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An abuse of innocence

The new Tory leader has come unstuck in his attempt to reclaim the moral high gound over the issue of child safety, says Stuart Waiton

David Cameron getting his knickers in a twist about "inappropriate"

underwear sold to "tweenagers" appears to be promoting a traditional moral campaign. In fact, his outburst reflects more the political and moral vacuity of the Conservative Party today.

Having already condemned WH Smith for tempting children with half-price chocolate oranges, Mr Cameron attacked Bhs for selling "harmful and creepy"

sexually provocative clothing to young children. Big business was to blame, he argued, for "aggressively" sexualising children at a premature age.

In Parliament, the beleaguered Prime Minister mocked Mr Cameron for having only two policies, "one on children's clothes and one on chocolate oranges". Put like this, the coffee morning campaigns of the Conservative leader do indeed look more like a form of gossip - "did you see what she was wearing?" - than a political programme of action.

Although coming from Tony Blair, who has made the "politics of behaviour"

of what we eat, drink, smoke or whatever into publicly debated issues, it smacks somewhat of the pot calling the cafeti re black.

Mr Cameron's recognition, however, that children (or more accurately society in general) are being "sexualised" is not entirely insignificant or wrong and is something that some parents themselves are no doubt concerned about. Indeed, this parental concern is reflected in the fact that most of the shops selling these "inappropriate" articles of clothing in the past few years appear to have withdrawn them following complaints.

To the extent that such concerns reflect adults attempting to draw a line between childhood and adulthood - at a time when it is more confused than ever before - this is no bad thing. However, where it is another indication of the paranoia around paedophiles and child safety, it is more problematic.

Unfortunately, it is this latter concern one feels is being confronted by Mr Cameron himself, when he talks of the "creepy" aspect of this "premature sexualisation" of children. The new "moral" absolute of child safety taps into the fragmented insecurities of individuals while avoiding any moral absolutes in terms of adult, parental and more particularly family "values".

David Cameron accurately noted in his "campaign" speech that "our society treats adults as children and children as adults". However, while he keys into the idea of children as potential victims, Mr Cameron ironically does likewise in relation to adults by focusing on the bullying big businesses that make people buy their dodgy goods.

At least within the reactionary condemnation of the "underclass" in the 1990s, we had Conservatives promoting a moral right and wrong in relation to parents' behaviour - a condemnation that explicitly posited the potential for adults to behave as moral subjects. In contrast today, we find the Conservative leader treating parents like children who are bullied by businesses and incapable of saying no to their own children's demands for chocolate oranges or skimpy tops.

Here, rather than a traditional moral campaign that demands something of adults and implicitly separates them off from children, we have Mr Cameron acting as a protector of children and their parents alike. Both are seen as vulnerable potential victims; the distinction between immature children and morally responsible adults is once again confused.

Two days after David Cameron's speech about tweenagers, it was announced in the press that a nine-year-old boy from Dundee had been arrested and charged with the rape of a three-year-old girl. If found guilty, he will be the youngest ever British rapist.

Here we have a far more important representation of today's institutionalised moral confusion about childhood and of children being treated like adults -indeed of children being "sexualised" at an ever earlier age. That a nine-year-old - whatever he did - can be accused of and arrested for "rape" is utter nonsense and tells us far less about the state of young people today than about the amoral state of British society.

Will Mr Cameron step forward and illustrate his clear approach towards morally responsible adults and childhood "innocence" and take up an issue that challenges rather than hides behind the issue of child safety? I doubt it.

Stuart Waiton is director of

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