One of the most important tasks of the wise legislator in the field of morality is to do away with unnecessary restrictions which merely discredit authority. T.E. Utley – What Laws May Cure
In the end, it is not government which supplies the content of morals or even plays the main part in conveying them from one generation to the next. In Western civilisation it is the function of the family. How to strengthen that institution by emphasising instead of persistently diminishing its responsibilities is one of the main questions now facing us. Though it is much too large to be debated here, one aspect of this question must be briefly mentioned.
The relationship between the law and parental responsibility is extremely subtle. It is hard to expect parents to stop their children from acquiring anti-social habits which the law appears to regard with indifference. Strong laws can support parental authority. On the whole, however, parental discipline of the young is almost always more humane and effective than that administered directly by the law.
Keeping delinquent children out of court ought certainly to be one of our main legislative aims. But in the process parents should not be made to appear as publicly maintained vigilantes hand in glove with the authorities. They are there as much to protect their children against the law as to insist that they obey it.
In this respect, the Government’s recent White Paper on Young Offenders¹ shows a good deal more common sense than the former proposal for a partnership between parents and welfare workers exercised through family councils.
For the Conservatives to emerge today either as the committed enemies of social and cultural change or as its indiscriminate supporters would be equally out of tune with the party’s tradition. The Tory Party stands both for social cohesion and for social evolution. Nowhere is the maintenance of a sane balance between these two aspects of Conservatism more important than in the debate about law and morals.
Conclusions are always difficult and, for me at least, this one especially so. I don’t believe that T.A. Utley thought that social cohesion and social revolution were the exclusive domain of the the Tory Party. I do believe that he considered the family to be an essential element of a society and could not be credibly divorced from any political social engineering that may be advocated by progressives.
If there is one thing that could nullify today’s relevance of T.A. Utley’s paper, it is how political social engineering has changed the ethos of contemporary society and its relationship to the family. If there is one thing that could make T.A. Utley’s paper as relevant today as when it was written in 1968, it is the need for a sane balance in any debate about law and morals, which recognises the potential impact such laws can have on the ethos of society.
Laws may be capable of doing little good, but we have learnt that they are powerful engines of evil, of consequences which their authors never intended or foresaw but which press hardly and deeply into the lives of ordinary people. T. E. Utley – What Laws May Cure
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