If we teach children morality, what will we say about the arms trade?

Neal Ascherson
Sunday 21 January 1996 00:02 GMT

BACK comes the ridiculous Dr Nicholas Tate, chief adviser on education to this ridiculous government. He made an ass of himself last year by burgling the museum of dead ideas and proposing that English schools should teach "patriotic" history. Now he has taken down another jar of formalin, and extracted from it - shrivelled and sodden - the notion that schools should teach the difference between right and wrong and chase out "moral relativism".

The job of a school, after teaching and supporting its pupils, is to evade the central hypocrisy on which British culture rests. Only a small minority goes to church or bases "good" or "bad" on the Bible, and yet, when challenged, our institutions still think they have to say that their basic values are the 10 Christian commandments. My fear is that if a lay school takes on the explicit teaching of morals, this hypocrisy will force them down the old track which leads to chilblains, buggery and Creationism.

It is no good loading schools with "the moral formation of the nation", just because the nation cannot agree what morality means. A school's job is to impart the knowledge that can't be gained in the living-room or even behind the cycle shed.

Obviously, a school is also a seething market of behaviour, some so horrible that it has to be stopped instantly. Teachers set their own moral examples by how they intervene to break up a fight, to exclude an adolescent drug pedlar or to counsel a child at the end of its tether. Probably the best way to teach ethics is to get children to read the novels and watch the films or videos that show them imaginatively how to grasp the reality of others and their needs.

It is funny, in a grim way, that Tate & Co think that "moral relativism" lies at the root of anti-social behaviour - by which they mean, of course, behaviour in grotty housing schemes. Funny, because the problem in such places is more often moral absolutism than relativism.

Nothing is more absolute than the primitive ethic of loyalty which holds gangs together. Geraldine Bedell's article in this paper's Review last Sunday showed that all too clearly. Kelly, briefly the girlfriend of an east London youth who helped to kick an Asian boy almost to death, went to the police to denounce him - and will never be forgiven by her peers for doing something so "out of order". She was a wise and brave young person who saw things relatively: loyalty is good but not if it condones inhuman cruelty. "My Honour Is Loyalty" is an absolute moral statement, and it was the motto of the SS.

Moral relativism is more the province of the rich and strong than of the poor. Calculated callousness is inherent in the "business ethic", which suspends normal moral standards when it comes to "downsizing" staff, to the sale of tanks to tyrants, to declaring phoney tax losses. People who are up against it live by harsh commandments which are not readily diluted. Those with easier lives can afford to play moral chess.

The al-Masari affair overflows in all directions with moral relativism. My own view is that to expel a political asylum-seeker because his country threatens to cancel business contracts with Britain is absolutely wrong. And it is not only wrong but dangerous in the long term to us all. This is because of one of the Laws of Politics that I wrote long ago into my little black notebook: "The way a state treats its aliens is the way it would treat its own subjects if it dared".

But few seem to see the affair so starkly. It is not interesting that the Tories and the arms industry think that deporting Mr al-Masari is justified, even though he has committed no crime here. Nobody expects better of them. What frightens me is that so many liberal-minded or non- committed people accept that Saudi commercial threats amount to reasonable grounds to expel him. Even 10 or 15 years ago, there would have been a roar of instinctive fury. Now there is only temperate protest, most of it from a minority concerned with matters of immigration and asylum. Something has eroded.

In 1985, after the late President Mitterrand sent his spooks to blow up the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand, I remember the sociologist Alain Touraine asking what had happened to protest in France. Where was that tremendous legion of intellectuals who had always petitioned and written and demonstrated against the crimes of the state in the past? "A profound degradation of our political life ... the state is imposing its own discourse," Touraine mourned.

I know how he felt. It's a degradation that spreads. For example, this government which brought beggars back to the streets (surely an absolute failure by any political standards) also introduced the practice of shackling pregnant women prisoners in labour. The point is not that public disgust has forced Michael Howard to take off the chains. The real point is that he expected to get away with this atrocious innovation. He and his lieutenants in the Prison Service assumed we have grown so morally numb that we would enjoy a bit more public cruelty to criminals.

And, although he calculated wrongly about the shackles, the numbness is evident around the al-Masari case. Even Ian Jack, writing in this paper two Sundays ago, opted for moral relativism. He suggested that "editorialists and other moralists" who oppose the deportation would hesitate to ask "the man on the lathe at the Vickers tank factory" to risk his job so that Mr al-Masari could go on using his fax machine in Willesden. They certainly do hesitate - but if they or the local Labour MP are afraid to confront the man on the lathe, then their opinions are worthless.

Back in 1858, the Cabinet of the day was troubled by the presence of Simon Bernard, a Frenchman. The French government claimed that Dr Bernard had been involved in the Orsini plot to throw bombs at Napoleon III, and wanted something done. The Russian political exile Alexander Herzen was living in London, and watched this affair anxiously. Palmerston, whom Herzen called "the finest meteorological instrument in England", thought the middle classes would applaud him for taking a firm line with all those hairy foreign exiles. So he arrested Dr Bernard and brought in the "Conspiracy to Murder" Bill, by which, as Herzen put it, "every embassy with any diligence and zeal ... might have thrown any enemy of their governments into prison and even in certain cases have shipped them off home".

But the result was a protest campaign which, if Parliament had not thrown the Bill out, would have brought 100,000 people into Hyde Park. Herzen commented that "the Englishman has no special love for foreigners, still less for exiles whom he regards as guilty of the sin of poverty ... but he clings to his right of asylum... When he proposed the Conspiracy Bill, Palmerston reckoned, and very correctly, on the decline of the British spirit; he was thinking of one class which is very powerful, but forgot another which is very numerous."

A hundred years later, Mr Chamberlain managed not to expel the Berlin cartoonist Vicky or the photomontage satirist John Heartfield (Herzfeld), although their work was dreadfully damaging to our trade with Herr Hitler's Germany. Mr al-Masari is an Islamic fundamentalist, and his views are obnoxious to many of us. But this only illustrates another Law from my notebook: "The best principles are fought on the worst cases".

In this affair, two principles are at stake: the right of free speech as well as the right to asylum from tyrants. And if Dr Tate ordered them to be chanted at each school assembly as moral absolutes, I would not complain.

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