Leading Article: The saloon bar `wisdom' of the Home Secretary

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BROADLY, THERE are two kinds of Home Secretary: nice cop and nasty cop. We used to expect Labour to provide the nice ones - remember that Seventies liberal Roy Jenkins? - and the Conservatives to supply the nasty ones - who can forget the pantomime-heavy performance of "Something of the night" Michael Howard? But the tenure of Jack Straw seems designed as an object lesson in the futility of looking at the world through stereotypes.

The man who made his name in opposition by attacking that scourge of the urban driver, the Squeegee merchant, moved on in office to remove the right to trial by jury, water down freedom-of-information legislation and, now, take on those of no fixed address. His remarks about "travellers" who, he told a local radio station, "cause mayhem... burgling, thieving, breaking into vehicles... defecating in doorways" is simply rent-a-rant vocabulary, unworthy of a holder of high office.

It is the job of law-enforcement agencies, under the Home Secretary, to find, arrest, and prosecute individuals who have committed specific crimes, not to sound off against whole classes of people who do not come up to his Pecksniffian standards. Unfortunately, his opposite number on the Tory benches is no better. "I certainly would not quarrel with his remarks," says the shadow Home Secretary, Ann Widdecombe (whose agreement should have been a warning to Mr Straw). Her fine distinction, that she was referring only to "some" travellers, is of little worth when one is in the business of making prejudicial generalisations.

The bullying has to stop. The rights of a free-born Englishman (amended to "British citizen") have been a proud boast through the ages. They should not be abridged by turning home-dweller against traveller by the demagoguery of ministers and their shadows.

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