This time the mob has right on its side

Politicians often rise above the clamour from the streets but on gun control the mass instinct is sound and six Tories have got it sadly wrong
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The Independent Online
There are mobs and there are majorities. A majority is a large group of people with a vaguely, passively held opinion. A mob is a large group of people with a furiously, actively embraced idea. Thus there is a majority who, if asked, will say they are in favour of hanging - this is not, for the moment, on the mob agenda. But there is a mob who, after Dunblane and without being asked, want to see handguns banned. In these cases, the majority is wrong and the mob right.

Good politics frequently must be anti-democratic. Both mobs and majorities must often be resisted. If, for example, hanging became a mob issue, then politicians should resist because capital punishment is morally wrong, brutalises entire societies and never works as a deterrent. This may be paternalistic, but it would be right because sometimes politicians really do know better than the electorate what is good for them.

On the other hand, democracy, crudely understood, implies that the mob or the majority must always be right. The people are, after all, the only ultimate legitimacy in modern government. They are also the only force that can keep politicians in power. So sometimes the mob must be appeased. When Margaret Thatcher used the word "swamped" in some remarks about immigration, she was quietly and deliberately feeding the racist inclinations of the mob. Now that Michael Howard is fighting the judges over the sentences for the two child killers of Jamie Bulger, he is clearly doing so with the confidence that the vengeful mob is on his side.

What, then, can we make of the six Tories on the home affairs select committee who have outvoted the five Labour members on the issue of banning handguns? Clearly they are thwarting the mob. Most people want handguns banned. This is hardly surprising, because since Dunblane nobody has come up with a coherent argument against a total ban. So these Tories are being both irrational and electorally unsound.

The committee vote was leaked to the Sun. It was not due to be known for another two weeks - evidently Tory political managers were hoping to slip this one through in the dog days of August. But yesterday the Sun blew that sleazy little plot out of the water and invited its readers to ruin the summers of the six Tories by publishing their office addresses and phone numbers, a move one of them, John Greenway (I'm not proud - his number is 01653 693502), described rather laughably as "utterly despicable".

The Sun, typically and, in this case, justifiably, is keen to keep the mob on the boil. It does not want the gun issue to drift, like capital punishment, into the background, becoming a majority rather than a mob issue. That is fine. Rabble-rousing is what that paper does best and the rabble could not have a more legitimate target than those irredeemable loonies who still want to play with guns.

But what is odd about this affair is the way the committee has divided along strictly party lines. This, as John Major has said, is not a party issue. Yet the Tories have all voted against a ban, against a mob that plainly has right on its side.

I would guess that a number of factors are at work here. First, the Tories may have calculated that this will all blow over, so why bother with legislation that will be messy and inspire small but vociferous pockets of resistance? Second, the police have apparently murmured something about the impracticality of a ban - and "impractical" is always a word that gives committees the chance to creep softly and silently away. Third, there may well be a feeling among the Tories that the liberties of genuine sporting gun users should not be infringed - an arguable point, but not one that, of itself, justifies the private ownership of the kind of weapons employed by Thomas Hamilton. These were killing, not sporting machines.

But all of that is fairly feeble stuff, and does not explain the neatness of the party split. The odd Labour member could equally well have bought these arguments without too much ideological soul-searching. But none did.

That brings me to the fourth possibility: that there is some concealed Republicanism in the Tory ranks. Not Republicanism of the anti-monarchy variety, but Republicanism of the American variety. Republicans in the US do not want to do anything about the carnage directly caused by their insanely liberal gun laws. The vile National Rifle Association, brandishing an irrelevant clause in the constitution, has far too much power. Its argument is that the right to bear arms is a fundamental aspect of a free society. Absurd as this is - why not the right to deal drugs, or own domestic nuclear devices? - it carries huge rhetorical weight in a country still devoted to its frontier fantasies. Otherwise intelligent politicians mouth fabulous sophistries about people, not guns, causing crimes and therefore it is irrelevant to control guns.

As I have said in this column before, this argument is absurd because a gun might well make a crime possible and, therefore, "cause" it; and, in any case, society must have a reasonable interest in limiting the amount of damage that criminals can do. It also has an interest in stopping the maiming and killing of thousands of children a year in domestic handgun accidents.

But you can see the attraction of the libertarian argument to a certain kind of bone-headed right-winger. It offers a nice combination of moral muscularity and simple sadism. Don't do anything that might remotely infringe a supposed liberty because it's people that cause crime, not guns. But meanwhile, you can have as much fun as you like locking up more and more criminals. Tough on crime, but actually rather nice to the causes of crime.

Michael Howard provides further evidence of this ideological inclination. He goes along with the mob when it comes to keeping people in prison and fighting off more liberally inclined judges. But his party shows no sign of buying the mob line on guns. One malign contradiction of American Republicanism has been inserted into British politics.

If this really is happening within the Tory party, then they are in an even worse state than I thought. They are drifting towards a corrupt and anti-social form of politics which is, in fact, the opposite of traditional, socially sensitive British conservatism. If the party as a whole goes along with these six pro-gun MPs, then it will also be displaying a disastrous failure of political imagination. For, in the case of gun control, it could be in a no-lose situation. The mob wants to ban handguns and the mob is right. The Tories could keep their votes and their consciences intact. What more could they want? Blood? No, silly me, they've already got that.