The left needs its own moral values

The transatlantic divide, it seems, has never been wider. To many Britons, the Americans who voted for George W Bush are as alien as the followers of Iranian ayatollahs. A Populus poll, carried out for the Times (but published in spectacularly garbled form in that paper), suggests that, while 42 per cent of Americans go to church at least weekly, only 12 per cent of Britons do so, and that Americans are nearly twice as likely to think abortion should be mostly or always illegal. The belief, held by the likes of Melanie Phillips and Charles Moore, that moral rage is seething beneath the surface of British life is pure wishful thinking.

Yet we should heed the warnings in Cristina Odone's report on page 10. For one thing, the Christian commitment of Americans is sometimes exaggerated: as our US editor, Andrew Stephen, has pointed out (see his NS column on 23 August), some US churches have shopping malls and branches of McDonald's. They are often as much shrines to consumerism as to religious virtue, and George W Bush's success probably owes more to ruthless scandalmonger- ing and the exploitation of Christian sentiment than to the firmness of the voters' faith.

Moreover, politics abhors a vacuum. Nobody could have predicted the speed with which British collectivism collapsed in the 1970s and how Margaret Thatcher's marketising government - with ideas largely imported from the US - transformed the political consensus. Now, the British seem weary of all politicians and increasingly sceptical of their capacity to change anything. If governments are indeed powerless against the competitive forces of globalisation, incapable of regulating corporate behemoths, bound by the rules of the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the EU, what is left for traditional politics? When the big economic decisions are taken in company boardrooms and in the corridors of Brussels and Washington, is the debate not likely to turn to issues of social behaviour and personal morality? If people feel they cannot stop the rich getting richer or public services being privatised or high streets being killed off by supermarkets, they may well think that at least something can be done about, say, vandalism, crime, teenage pregnancies and gay marriage. These are plainly not the province of international capital or corporate power.

All parties have spotted the potential in these subjects. Their attempts to address them have mostly come unstuck - think of John Major's "back to basics" and of Tony Blair's scheme to march vandals to cashpoints - and no politician has struck a consistent chord with the voters. But we must expect someone - inspired by the increasingly confident faith groups that Ms Odone describes - eventually to do what President Bush has done in the US. We already have the same vitriol directed at "Hampstead liberals" and "1960s trendies" that is directed in the US at "the East Coast elite". Here, too, we find consensus on economic issues but sharp division, much of it along class lines, on gays, crime, race and so on.

President Bush won because voters knew exactly where he stood. New Labour's weakness - paradoxically, given the religiosity of its leader - is its lack of a steady moral compass. Its main message is technocratic: what matters is what works. When Mr Blair went to war, he could not even decide why he was doing so, veering between the supposed threat to security and the moral duty to overthrow tyrants. Whatever his agenda, it was overridden by the perceived need to keep onside with the mighty US. Again, in domestic affairs, values - and it is not only committed Christians or Muslims who wish to discourage gambling - often take second place to the demands of US-owned multinationals.

New Labour's habit is to take issues such as yobs, burglars, beggars, scroungers, gays and single mothers and put its own twist on them, thus occupying ground that the Tories once claimed exclusively as their own. Though a distinct, left-wing moral agenda is implied in some of its policies, it fails to articulate it: the moral case for social justice or relieving poverty, say, or against tax evasion or excessive wealth. It does little to promote the virtues of sending your children to state schools. Nor does it develop the kind of left-wing patriotism outlined by Paul Kingsnorth (page 24): a resistance to big business's destruction of English pubs and shops, for example.

As Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, says (page 12), the left once stood on its own moral ground, often drawing on religion for inspiration. It will prosper by standing firmly on that ground again, not by struggling for a toehold on the ground of the right.

Timber and the Whitbread

One naturally admires Richard Collins, who has published his first novel in his late forties, having never previously written more than a postcard, and is now shortlisted for Whitbread Book of the Year. But something is wrong here. Mr Collins is described as "a former farm labourer". That in itself is a rather dismissive shorthand for a man whose skills include dry-stone walling, hedge-laying and tree-felling. More important, Mr Collins has laid down his tools. Yet while there is no national shortage of novelists (quite the contrary), there is a shortage of skilled workers, including tree-fellers. Whitbread merely exacerbates market failure. We need writers to become dry-stone wallers, not the other way round. Perhaps somebody should offer a Felled Tree of the Year prize and, if there is one already (as there may well be), newspapers should be persuaded to give it the same publicity as the far-too-numerous book awards receive.