Save us from preachy prime ministers and backsliding bishops
To judge by the government's recent pronouncements, one could be forgiven for thinking that children need to be taught to read primarily so that they can study the latest pamphlet to help them cope with the problems of Parenting. Meanwhile, the main aim of mental arithmetic is apparently to enable little Jack to calculate how much of his pocket money he would be fined by the Child Support Agency for impregnating Jill.
In launching his crusade to find a 'new moral purpose' for the nation in September, Tony Blair and education secretary David Blunkett emphasised the importance of the government's plans to teach children New Labour's values of good citizenship. In the age of education, education and education, it seems that the new three Rs of teaching are to be responsibility, responsibility and responsibility. So much for 'the happiest days of your life'.
At once pious and pompous, Blair's announcement of a moral crusade revealed a nervous political elite staring into the hole at the heart of New Britain; a country where, the fearful government seems to imagine, young people copulate in the streets after dark while their slovenly parents worship at the altar of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Yet for all the bold talk by Blair and his apostles, their initiative also betrays a loss of nerve about how to fill the spiritual vacuum.
It is easy enough to declare the need for a new moral purpose in a Sunday newspaper interview; it is a very different matter to work out what that might mean in practice and win public support for it. So the government is happy enough to prescribe lectures, curfews, homework and cold baths for 12-year olds who cannot answer back. But in the same breath, ministers will emphasise that they are 'not here to preach to adults' about how they live their lives. As we used to say to bullies before the school counsellors cornered the market: why don't you pick on somebody your own size?
If there is one thing worse than a moralising prime minister, however, it is an archbishop with the principles of a backsliding politician. When Tony Blair returned from his Continental holiday and called for a moral crusade, Britain's church leaders looked at him as if he had imbibed too much vin rouge. What seemed to upset leading churchmen was not the rather vacuous character of Mr Blair's crusade, but the fact that he had dared to suggest that it might be okay to make any judgements at all, and to teach people something about right and wrong.
Dr Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, issued a 'friendly warning' to the prime minister. 'Morality cannot be imposed', he warned his friend, 'and archbishops are living proof of this. You just cannot say to people, "This is what you must do".' This was quite a remarkable statement coming from the leader of the established Christian church in Britain. After all, isn't there something in the Bible about telling people 'This is what thou shalt and shalt not do'? Or perhaps the latest rewrite of the scriptures has replaced the 10 commandments with an awareness campaign designed to help people make informed lifestyle choices.
The old Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan once famously suggested that politicians should leave preaching to the bishops. The bishops have now told our preachy prime minister not to expect any back-up from them. It is one thing for politicians to court popularity by claiming that they don't want to preach to people. But when archbishops themselves eschew the pulpit, there is something more than spin at stake. Dr Carey's nervous response to Tony Blair's crusade confirmed that even those who supposedly speak with authority from on-high have become infected by the epidemic of non-judgemental relativism now plaguing society.
The churches typify the way that old-fashioned British institutions (from the Tory Party and the TUC to the monarchy and the police) are desperately trying to redefine their role in changing times. What all of them have in common is an inability to hold the line. As people have lost faith in traditional Christianity, the churches have retreated from religious principles and moral absolutism in a bid to make themselves appear more 'relevant' to the real world. In Britain AD (After Diana), the Church of England in particular has adapted to the self-obsessions of new-age spirituality, its leaders speaking in the new tongues of eco-speak and psychobabble. Fear and judgement are out, feelings and empathy are in.
Take the question of funeral rites, over which the church and its symbols have long exercised something of a monopoly. Last year the Bishop of Salisbury announced that, henceforth at C of E funerals, mourners would be encouraged to place teddy bears on coffins and to talk about how they feel. Then the General Synod of the Church of England proposed that bereavement counsellors should be on-hand at funerals to comfort the traumatised (a spiritual task which the clergy might once have seen as its own preserve), and suggested that the dead might be buried in forests, in biodegradable cardboard coffins. Having decided that nobody will rot in hell for their sins, they now want us all to decompose for our ecosystem.
The new non-judgemental religion is taken to its logical conclusion by Richard Holloway, the unorthodox Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Holloway's 'nobody has a monopoly on the truth' attitude extends right to the heart of traditional Christian teachings; he recently described Jesus as 'an elusive contemporary presence' who 'had an encounter with the transcendent meaning we call God'. The bishop's latest book responds to the declining influence of the churches by arguing the need for a 'Godless morality'. That seems as unlikely to inspire a moral revival as the government's petty crusade against school-age sex and antisocial neighbours.
Where the churches once inspired with a vision of power and higher purpose, now they seek only to 'connect' with a public mood of alienation and powerlessness. Where once they preached salvation, now they counsel 'survival'. Where once they raised mighty cathedrals to the glory of God, now they have had to scale down the Spirit Zone in the Millennium Dome, from a glass and steel pyramid to a canvas tent. There can be few clearer illustrations of the lowering of human horizons at the century's end.
The millennium is supposed to be the biggest Christian festival for a thousand years. Yet the most inspiring message the combined imagination of the UK churches has come up with to date is a joint millennium 'resolution' which apparently does not mention the G word but pledges to respect the Earth. As the lost souls of the modern Christian hierarchy set off on a pilgrimage to find God in a focus group, they literally have not got a prayer.
The moralists' retreat might seem like a blessing for those of us godless atheists who have always derided religious superstition and prejudice. But things are not quite so straightforward. The descent into relativism reflects a dangerous trend in wider society, where the dominant response to problems seems always to be to give way, to refuse to stand up for any principle or judge anything or anybody, and where compromise has become a way of life.
When Tony Blair called for a 'new moral purpose', it was as if he had had a moment of insight that these things had gone 'too far'. Yet the New Labour establishment which he fronts has been instrumental in the spread of relativism and the retreat from standards of excellence in every sphere from the arts and culture to education. The fact that the prime minister was criticised for preaching by public figures ranging from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Ed Straw, brother of the home secretary and head of the marriage counselling organisation Relate, suggests that things could go much further yet.
Of course it is true that a sense of purpose cannot be artificially imposed on society or individuals by a statement from Downing Street or a law passed through parliament. Blair-style attempts by the authorities to politicise moral matters have always done more harm than good. But the attitude of his friendly critics reveals another, newer problem - an elite which appears incapable of laying any kind of moral basis for society, whether founded on religious or humanist values.
In a mature civilised society, children should assimilate a sense of what is right and wrong from the way adults act, not from classes in citizenship learned by rote. So, what examples of grown-up behaviour are they being set in Mr Blair's New Britain?
This, remember, is a society where, from the prime minister's office downwards, feelings often appear to be valued more highly than thought. A society where the assumption seems to be that nobody can really cope with any experience, from work or college to sex and relationships, without the aid of guidelines, helplines, counsellors and compensation. A society where the government has just seen fit to issue an expensive booklet advising new fathers that they should cuddle their partners after the birth, instead of badgering them for sex. A society, in short, where we are all treated (and often seem willing to behave) like irresponsible and emotional little children. No amount of moralising from government ministers can compensate for the degraded view of people which children are being taught by living in a world without adults.
The only moral of this story is that a more certain, self-confident society can only be created by individuals who are capable of standing up for themselves, speaking freely, and making rational judgements about what is right in the circumstances. But that is something which, for all the talk of tolerance of diversity, the current climate will not tolerate. So we are left with a government trying to make schools compensate for the failings of society by instructing children to do what adults don't, while our supposed spiritual leaders hide behind cuddly toys and gobbledegook about our father who art a transcendent meaning. Save us from them all.
Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999