Bonnie Prince John rides off to Utopia

John Redwood advocates a kind of modern Restoration, a social leap back in time
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The Independent Online
Inevitably, John Redwood's new think tank, launched yesterday, is being widely seen as the campaign headquarters for a second leadership challenge. Mr Redwood and his front-man, Hywel Williams, may deny it. But the torrent of newspaper articles by Redwood which has preceded the launch of Conservative 2000 gives the lie to their protestations of loyalty to Mr Major. Make no mistake: we are dealing here with an alternative government of the Right, with Redwood as the party leader in exile.

Or perhaps I should say "King o'er the water". Or even "Young Pretender". For by an irony of timing, Mr Redwood has picked a rather unfortunate moment to reassert his claim to the Conservative throne. It is almost exactly 250 years since that other conservative Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, raised his standard. The question is whether Bonnie Prince John stands a better chance than his royal predecessor of wresting the crown from the impostor's head.

At first sight, the parallel may seem fanciful. Indeed, to judge by his views on the constitution, Mr Redwood is as far removed from Jacobitism as it is possible to be. Indeed, he avows his faith in the settlement which followed the Glorious Revolution against the Stuarts. Yet behind that front of Whiggism, there beats a Jacobite heart.

For in essence, what Mr Redwood advocates is a kind of modern Restoration - a social leap backwards in time. And just as the Stuarts' backward-looking message could only really mobilise the backward Scottish Highlanders, so Redwood seems doomed to attract an unviably small proportion of today's electorate.

That he and his followers are social reactionaries is not always obvious. Much of the time he bangs on about cutting public spending, and hence taxes, much as neo-liberal Thatcherites have always done.

Yet fiscal cutbacks - and, for that matter, the tax cuts they would allow - are only a means to Mr Redwood's social end. True, he pays lip service to the original Thatcherite objective of "equipping us to be prosperous and competitive in a global economy". But far more important to him is the social aim of "buttressing a society of responsible and free families".

As his views on the subject of single families have made clear, Mr Redwood believes in the traditional two-parent family. The state, he argues, should not pay for single mothers, "until the father, the grandparents, the extended family and the possibility of adoption" have all been tried as sources of support. Nor should divorce law be relaxed to remove the concept of fault. Moreover, Mr Redwood wants the benefit and tax system to "give more encouragement ... to the two-adult family" - a significant departure from the neo-liberal ideal of fiscal neutrality.

This is not just a case of "do as I do" (though Redwood's own family would not look out of place on the back of a cornflake packet). For Redwood, the self-sufficient, property-owning family provides the foundation for his decentralising approach to education and health policy. Although he recognises the need for some kind of policy co-ordination, whether by (smaller) local authorities or (fewer) quangos, he would ideally like to see more and more self-governing schools and hospitals responding to the wishes of "individuals, families and local communities".

Well, maybe Adam Smith's "invisible hand" would ensure that the sum of individual families' decisions would add up to increased efficiency. But there are two problems. The first is that Mr Redwood is swimming against an extremely strong social tide. According to the most recent Household Survey, less than a quarter of households correspond to his ideal of the "traditional" family unit - and that includes couples "living in sin". The proportion of single-parent families with dependent children is 22 per cent. Could tax breaks really undo this?

Second, there is no use denying that such a decentralised system of health and education provision - which almost amounts to a return to the Victorian "nightwatchman state" - would lead to greater inequality. The problem then becomes how to deal with those who lose out - in particular those who turn to crime.

More than anything else, crime is the principal anxiety of the voters Mr Redwood needs to attract. "The whole criminal justice system needs reform," he declares; and this is certainly true. The number of notifiable offences is still roughly double what it was in 1979, yet fewer than a third of crimes are "cleared up". As the majority of these are crimes against property perpetrated by young, unmarried men, this poses a real threat to Redwood's vision of a society of property-owning nuclear families.

But what to do? Mr Redwood wants more TV cameras in shopping centres (to increase detection), and he wants the courts to work more rapidly (to accelerate conviction). The problem he does not solve is what to do with criminals once they have been caught and convicted. His answer, sling them in jail, has been tried and found wanting.

Figures released this week show that the prison population continues to grow, as it has since Michael Howard's notorious conference speech of 1993.There was a 17 per cent increase last year in the number of offenders given immediate custodial sentences - despite the fact that prosecutors now drop nearly a quarter of criminal cases (compared with 14 per cent six years ago).

So again Redwood is swimming against the social tide. The fact is that the proportion of the adult population in prison has climbed steadily throughout the century, from 0.03 per cent in the 1920s to 0.15 per cent last year. Yet the proportion of convicted criminals sent to jail has fallen dramatically, from more than half at the beginning of the century to less than a fifth.

Do not get me wrong. I am quite attracted by a Utopia populated by property- owning, two-parent families and huge prisons crammed with criminals. But it is just that: a Utopia. And this suggests an important distinction between the New Right of the Eighties and the New New Right of today. Where Thatcherism, with its simple appeal to economic self-interest, went with the sociological grain, Redwoodism (and for that matter the whole This Will Hurt school of conservative thought) defiantly goes against it.

The New New Right's aspirations to restore "family values" and crack down on crime may have a superficial appeal to those unimpressed by the not-dissimilar communitarian panaceas offered by New Labour. But - and this may prove a problem for New Labour too - the breakdown of the family and of the criminal justice system are the products of profound social changes that politicians have virtually no hope of reversing.

For this reason, I cannot really believe in Bonnie Prince John and his Jacobites. The social clock simply cannot be turned back, any more than the political clock could have been in 1745.

Andrew Marr is on holiday.