History and toothless commissions
AT first glance Cardinal Basil Hume's call for a Royal Commission on the state of the family might have seemed like a mere canard, tossed out in a moment of anguish after another depressing evening in front of the television news.
However. after the Cardinal's more detailed exposition of his suggestion in The Independent newspaper two weeks ago, and the subsequent media and ecclesiastical interest, his idea has to be taken seriously, for, as Nicholas Coote, Assistant General Secretary to the Bishops' Conference, noted in these pages last week. the Cardinal had obviously "struck a nerve".
He might well have struck a nerve, but is a Royal Commission an appropriate way to address the current moral malaise that the Cardinal has identified?
For all this country's administrative and governmental devices, the Royal commission is beyond compare in combining superficial prestige with ineffectiveness in about equal measure.
The 37 post-war Royal Commissions boast an unrivalled record of failure and obfuscation, set up by weak and vacillating governments to obscure the subject under study, rather than to illuminate it. Prime Ministers have tended to clutch at Royal Commissions rather like drunks reach for the bottle, to drown a difficult or awkward question in a sea of paperwork.
The most ineffective Prime Minister of the modern era, Harold Wilson, not surprisingly appointed the most Royal Commissions, whilst Mrs Thatcher, the most effective despatcher of government business. appointed none. She recognised that years of Royal Commissioning by aged and unqualified amateurs also known as the "Great and the Good" was no substitute for difficult decision-making in Cabinet. After all, that is what politicians are paid to do.
Having wasted a great deal of his time on a particularly fruitless "Royal Commission on Gambling" in the mid-1970s, Lord Rothschild, the archetypal Government committee-man, finally vented his spleen at the futility of it all in an address to the British Academy in 1978.
He told his audience that "a Royal Commission is generally appointed. not so much for digging up the truth, as for digging it in" a perfect description coming from one of the great Commission men. Typically, the main qualification for Rothschild's Commission on gambling seemed to be a shared ignorance of the whole subject; as Rothschild pointedly asked. why should a philosopher, a sports commentator, a specialist in office organisation, an exscientist, an Olympic medallist, a Trade Unionist, a journalist and two barristers have been expect to come to any better conclusions about gambling than 9 members of the Cabinet who are at least elected to deliberate on such matters, even though they might know as little at Rothschild's erstwhile colleagues.
The Cardinal's wellintentioned suggestion is now made, but we must hope that John Major is made of sterner stuff and ignores the idea, as such Commissions are a means of shirking the issue, not of tackling it. Since 1947 there have been no less than three separate Royal Commissions on the Press lasting 7 years in total and costing millions of pounds to no effect whatsoever, The "family" should not be subjected to similar indifference masquerading as concern.
There is no reason to think that a Royal Commission on the family would enjoy any greater success than any of its undistinguished predecessors even if, unlike Rothschild's Commission on gambling, the government at least managed to arrange things so that the members of the Commission at least had families.
The appointment of a Royal Commission on the family would be a sure sign that the government is intent on running away from its responsibilities in this sensitive area. A vacuous report in three or four years time would do more than nothing to help alleviate our current moral and social difficulties it would also allow the government to wash its hands of the problem. If anyone still hankers after the Cardinal's Commission, they should read AP Herbert's poem "sad Fate of a Royal Commission":
I saw an old man in the Park;/ I asked the old man why/He watched the couples after dark:/He made his strange reply:/l am the Royal Commission on Kissing/... My task I intend to see through,/Though I know as an old politician/Not a thing will be done if I do.