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. …