cost of single-parent families, and determined to prod single mothers back to work, would at least have a pragmatic attitude to contraception. But we can't even be sure of that.

An all-party group of 47 MPs has signed a Commons motion deploring the idea of imposing prescription charges on women who take the contraceptive pill. At present, women do not pay the pounds 5.65 charge but a Department of Health spokesman has admitted that, while there is no plan to end free supplies, "in the context of the Government's spending review we cannot say categorically that it is ruled out".

What we know about the Pill is that anything that deters women from taking it, such as the health scare in 1995, leads to a rise in unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Get it, boys? (That includes you, Harriet Harman.) Britain already has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe and fewer women taking the Pill means more single mothers. More women in need of childcare and state benefits - and the measure would save only pounds 50m out of the pounds 3.5bn NHS drugs bill.

The other reason for opposing any such proposal is that it would be a tax on women. We already bear the health risks associated with the Pill, on the grounds that the benefits to ourselves and to the state outweigh the slightly increased risk of strokes and blood clots. If the Government decides to make us bear the financial cost as well, it will mean in effect that women pay for sex - while men get it free. This would be a bizarre and unpopular outcome for a government spending review, even by the standards of New Labour.