Joan Smith's latest book has all the pace of a good thriller. It opens with a tabloid smash-and-grab into the lives of the famous, then pans out to follow the deliberations of an unholy trinity of statesmen - Saddam Hussein, General Pinochet and Bill Clinton - as they come to terms with a new mood of impatience with their misdeeds. Finally the action relocates to the streets of Seattle where demonstrators, having been tipped off about something rotten within the corridors of power, are preparing to ensure that the bad guys get their comeuppance once and for all.
If all this sounds like a conspiracy theory in which the connecting theme is discovered to be the number 23, relax and read on. Smith, a novelist and critic as well as a columnist on this newspaper, is less interested in high politics than in the nuances of cultural change. The point of her wide-ranging survey is to illuminate an ambitious and compelling thesis: that in the course of the last few years morals have been forced out of the domain of interpersonal relations - roughly, sex and marriage - and on to the worthier terrain of a debate about how to restrain the excesses of money and power. A new and more enlightened approach to morality, she claims, has emerged to take the place of our Judaeo-Christian heritage and will create a fairer and more inclusive alternative in the new millennium. A secular new moral code based on justice, equality and respect for human rights is in the ascendant. History, Smith believes, is on her side.
The neatly threaded eclecticism of Moralities, and its regular digressions into history and biography, mean that it never becomes dull. Joan Smith is right to observe that changes in the social fabric have recently overtaken political debate, leading to confusion and dislocation and a political class which is scurrying, often embarrassingly, to catch up. Ideas about diversity and the tolerance of difference which were forged in the 1960s, she argues, have finally worked their way into the mainstream, forcing out discredited approaches to public morality which only distracted our attention from social injustice.
The problem with the book is that the distinction on which it turns - between sex on the one hand and money and power on the other - does not always hold up. Having claimed that …