Britain's new morality
I WAS AT a dinner party the other night with some friends of mine who had been eager Labour Party campaign workers in the 1964 election and who had sweated for months to usher in the new dawn of the technological revolution then promised by Harold Wilson. Naturally, I twitted them with the present chaos of the Labour govcrnment and the widely accepted certainty of a Conservative administration after the next election. None of them were much disposed to argue the matter for, even if they could see the prospect of economic recovery in time to give the Prime Minister another term, they could not themselves muster up any particular conviction that a new Wilson government would be more idealistic, more centrally concerned with the priorities of social justice which have historically animated the Labour movement, than the old one.
Not that any of my friends were likely [0 vote Tory. It seemed, indeed, that we had a typical group of serious, intelligent Labour abstainers of the kind who are currently giving Transport House officials nightmares; until one of the company suddenly said; "I can't get very worked up about another Labour government, but I'm convinced of the vital necessity for another Labour parliament and I'll work and vote for that. "
Unique expansion in the freedom of the individual
He went on to justify this thesis. Always a free country (he said), Britain had seen, since 1964, a unique expansion in the freedom of the individual to conduct his own life as he wished and to order and govern the morality of his conduct according to prejudices and inclinations of his own, rather than society's, choosing. In comparison with that, it meant little that increased taxation, an economic squeeze and the growth of bureaucracy had limited the individual's economic power, for such economic limitations as there had been were not yet significant. The standard of living in Britain, though not rising, had not fallen; house mortgages, though difficult to obtain, were not beyond reach, and thcre was even evidence that the pressures of the market wcre about to cause a slump in property values which would make buying one's own home a much easier business.
Put roughly, one might say that, for the private consumer, thc economic situation is at a standstill. On the othcr hand, in vital arcas of private life, and in large questions of morality, politics has been moving with speed and revolutionary effectiveness. During the life of the present Labour government, capital punishment has been abolished for a trial period of five years and, as long as there is a Labour majority in parliament, that abolition will stand. It is now possible for homoscxuals [0 make love without fear of a law, now abolished, that had hitherto been administered in a patchy, arbitrary and often cruel fashion. Pregnant women who, for a variety of reasons, do not want to have their babies-as that they may have been victims of rape, or may suffer grievous mental or physical stress by giving birth-may obtain abortions under an efficient, medically reliable system which has very largely replaced the old scheme of things in which dangerous back-street abortions were order of the day for the poor, while the rich flew to Swiss clinics. Divorce will soon be easier; as a result of impending legislation it will be possible to obtain a divorce either because both parties agree that their marriage has broken down or because divorce is requested by one partner after a separation of five years, whereas before, adultery or a complex combination of cruelty and desertion were the only grounds for breaking up a marriage.
The Lord Chamberlain, who, hitherto, could prevent the performance of plays which he found undesirable in commercial theatres, or at least require substantial alterations in their scripts, has had his powers taken away from him. Though soft drugs-like cannabis and marijuana-are not yet legal in Britain, there is a powerful lobby of intellectuals and men of culture determined to make them so. The Arts Council has recommended that the remaining lcgislation against obscenity in literature should be dispensed with.
Censorship of the cinema, which works by a system of grading films for certain audience age groups, has been made nonsensical by the inconsistent licensing policies of different local authorities, which bodies in Britain control what appears in the local cinema.
Intense Public Debate
These and many other changes in the social and cultural map of Britain have taken place in the last five years. Taken in sum they have two features. Firstly, each one of these issues has taken place against the background of an intense public debate about the nature of contemporary mortality, about what ought to be allowed and about how much freedom the individual has or ought to have [0 indulge his tastes and prejudices. Thus we have had Mr. David Steel doing battle for more liberal abortion laws against Mr. St. John Stevas, the guardian, in this, as in other respects, of the traditional morality. And we have had Mr. Kenneth Alsop (one among many notable advocates) fighting out in relation to its influence on readers the issue of pornography against the conservative tenets of Miss Pamela Hansford Johnson (again, one among many notable advocates).
But, from the point of view of politics, the second feature of the way in which the moral map of Britain is being changed is even more interesting. Most of the features of what the Guardian first called the permissive society (which prompted one reader to write and ask how she could join) have been created by parliamentary legislation. Not, of course, legislation initiated by the government, but legislation brought into being by means of the Private Member's Bill.
Role of Private Members
The Westminster parliament, to a degree unequalled in any country enjoying representative institutions, allows its members to initiate and carry through to the statute book an immense quantity of legislation on which the leadership of both parties takes a neutral attitude. There is a curious and unwritten convention by which the spheres of government and private members are delimited. No British government would allow a private member to bring forward with any chance of success legislation which in any way impeded its own policies or programme of government. Thus it has happened that while the government controls what happens in the great spheres of economics, education and the social services, the private members control what happcns in legislation regarding morality and the conduct of of the individual's private life.
In many ways, on the face of it, this seems highly desirable. It means that the authoritarian hand of the Statc, the government (and even the Opposition) is not much felt in those spheres of lcgislative activity relating to private life and that, conversely, in these matters the weight of the opinion of the individual, the private member of parliament, is felt most strongly. But this is to give a very superficial description of what happens. Several qualifying observations ought, indeed, to be made on the spate of liberalising (or permissive, depending on your point of view) legislation which we have seen since 1964. First, it ought to be said that relatively few members attend the House when private members' business is being discussed.Thus the new
legislation cannot be said to command the support of a majority of the whole House. Secondly, while the government stands or falls at each general election by the electorate's verdict on its total direction of policy, private members initiating new legislation rarcly have to concern themselves overmuch with the wishes of the majority of the people in respect of the actions they favour. The new legislation, therefore, is brought into being without a popular mandate, with, at most, the tacit consent of the government, and by a select and energetic body of M.P.s.
Only possible with Labour majority
I am not concerned for the moment with whether the new legislation is desirable or undesirable (though I myself would have opposed all of it with the exception of the new Divorce Bill) ; I am only anxious to show how it came to life. There can, moreover, be no doubt that such legislation can only come to pass when there is a Labour majority in Parliament, for it is in the Labour party that you find the liberal moralists. A Tory majority would silently and without bothering to argue . too much about it, vote down almost all aspects of the permissive society. There can be no doubt either that the principal general feature of Private Members' legislation since 1964 has been to increase the freedom of the individual at the expense of the ordained coherence of society. That, indeed, is its principal justification.
The effect of the ncw legislation on the character of British socicty is debatable, but generally agrced to be significant. It has, howcver, another feature to which I am anxious to draw attention, which has been under-estimated by its proponents. It is predominantly legislation in the interests of the intellectual middle class. Its advocates have. been those members of parliament most generally and frequently associated with the progressive wing of the Labour Party and its supporters are very largely to be found among the high university intake of Labour members in 1966. What I want to suggest is that these progressive members of the Labour Party acquiesce in the arrangement by which the government decides what can be done in large, important areas of social policy, like housing and the Welfare State, which affect the lives of millions, in return for complete independence to decide what is in the interests of hundrcds of thousands of the intellectual middle class.
For, make no mistake about it, progressive legislation goes forward on the basis of an alliance between its proponents and the government on a much more practical level than the convention that private members legislate for the sphere of private morality. The Divorce Bill, the Abortion Bill and other reMr Roy Jenkins-" the permissive society, both civilising and humane"-forming legislation could not have been passed unless the government gave up
some of its own parliamentary time for debate. And Mr. Roy Jenkins, both when he was Home Secretary and since he has become Chancellor of the Exchequer, has given broad sustenance to the efforts of the reformers engaged in the brick by brick construction of the. permissive society, the influence of which, he has said publicly, will be both civilising and humane.
Damage to Labour Movement
Mr. Jenkins may well be right. On the other hand, I believe it is demonstrable that the success of reforming legislation in the sphere of private morality has damaged the Labour movement even more than the government's performance in handling the national economy. Let me try to illustrate this. The government have introduced into parliament a new bill dealing with children and young offenders. One of the features of that bill is that home background will be taken into account in deciding whether a child under the age of sixteen, who is delinquent, will have to appear before a court or not. Self evidently, middle class children will rarely appear in court; self evidently, the children of the working class, and parti~arly of the poor, will appear before the courts with increasing regularity. In other words, class is an advantage to a child accused of crime. In opposition it has fallen to the Tories-supposedly themselves the party of class-to point out this danger to the bill, and to oppose it for this among other reasons. Though some Labour backbenchers have joined in that protest, the best and most gifted of the younger backbenchers have been too busy doing other things, like reforming the laws on abortion, homosexuality and divorce.
Again, I would like to point out that"! am making no judgement on the merits of progressive legislation: I am simply saying that its priorities are not the priorities of the Labour movement. Indeed, one could go further and say that progressive legislation is downright unpopular with the working class Labour voter. When Mr. Ray Gunter resigned from the Wilson government, he made clear his belief that it had been taken over by university intellectuals, that it had become alienated from" my kind of people." Since he has becomc Home Secretary Mr. Callaghan has recognised this danger of alienating a Labour parliament from its grass roots. A former parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation (the policeman's trade union), he has opposed liberalising drug legislation and all further advances down the road to the permissive socicty against the Cabinet advocacy of two of the most intellectually distinguished members of the Labour party, Mr. Callaghan-opposed further" permissive" legislation
Jenkins and Mr. Crossman, the Minister of Social Security. He has become convinced that, to save its life, the Labour government must renew its alliance with the working classes and the economically underprivileged and forswear its attachment to what he privately describes as merry-go-rounds for the intellectUal middle-classes.
Tories will preclude progressive Legislation
In all this there is a very serious debate about the nature of society, the direction in which it ought to move and the proper place for parliament in deciding on that direction. If present opinion poll trends held fair, and the Tory party was returned with a massive majority at the next election, there would, of course, be an end to the debate, for such a Tory majority would foreclose on all progressive legislation in the field of morals. What is at issue here, however, is not the vagaries and chances of democratic policies, but the basis and substance on which pcople take their stand about what is important to them.
Both British political parties are curious amalgams of opposites. The amalgam in the Labour party has traditionally consisted of an alliance between high-powered intellectuals with a social conscience and the underprivileged working class. As time has gone by, as the high-powered intellectuals have become more highpowered, and as the Wilson government has discovered that, given the achievement of the Atlee government in social legislation, they cannot do significantly better for the poor and the underprivileged than a sympathetic Tory government, the bcst minds of the Labour party have turned to other causes, notably their own intellectual and cultural causes. Not that all these causes are concerned with culture as traditionally understood; but they are all supportcd with philosophic arguments-like the freedom of the individual to run his own life-which are incomprehensible to the working classes who have traditionally put their trust in Labour. In the present political climate, both the Liberal and Conservative partices recognise that the problem of the homeless is one concerned essentially with all those families who do not have adcquate accommodation. Only the Labour government defines "homeless" as meaning those actually without a rented or owned roof over their heads. Yet no protest has come from thc Labour back benches: that is the crisis of morale the Labour party has to face.
Ideal Government-Moderate Tory with strong Labour Opposition
It is not a crisis they face alone, for the whole country faces it with them. Mr. Crossman, in one of his highly objective moments (before he became a Minister), said that the ideal system of government for Britain was a moderate Tory government, with a small majority and a powerful Labour Opposition. Only thus, he argued, could the priorities of stable and economically successful rule be combined with pressure for social reform and increasingly adequate social services. Nowadays the brightest hopes of the Labour Party-like my friends at the dinner party-give their best energies over to minority legislation and abandon their hopes for influencing the government on social issues of majority and national importance. It imposes a tremendous burden on the liberals of the Conservative party, and an even greater burden on the Liberals, which neither may be worthy of. It is nothing less than the abdication by a generation of its responsibilities