The young war criminal is not off the hook

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Between 1962 and 1974 I was living with a young family at Chertsey in Surrey. In spring and summer, if the weather was fine, I would walk home from the station, often calling at one of the numerous pubs along the way for a glass of beer. On one such evening (it was at a pub called the Prince Regent), I noticed an older, nondescript man looking at me intently from the other end of an unpopulated bar.

Between 1962 and 1974 I was living with a young family at Chertsey in Surrey. In spring and summer, if the weather was fine, I would walk home from the station, often calling at one of the numerous pubs along the way for a glass of beer. On one such evening (it was at a pub called the Prince Regent), I noticed an older, nondescript man looking at me intently from the other end of an unpopulated bar.

"Excuse me," he said, "I hope you don't mind me asking, but are you one of us?"

Unsure of which group or category he had in mind, I replied: "No, I am a Welshman."

"What I was thinking," he said, "was that you was a didicoi."

This was a term which I had only recently learnt from my children, who went to local schools with the sons or daughters of what were variously described as didicois, pikeys and travellers.

Whether there were distinctions between these groups I did not know; nor do I to this day. The Concise Oxford Dictionary claims that "didicoi" is slang for a Romany Gypsy: but this, it seemed, was what these people were not.

"Why," I asked, "did you think I was a didicoi?" "Something about the eyes," he said. "Now that Dickie Davies, he's one of us."

Mr Davies, I should perhaps explain, was the chief sports presenter on ITV, fit to rank with David Coleman or Des Lynam. I paid tribute to his talents and, like any properly brought up Sunday journalist, made my excuses and left.

Chertsey was then a decaying Victorian town - its decay was part of its attraction - wedged between two of the most horribly affluent suburbs in the land, Weybridge and Virginia Water. The travellers, as it seems simplest to call them, had paradoxically made a permanent habitation there, being engaged chiefly in the scrap metal business and the used car trade; or so I was told. Their presence seemed to be generally accepted and they caused no trouble, though I may be mistaken about that.

It is not clear whether Mr Michael Howard objects to people like this because they, or some of them, move around or because they simply exist, like the unfortunate Mr Howard Flight. It is absurd to claim, as some of his critics have claimed, that to attack them or to question their privileges - if they do indeed have privileges - is somehow "racist". However, Mr Howard is evidently playing along with a campaign got up by the cheap press. He has done the same in other areas, notably immigration and asylum, which are now invariably conflated.

This was held to be a consequence of the advice of Mr Lynton Crosby, his wonder-worker from Australia. Antipodean advisers in politics may soon become as indispensable as coaches from the same part of the world in rugby football, with equally deleterious consequences. At first, Mr Crosby's approach, as reflected by Mr Howard, was assumed to have worked. The Labour Central Committee was said to be embarrassed, "wrong-footed" even, largely because the Labour lead had gone down in the polls. Now it has gone up again, in one poll anyway. Last week we were told that Mr Howard was going to try a more "inclusive" line. We shall, I am afraid, be at the mercy of the polls until the election.

The odd thing is that Crosby-Howardism was supposed to be what was wrong with Mr Hague's approach in 2001. Mr Howard was brought in, by means of a coup resembling those in which the old Tory party used to specialise, partly to provide a more competent parliamentary opposition but partly to make the Tories look less like the Exclusive Brethren.

There are several other mysterious aspects to politics today. One is that the economy is no longer the absolute determinant of people's voting intentions. Perhaps it has not been so for 35 years. In 1970 the voters were enjoying a perfectly decent standard of living but they did not trust Harold Wilson.

In 1983 they had suffered the worst spell of unemployment since the 1930s but - in one of the most audacious or, if you prefer, dishonest pieces of public relations of modern times - Margaret Thatcher's minions managed to persuade them that this was not the government's fault at all but was the consequence of what were called "world conditions". And Mrs Thatcher was returned with a huge majority.

In 1992 we were only just emerging from recession but the Tories were returned, even if with a smaller majority. Our later exit from the European exchange-rate mechanism may have been ignominious but it was far from disastrous, establishing as it did the prosperity which was superintended by Mr Kenneth Clarke and then exploited by Mr Gordon Brown.

And were people grateful? No, they most certainly were not. They threw out Mr John Major's government in a massacre, the like of which had not been seen since the destruction of the Labour Party in 1931. The people voted against corruption, or what was thought of as corruption - for Mr Major's administration was at its lowest no more than mildly incompetent, and Mr Major himself no worse than weak. But Mr Alastair Campbell had implanted "sleaze" in the public mind, much as his Conservative predecessors in the early 1980s had contrived to persuade people that unemployment had nothing to do with the government, even though it was one of the openly displayed instruments for defeating inflation and, indeed, for achieving all manner of other desirable objectives.

Alas, or perhaps happily, the Conservatives do not have a Campbell at their disposal; not even one of the cut-price variety. And yet objectively, as the Marxists say, this Government is, in its actions and its ambience alike, more corrupt than anything displayed by Mr Major's crew before 1997. Indeed, I would be prepared to argue that in many respects Mr Major's administration was, morally, a distinct improvement on what had gone before, at the high tide of Thatcherism. The difficulty which the Conservatives have is not that they lack a Campbell, though they do, or that their record in government was uniformly bad, which is was not, but that over Iraq they are estopped.

Except for a few dissentients, they were as much in favour of the war as Mr Tony Blair, if that had been possible. Does anyone imagine they would now be publishing the Attorney General's advice - or even that they would have taken the advice, if it had been contrary to their intentions? Of course not. This does not mean, however, that the young war criminal and his associates in the party did not do some very wicked things or that people will not remember them when they arrive at the ballot box.

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