Blunkett and Howard are right to focus on the collapse of order and rising crime

Rapists win the lottery while homicidal drug-dealers run amok in a major city; public anger grows
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The Independent Online

One could hear the dismay in every syllable. In his speech on crime last week, Michael Howard upset every liberal commentator north of Tuscany. He was denounced for being simple-minded and for playing politics with crime, and the anger was mixed with fear. The liberals are worried that the Government will react to Mr Howard in the wrong way.

One could hear the dismay in every syllable. In his speech on crime last week, Michael Howard upset every liberal commentator north of Tuscany. He was denounced for being simple-minded and for playing politics with crime, and the anger was mixed with fear. The liberals are worried that the Government will react to Mr Howard in the wrong way.

Most of Michael Howard's liberal critics still have a toe or two in the Labour Party's water, though they do not approve of the swimming at the Palazzo Berlusconi. But they are regularly made miserable by the Government's attitude to law and order. Only recently, Tony Blair was denouncing the 1960s liberal élite (ie them). The liberals fear that Mr Blunkett will now criticise Mr Howard for being soft on crime during his years as Home Secretary.

The henhouse squawkings of liberal discomfiture are always amusing. Yet this time, the liberals have a point. Mr Howard was being one-dimensional in his approach to crime, and he was trying to heighten crime's political profile. So he should have been, and the liberals are also wrong about David Blunkett. He is not acting as he does solely out of political cynicism. He can read the public mood.

There have been four significant recent developments, apparently unrelated, yet all part of the same syndrome. The first was the case of the lottery rapist. Many of those reading this article will have joined in my lament at the public's ignorance. Do people not understand the nature of a lottery? The affair seemed symptomatic of the dumbing-down of public life in this country and the collapse of education, which has turned large swathes of the populace into pap-brained, illiterate TV- addicted hysterics.

In his response, David Blunkett did appear cynical, promising legislative remedies which he must have known that he could not deliver, in order to appease the public until its fickle attention-span was exhausted. Yet perhaps we should be less eager to condemn the public's reaction. However incompetently expressed, it did contain moral force, along the following lines: "We don't care what you say about the evils of retrospective legislation and the randomness of lotteries. Here was a man, supposed to be serving a prison sentence for a heinous offence, who was able to buy a lottery ticket. That tells us what is going wrong with this country."

This is not an absurd point, and it is reinforced by the collapse of order in Nottingham. For those of us of a certain age, Nottingham is associated with the romance of lawlessness, as opposed to the hapless Sheriff, unable to subdue Robin Hood or seduce Maid Marian while the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest acted as they pleased, camouflaged in their Lincoln green. But their crimes generally ended up with Friar Tuck salivating over one of the Sheriff's geese. Today, during the hours of dark, large areas of Nottingham have been abandoned to darkness. Murder is routine; the police seem helpless, and useless.

Rapists win the lottery while homicidal drug-dealers run amok in a major city; public anger grows, refuelled by the gypsies' success in flouting the planning laws. Anyone else who wants to extend a rabbit hutch in the green belt discovers just how weighty the heavy hand of bureaucracy can be. Yet recently, a judge seemed to imply that gypsies can do what they like, where they like.

That may not be the final legal ruling on the subject. Higher courts might well come to a different conclusion. They had better, and soon, or there will be a revolt spreading through the shires. The rage of hard-working, law-abiding, tax- paying British subjects could easily become uncontrollable.

The rape of the lottery, the rape of Nottingham, the rape of the countryside; that is how millions of our fellow subjects view recent events. David Blunkett senses this, which is why he has no interest in liberal pieties. Michael Howard also senses it, which is why he is trying to reassure the public that measures could be taken, even in the absence of a full intellectual answer to the problem of crime.

That answer would have a lot to do with the fourth development mentioned above, which is a linguistic one. I think that I was the first commentator to use the term "feral child", some years ago. Over the past few weeks, it has often been in print, and is fast becoming a cliché. As clichés usually do, it contains a lot of truth.

In Dickensian England, there were many children like Jo, the crossing-sweeper in Bleak House. Brought up without God, parents, love, nurture or education, they scratched a perilous subsistence and often succumbed to an early death. Some who lived ended up working for the likes of Fagin; where there is an underclass, there is a criminal class. But whatever their fate, those feral children had one thing in common. None of them saw much public expenditure. The most they could expect was a workhouse bed, a prison cell, a one-way passage to Australia, or a hangman's rope.

Compare and contrast with our new feral children. From the moment they are born, public spending is lavished upon them. Hospitals, doctors, family allowance, schools: by the time any British child is in its mid-teens, several tens of thousands of pounds will have been spent upon it. It should have been given the opportunity to absorb knowledge of the world.

With feral children, that knowledge divides into two categories. They share Afghan youth's enthusiasm for firearms as a badge of manhood. They also share the Sicilian mafioso's sense of honour. Any slight, however trifling, should be avenged by death.

This homicidal ferality is the product of our vastly expensive welfare state. Every taxpayer is spending thousands a year on a form of social security which creates a social nightmare. Our government is forcing us to subsidise those who would make us their victims.

It is said that those who lose one sense experience the others more acutely. Blind, David Blunkett may have sharper hearing than most politicians. To him is audible the growling and rending from deep inside the volcano, which presages the imminent eruption. He knows that public resentment could explode.

Michael Howard is equally aware of the public mood. From his time as Home Secretary, he also knows all about the evasions and stumblings and pseudo-intellectuality of the current penal justice system, which tries to pretend that waste, weakness and failure are really a form of high-mindedness. Mr Howard has not solved the problem of the feral child. Who has? He has not worked out a way of winning the war against the great cause of crime, drugs. Again, who has? Nor has he addressed himself to the sloth, idleness and lackadaisicality of the current regime in most prisons. Ditto.

But he has one insight. The more criminals who are locked up in jail, the fewer criminals who will be available to plunder the law-abiding public. In the absence of a general solution, that is at least a partial one. If it upsets the liberals, so much the better.

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