The new crusaders

Victims of crime have politicians on the run - but for how long? Jack O'Sullivan reports
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The Independent Online
A crusade for the remoralising of the country has hit British politicians, and they have been quick to react. Yesterday, Frances Lawrence, widow of the murdered headteacher, Philip Lawrence, unveiled a personal manifesto aimed at creating a less violent society based on common civic values.

Within hours, leaders of the main political parties backed her initiative. Her ideas were "very exciting", according to Tony Blair, "very valuable", said the Liberal Democrats and, promised John Major, they would feature in the Tory election platform. Her initiative came hard on the heels of the Snowdrop Petition from Dunblane parents and their supporters, whose moral anger forced MPs into changing policy on handguns.

Now that her husband's killer has been convicted and sentenced, Mrs Lawrence is determined to stimulate a new debate and a new movement dealing with how to "banish violence", heal society and change the "moral climate" for the better.

She claims her manifesto contains "no policies, pledges or plans of action". But in fact her campaign for "civic peace" contains a number of proposals, ranging from the concrete to the aspirational. One clear idea, which echoes the simplicity of the single-issue Snowdrop Petition, is to ban knives.

On education, Mrs Lawrence calls for good citizenship lessons to begin early in a child's school life. "Schools should inculcate an appreciation of the civic bond, the respect we owe to others and the duties we owe to society."

Mrs Lawrence also proposes the encouragement of what she calls the three Es - effort, earnestness and excellence - and urges the discussion of moral questions behind political debate. Less precisely, she also calls for the raising in status of teachers and police, as key contact points for young people.

Her aim, she says, is that these cornerstones of her manifesto will spark a debate. "My hope is that out of the terrible violence that pierced the heart of my family ... a new ethos may be constructed in which neglected virtues are reinstated and cherished and sustained."

Non-party campaigners like Mrs Lawrence and the Snowdrop members, speaking for victims, seem to have caught the mood of the moment. While they may be unschooled in politics they have been remarkably effective in sparking debate and demonstrate the gulf between Westminster and city streets. Their activities show how easy access to the media means outsiders can challenge the traditional way of doing politics.

Many of these new moralisers are women, most of them mothers, determined after a traumatic experience that "something must be done". The Snowdrop Petition is driven by women who started by gathering more than 700,000 signatures, and ended up badgering reluctant politicians into accepting most of their proposals last week.

The new moralisers can be found among churchmen and politicians too. Yesterday, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales set out unusually specific demands for a statutory minimum wage, constitutional reform and action on unemployment.

On Sunday, Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, spoke emotionally about controlling video violence to undermine Britain's gun culture. "What do you expect if night after night, and in our cinemas, we see material which glorifies gratuitous violence?" he asked.

In June, the Archbishop of Canterbury told The Independent about his plans for a crusade to remoralise the country. But he also pointed to the danger that such rhetoric can too easily be wasted breath. "When I am at my most pessimistic," he said, "I seriously doubt whether we can actually do any more than blow trumpets from castle tops and warn."

The archbishop hit on the the crucial problem. Do these calls to action produce real results?

Media interest can be quickly aroused, but subside just as suddenly; media-based campaigns tend to be vivid but brief.

In 1976, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan launched the Northern Ireland peace movement in a wave of anger and grief generated by the deaths of three children in a horrific incident in west Belfast. They won the Nobel peace prize for rallying popular opposition to violence. Yet it failed to be instrumental in the political process: another 18 years passed before a ceasefire was declared.

Earlier crusades, Frank Buchman's Moral Rearmament, which was launched in the 1920s, has become moribund since the end of the Cold War. The National Viewers and Listeners' Association, the creation of Mary Whitehouse, has lost some of its impact since her retirement in 1993. And even those organisations which achieve concrete results may have limited life. The Snowdrop group has, its organisers say, largely done its work, since the Government has all but caved in. It will probably be wound up.

In the past, the campaigns that lasted, such as the Temperance Movement, were those that developed a strong organisation with a limited agenda.

There are, however, signs of new political institutions growing up, such as the Citizen Organising Foundation, which avoid the complacency of conventional parties and offer a voice for the moral demands of ordinary people plus a mechanism to implement them.

For them, as for all the lone campaigners, religious leaders and politicians who seize the moment, the hardest question may be this: how can one avoid today's passionate call for "a moral crusade" being merely a fashion, forgotten tomorrow?