Troubled by the unclear family: Why is it that single mothers, feckless fathers and rising crime dominate the social agenda?

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IT'S CLEAR: for better or worse, we are all becoming enmeshed in a debate about our social values, in particular about the condition of the family. Each day's news brings snippets of a wider conversation. There is the pursuit of non-paying fathers; John Major's speech on 'old, common sense British values'; changes to the adoption rules; ministerial harangues about young single mothers; a renewed enthusiasm for locking up young criminals; a revived traditionalism in education; even the courtroom arguments about rape.

These are all disparate stories with their own subtleties but they add up to a clear picture of a society that is deeply troubled about its most basic codes and rules. Moral panics occur often enough. Even so, this has been going on for long enough and is widespread enough, to be taken seriously. It is not airy-fairy: real crimes and the real costs to real taxpayers of broken families are two of the issues that make the moral debate hard-edged.

Most of the current controversies stem from ministerial speeches or legislation. Politicians are responding to a mood among the electorate, a creeping new moralism. But politicians have to tread a very narrow line. They can say loudly what everyone has started to think. They can, in due course, turn the prejudices of the day into laws. But once they start to preach, they are in dead trouble. Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister during Mr Major's lost late-Fifties Eden, once remarked that 'if people want a sense of purpose they should get it from their archbishop. They should certainly not get it from their politicians.'

Given that most of today's politicians seem to be regarded by voters as fornicating slimeballs whose compulsive deceit and malice is mitigated only by their practical incompetence - a species almost as disreputable as journalists - it's unlikely that MPs would be taken seriously if they offered to reform the national character.

Politics and morality don't mix easily even at the rhetorical and legislative levels. If our current 'family values' controversy could be reduced to one problem then it would be: men. We do have a man problem. We have juvenile delinquents (they used to be called naughty boys). We have large numbers of unmarriageable males, whose economic status has been removed by industrial change, who father and move on - and, according to the statistics, have quite likely got criminal records by their early thirties. And we have 'successful' men who effectively divorce their children as well as their wives.

So: a man problem, acknowledged in most of the serious work done on family policy, from leftish think-tanks to Tory MPs. And what is the political response?

It is pretty difficult to stand in front of the Conservative Party conference and talk about a 'profound crisis of maleness'. It is rather easier to go for gym-slip mums. Similarly, if there is growing agreement that we need to re-emphasise the importance of parenting, one obvious problem is that so many modern fathers have to work such long hours. But can you imagine a deregulating Conservative government thinking about that, never mind acting on it? (Actually, a few ministers do: but they are an eccentric minority).

Finally, the Child Support Agency was an honest attempt to tackle errant fathers which seemed acceptable as long as the middle classes thought it was all about tracking down drifters in shell-suits. But when it became clear that grafters in business suits were also involved, that was quite another matter and a U-turn was called for.

In almost every way, the 'man problem' is inconvenient for the political moral-panickers. It is not only their fault. The rest of us may be collectively happy to talk about a decline in values and the need for greater responsibility; but our individual suspicion of blundering, discredited authority as we experience it makes it difficult for politicians to impose responsibility from on high. 'Why should I be ordered about by that bunch of chancers?'

But if the political classes are not the right people to shape and lead a conversation about values, who is? Not Macmillan's archbishop: religion, the moral foundation for most of our history, is a fading force in the secular West. Even in the intensely religious United States, the Republican leadership clearly regarded the Christian fundamentalist fringe as a burden during the 1992 presidential election.

Here in Britain, we have long been less demonstrative and probably less religious, too. The Church of England, for instance, endures mockery for its liberal trendiness, a pleasant, easy form of religion without too much religion in it. But that has long been the case. In Trollope's The Way We Live Now, published in 1875, a Catholic priest lampoons Anglicanism as 'a belief which is no belief . . . a creed which sits so easily on a man that he does not even know what it contains'. We might conclude that Anglicanism suited the English character well. But it doesn't help us with our moral panic.

A third possibility is that some new and untainted political movement might eventually arise, proclaiming the need for a 'back to basics' morality or championing family values. This is not quite as unthinkable as it may seem: in America, a moralistic movement called communitarianism has won strong backers in the White House and on the Republican right. They cover old ideas with freshly-minted slogans, such as 'the new familism'. They worry about dependency, want the streets to be reclaimed and yearn for a return to neighbourliness.

As with Mr Major's speech to the Tory conference, the communitarians hark back. Mr Major dreams of a Fifties Britain of decency and respect. The Americans gaze rearwards at a small-town America of white picket fences, where Pop always looks uncannily like the young James Stewart. They can sound twee: in their journal, one of their leaders recently opined that 'the highest responsibility of democratic political leadership is to unite the citizenry by appealing to the better angels of our nature'.

It is embarrassingly easy to mock, though the communitarians have some good things going for them. Their emphasis on responsibilities as well as rights and their readiness to face tough questions - such as the need for better-off parents to forfeit income and status in order to bring up their children - are attractive traits. Could communitarianism spread here? I rather doubt it. Britain has not been impervious to American-originated moralism in the past, as Moral Re-armament, or Oxford Group-ism proved in the Thirties and Forties, and Billy Graham has shown subsequently. But communitarianism, though not unthinkable, still seems (literally) outlandish. It thrives on a church-going, Hollywood-nostalgic, Washington-lobbying political culture that does not exist in Europe.

But the lack of a thunderous political response here would not diminish the significance of this debate about values. In a sense, the argument is the answer; it alerts us, affects the way we think, and perhaps how we behave, too. Just because it is inchoate, undirected and disorganised doesn't mean it is unreal. Probably we will muddle through, mostly ignoring the preachers and mostly reviling the politicians, as we have always done. But perhaps we will take parenting a little more seriously, and ask politicians more, and more detailed, questions about crime. We will grumble about our moral descent, as we have always done. And we will carry on behaving just a little bit better to one another than we think we do. It's as near as I can get to a happy ending.