Give us back our freedom

Far from living in a permissive society, we have actually never been more
constrained

Mary Riddell
Sunday January 12, 2003
The Observer

Sexual intercourse did not begin in 1963, between the end of the Chatterley
ban and the Beatles' first LP. Philip Larkin was being premature. The
official annus mirabilis of the permissive society came two years later, in
1965, when Roy Jenkins moved to the Home Office.
There, he set about building what he preferred to call the 'civilised'
society by ending flogging, legalising abortion and gay sex between adults,
blocking artistic censorship and humanising the criminal justice system.
Tributes to Lord Jenkins, who died a week ago today, have been interspersed
by laments from critics bemoaning the legacy of his liberalism.

Had Jenkins been the founding father of lap-dancing, he could hardly have
attracted greater odium. Internet pornographers, pregnant teenagers,
fractured families and rival gun gangs were all, allegedly, the direct
result of Jenkins's policies. No doubt Pot Noodle adverts would also have
been his fault, but for the fact that such a connoisseur of foie gras and
Chateau Lafite was unlikely to be familiar with 'the slag of snacks'.

His more measured detractors conceded that, on balance, it was a good thing
that women no longer died at the hands of knitting-needle abortionists and
that men were not sent to prison for being gay. Otherwise, they mourned a
puritanical era when unmarried mothers were ostracised and family schism
such a scandal that divorcies were debarred from the Royal Enclosure at
Ascot.

Now, in place of hallowed stigma, there is only me-first libertinism and
cultural corruption. The Woodentops have been elbowed out by Grand Theft
Auto Vice City, and hip-hop lyrics constitute incitement to murder. Where
circuses once offered nothing more shocking than a mangy bear, the XXX
version, on tour from Spain, features sodomy, simulated rape and S&M. For
all of this, blame Roy.

Lord Jenkins's demise coincided with a curious mood of soul-searching across
the political spectrum. Almost three decades after Jenkins established the
Parole Board and early release of prisoners, Lord Irvine (cravenly
unsupported by Tony Blair) incurred media derision by correctly arguing
against jailing first-time burglars. Gun offences, up by more than a third,
were offered as proof positive of a law-and-order meltdown, despite the fact
that overall crime is down by 7 per cent. 'Soft on crime', in the Right's
view, should be engraved on Jenkins's tombstone.

More oddly, the Left is struggling to retain its liberalism. The Guardian's
'Fuck Cilla Black' coverline, designed by the artist Gillian Wearing,
provoked outrage in some readers, along with in-house hand-wringing over how
culture is being debased by the media and advertising. Fuck may be a
tasteless word, but it is not an assault on morality. Precocious readers of
the Guardian are unlikely to be damaged by a vernacular they will encounter
in any playground.

I would rather kids saw Ms Wearing's effort than, for instance, the Daily
Mirror's frightening and misleading treatment of the ricin factory story; a
skull and crossbones emblazoned on a map of Britain. Any five-year-old, or
adult, could be forgiven for thinking that kitchen-table poisoners now rule
the land.

Swearing in newspapers may be gratuitous. But shocking? Even the Daily
Telegraph leader column, the temple of the asterisk, last week risked
'buggered up'; presumably the only verb pungent enough to do justice to the
Poet Laureate's scansion deficiency. Nor are adverts depicting yoghurt and
lager as aphrodisiacs evidence of moral decline. They are simply vulgar,
which, to some fastidious liberals, is a worse sin.

Besides, the argument that we are to be engulfed with pornographic
advertising presupposes that sex sells, a doubtful premise when the
aggregate circulation of lads' mags barely exceeds that of the Reader's
Digest and when Nigella slurping cakemix is the closest thing to erotica in
the bestseller lists.

Kim Howells, the Arts Minister who blames gangsta rap for gun crime, takes a
tougher line on bad influences. Just as risqui culture stretches from
Aristophanes to Sex And The City, so he joins a broad pantheon of would-be
censors.

First, there was Saint Augustine, who thought stage plays 'the most
detestable atonements of filthy devil gods'. Then there were British Home
Secretaries. William Joynson-Hicks moved to outlaw James Joyce's Ulysses
after reading 40 pages, while the Home Office of the Fifties kept a 'blue
book' of 4,000 suspect publications, including Moll Flanders, Madame Bovary
and anything by Sartre.

And now, long after Jenkins dispensed with such nonsense, the mood for
suppression stirs within his old party. The suspicion, not confined to the
far Right, is that the permissive society is lurching out of control. The
opposite is true. Britain is growing more coercive by the day.

Targets must be met, citizens kept under official scrutiny, pupils tested
and slotted into league tables. Banning GM crops, human cloning or cameras
at swimming pools, for fear of paedophiles, is only part of the
control-freakery. Individuals have never been under greater pressure to have
their drinking calibrated to government guidelines, their abdominals
gym-toned and their diets calorie-counted.

In the regulated society, hypocrisy and prurience, the beacons of
Victoriana, live on. Part of the reason teenage pregnancy rates are so high
is that, in a country liberal about sexual imagery, adults cannot talk to
children about sex. Indeed, it is a fetish of the Right that teenagers
should be offered as little contraceptive advice as possible.

It is absurd to suggest that advocates of Jenkins' reforms think that
getting pregnant at 15 is fine, or that fathers are redundant, or that
vicious criminals should be indulged. Tolerance is not a hymn to licentious
behaviour. It is an acknowledgment that society cannot be improved by those
demanding the restitution of some mythical Tory neverland.

From 1983 to 1993, British attitudes to sex, marriage, lone parents and
benefit claimants became far more generous, despite heroic efforts by
Conservative governments to drive liberalism into reverse thrust. Roy
Jenkins was scenting the public mood, not manipulating it. Things changed.
In an interview he gave early in 1997, he seemed to know the game was up.
The prospect of Jack Straw at the Home Office filled him with gloom, and his
plea to Blair was craftily framed to appeal to a party promising low
taxation. Liberty, he said, was cheap. But New Labour never liked the John
Stuart Mill notion of individual freedom, preferring the enabling power of
communitarian loyalty.

Plural good is admirable, as long as it offers enough plurality and
goodness. When transport is appalling, prisons are full, crime policy is in
flux, the tension between the judiciary and the executive is palpable, and
we are heading for a war lacking popular mandate, people do not feel free.
They feel fearful.

In this climate, commentators mutter over the depraved society willed by
Jenkins. Surely, in the light of gun deaths, failing marriages and a new
series of Footballers' Wives featuring a hermaphrodite baby, he must have
died ruing the monster he had spawned. I imagine his regret was that society
had become less permissive, and less civilised, than he would ever have
wished.

mary.riddell@observer.co.uk