Leading Article: Time is up for John Major and his beliefs

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FIFTY YEARS ago, in the report that laid the foundations of the Welfare State, Sir William Beveridge named the five giants that post-war Britain should set out to destroy: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. The 'largest and fiercest' of these, he added, was Idleness. If the giant of unemployment could be destroyed, the others would be beaten; if not, all else was futile.

Unemployment and all it entails - poverty, the destruction of families, the loss of confidence and self-respect - is striding the country once more. Far from setting out to destroy it, this Government thinks that it is hardly worth talking about. In their 50-page election manifesto, the Tories mentioned unemployment only twice. John Major's targets are not Beveridge's giants but what he calls 'the robber barons' - inflation and the state.

The Government is accused of not having an economic policy. But it does have a policy - the policy it presented during the election campaign, the policy of last year and the year before that. According to the manifesto, economic policy was: 'To achieve price stability; to keep firm control over public spending; to continue to reduce taxes; to make sure that market mechanisms are allowed to do their job.' Beyond that, the policy is to have no policy. No policy for setting people to work. No policy for better roads, railways and urban transport. No policy for training more young people in the skills that modern manufacturing industries require. No policy for directing more investment towards exporting industries. No policy for protecting the nation's future energy requirements.

Putting 31,000 miners on the dole - in the week when unemployment figures accelerate towards 3 million - looks like economic lunacy. But it is disingenuous of Tory MPs, Tory newspapers and Tory industrialists to protest that the scale and speed of the action go too far. It is in the nature of lunacy that it has no sense of proportion. The same economic lunacy has held back construction of the Channel tunnel rail link, the Jubilee Line and the West Midlands Metro; has compelled local authorities to sit on the proceeds of council house sales instead of using the money to employ the idle in building homes; kept sterling overvalued and interest rates punitively high for more than two years.

Tory MPs can and should demand a delay in the mining redundancies, pending an independent inquiry. But that is not enough. The issue is not keeping a pit open here and knocking a point off interest rates there. It is not even the lack of the 'responsible and sure-footed' administration promised by the election manifesto. The issue is the bankruptcy of an entire philosophy of government. The manifesto insisted that 'we are poised to move forward again, lacking only the spark of confidence with which a Conservative victory would ignite recovery'. There has been no recovery and little prospect of one. The Government promised an end to 'stop-go' cycles; all it has achieved is a permanent 'stop'.

Not since 1940 have a prime minister and a government seemed so overwhelmed by the tide of events. Those who appeased Hitler were incapable of using the resources of the state to prosecute a war against him; those who appeased and worshipped the free market are likewise inadequate to prosecute a war against Beveridge's revitalised giants.

There is, almost certainly, a majority in the House of Commons for a change of direction. Some Tory backbenchers are not wedded to the Thatcherite dogma of minimalist government; only their loyalty to a discredited prime minister and cabinet prevents them forcing such a change. Those MPs should now put their loyalty to their constituents and to their country first. They should demand both a change of policy and a change of leadership; and, if necessary, should support a vote of no confidence, as their predecessors did to bring down Chamberlain in 1940. If they have not lost confidence in Mr Major and his government, the nation most certainly has.