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Moments That Made The Year : Sin, myth and the crusaders

In the aftermath of Dunblane and the killing of Philip Lawrence, moral tremors shook the nation. But empty sermonising is no substitute for real politics, writes Polly Toynbee
The scene in the Dunblane gym cast its long dark shadow all down this year. We may never have seen those children scattered in heaps like blood-soaked dolls, but the image was burned into our consciousness in Technicolor. Moral tremors shook the nation and that fear entered into all discourse and politics. Echoes of Dunblane haunted other crimes: the kicking to death of a Corby girl by two 13-year-olds, the rural slaughter of Josie Russell's mother and sister, child abuse uncovered on a huge scale (much of it exposed by this newspaper), the machete attack on a nursery school teddy bears' picnic and the murder of the headmaster Philip Lawrence. It all looked like a world gone madly awry and it drove us half mad this year.

And yet Dunblane was an event without meaning or significance. It told us nothing about society, ourselves or our morals. A staring-eyed paedophile misfit with a hideous gun, Thomas Hamilton was useless even as a symbol of latter-day moral decadence. The human gene pool always has and always will throw up such madmen, so his pathetic life and death signified nothing new.

Looking for meaning, some wondered if his very insignificance in an uncaring alienated urban society made him do it. But even that thought led nowhere. Dunblane turned out to be a remarkably good society, close-knit, a genuine community that did what close-knit communities do with dangerous looking weirdos - marked him out and shunned him. That is part of what identifies them as good communities in the first place. That left nothing to blame but the inanimate gun and the knife. All in all, the aftermath of Dunblane has been devoid of lessons.

In Philip Lawrence's murder, we did have the makings of a parable. But of what kind? Was it a story of old- fashioned good against modern evil? Or was it the respectable world attacked by the savage growing underclass? A brave and good headmaster running to protect a weak pupil is stabbed through the heart by a young thug who bears not just the mark of Cain, but of every single attribute of modern social decay. Learco Chindamo had it all: illegitimate son of a convicted Italian mafia man and a hopeless Filipina, living with his mother and her dead-beat unemployed lover lost in an alcoholic daze. Learco's only ambition was to make his mark on the mean streets: he has Never Should Have Been Born, What's He Doing in Our Country? and Modern Youth From Hell written all over him in banner headlines.

In the other corner stand the Lawrences, the ideal traditional family - dignified and good. Frances Lawrence's moving manifesto touched every chord, with words of both moral and social admonition. She saw Chindamo as a true son of modern Britain but that also meant a son of the deprived underclass that grew and multiplied in the Tory years.

All this sent the politicians off into a moral spin. Tony Blair wore his Christianity like a fluorescent Jesus Army band on his sleeve. Not to be outdone, John Major, until now admirably terse on the question of his own religion, suddenly found the kernel of his wizened Christian soul too. None of this was an edifying spectacle. Rather, it was a shamelessly self-serving encouragement of the mood of panic.

The family-values tumbrel rolled on. The frustration for the moralists is that there is so little practical policy to apply family values to. There is agitated talk of tinkering with the tax and benefits system to favour marriage, but few really think that will roll back the sexual revolution. That leaves curiously marginal oddities such as the films Crash and Lolita to bear the full weight of political and tabloid wrath. Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, saw her chance to join in when she summoned programme controllers to listen to her sermon on violence in television.

But by and large, the deafening decibels of newspaper moralising are all mouth and mercifully little trousers - so far. The discerning Independent reader may have missed the relentless moral essays in the right-wing press but all year right-wing commentators have worked themselves into a frenzy. In a great turbulent stew, they brew together crime, violence, divorce, single motherhood, idleness on the dole, social security fraud, failing schools and wild children. Society seen through their glass darkly lurches on the edge of the abyss.

Two royal divorces and a new no-fault divorce law only seemed to confirm the Jeremiahs' worst forebodings. Marriage, they wailed, is the primal building block of society and now it is tumbling down around us like the walls of the temple.

Does all this matter? Yes, it does. For we live as much in our heads on myth and imagination as we live in the real world. If through mendacious reporting we create the illusion that we actually live in a worse world than we really do, then we subject ourselves to needless unhappiness and anxiety. Worse still, if we make the wrong diagnosis, we will take the wrong medicine and make problems worse, not better. So the moralists, the Government and, alas, the Labour Party too, choose to diagnose a serious case of near-terminal sin. The prescription? A huge prison-building programme at colossal cost and a soaring prison population. It doesn't work? Then double the dose and treble it until it does.

For the true causes of crime lie deep in the underclass. It is an age- old habit of those in the pulpit to dredge down there in the gutter for stories of terrible sin with which to give moral frights to the faithful in the pews. They like to pretend the exceptional problems of the poor are a sign of sin running all through society. But the correlation between the growing relative deprivation at the bottom and the soaring crime rate of recent years is blindingly obvious. Right across Europe the crime rate mirrors the boom-and-bust patterns of each economy - crime goes up in bad times and dips in good times. The Jeremiahs, however, prefer to tell us that the gap between rich and poor has nothing to do with it - liberal values are to blame and we are reaping the whirlwind of the pernicious Sixties.

This year that age-old moral debate on the causes of crime reached a crescendo. No doubt it will reverberate wearily through the 1997 election. Empty moralising has become a substitute for real politics because morals are cheap while proper policies cost money. The question is whether after the election all this will be put behind us, or will the moral mood rumble on and demand real and punishing action, however useless and irrelevant? The opinion poll evidence is that the great bulk of the population remains, and indeed becomes ever more liberal in its sexual attitudes - on divorce, cohabitation, abortion and homosexuality. On crime it will depend on the quality of leadership we get from the new government.