I wonder what William Hague would do if he came face-to-face with a burglar at his constituency home in rural North Yorkshire. It is all very well for him to suggest a solution allowing homeowners to use force in defending themselves or their property when he is already equipped with his judo black-belt. Seb Coe, his chief gofer, has provided him with the necessary training to enable him to take out any violent aggressor. Virile, young Mr Hague might be OK if he came face-to-face with an assailant, but most victims are usually too old or too terrified to respond to an attacker. Most criminals target vulnerable victims who are unlikely to respond with force. Which is what is fundamentally wrong with the Hague response to the Tony Martin murder conviction in Norfolk.
Even so, Mr Hague has done us a service. At last, the heavyweight politicians have woken up to rural politics. First, though, the Labour Party tumbled to the issue earlier this week when its focus-group mentality forced it to hint at its intention to spend extra resources on rural policing in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. Now Mr Hague has pushed the issue to the centre of the political debate with his speech calling for the overhaul of the law relating to self-defence in situations such as burglaries.
I think Mr Hague can be forgiven for raising the temperature of public opinion over the issue of "have-a-go" responses by victims of burglary, theft and vandalism. The middle of a local election campaign might seem to be a moment of supreme political opportunism to ride the growing public anger following the Martin case. No doubt there is a crude attempt to harness votes, but it will be a sorry day when politicians do not respond to a topical issue of obvious and great public concern.
It was extraordinary, given the amount of newspaper coverage devoted to the Martin case, how reticent - initially - politicians were to offer any view on the implications of the verdict. Even Ann Widdecombe, not normally a shrinking violet, had to be pushed in radio interviews, saying that she was "yet to be persuaded" about the case for a change in the law. There is, clearly, a grey area surrounding the definition of "reasonable force" and Mr Hague is the first senior politician to talk plainly about a re-evaluation of the concept. There will be an avalanche of learned judges who will weigh into the debate unleashed by the imprisonment of Tony Martin. But it has to be right that, if the law is an ass, the politicians as lawmakers should lead that debate.
And the Opposition leader has ensured that law and order matters will now receive a wider debate. This was previously in danger of being restricted to a facile and sterile party-political argument about police numbers. Certainly there is an undeniable accumulation of evidence which suggests that the lack of police cover in rural areas makes it more likely that criminals have been enjoying an easier time in going, uninterrupted and unchallenged, about their business. But, for Mr Hague, there is a snag.
As Tony Blair has pointed out, unfortunately it was the last Conservative government, in refusing to recognise the special problems of rural sparsity, which created the current climate of fear in our small towns and villages. The closure of small magistrates' courts and the removal of 24-hour cover from local police stations, all on the Tories' watch, ensured that many voters had long ago lost confidence in the Tories' claim to be regarded as the party of law and order - with good reason.
A local police station would have been staffed by officers who were familiar with a small community. Similarly, a magistrates' court presided over by a Mrs Bossy Boots, known to strike fear into even an eight-year-old apple scrumper, added to the climate of crime deterrence. There will be some hollow laughs from rural voters who believe that the Conservative Party presided over the decline in this countryside infrastructure. Added to this was the progressive closure, again on the Tory watch, of sub-post offices, banks, village shops and schools thanks to an aggressive planning policy in favour of greenfield sites for supermarkets.
But even though Mr Hague has to carry the burden of the past, he is still doing the right thing. He should still be congratulated for identifying an issue of real public concern and which might prepare the ground for the Tories to re-connect with those traditional heartland voters who deserted his party in 1997. If he recognises that rural crime is a symptom of a wider malaise he might yet construct a bridgehead back to power, if not next year, then in 2005 or 2006, and may even make some progress before then.
Whether this strategy is designed merely to shore up Mr Hague's "core vote" is not yet clear. If he succeeds in breaching, say, 700 council seat gains, next week (which Labour says he must do to put him ahead of the Tory position when these seats were last contested in 1996), it can be argued that he has hit on a policy agenda showing that he is setting higher ambitions than a full turn-out of existing Tory voters.
Both main parties are so busy spinning the limits of their likely gains and losses that it is difficult to gauge the truth. Labour say they expect to lose 600 seats but this will still leave them poised, on past evidence, in a position to claim that they are on track to win the next general election. The Tories are cleverly spinning their objective as a gain of 400 seats. Such a target should be achieved without any effort. Anything as modest as this will leave the psephologists suggesting that the Tories are actually in danger of slipping back to their general election nadir. They may - just - do better.
There is a chance that Mr Hague may have touched more than a crude electoral nerve with his new approach to law and order. While there is considerable nervousness, even within his party, at his blatant attempt to make capital out of asylum-seekers, Section 28 and Europe, there will be less squeamishness from voters about last night's speech. "Playing the crime card" is less distasteful than "playing the race card" or "bashing the queers". Mr Straw successfully played the crime card himself at the last election and turned the tables on the Tories.
Politicians' mailbags during the next few days will balloon, as I can attest from my time as an MP. There was never a controversial court verdict which did not result in an avalanche of correspondence. As we approach Labour's third anniversary I can imagine Labour MPs, representing some of those rural areas which the Tories must regain, being overwhelmed by the "you've let us down on crime" brigade.
My old local newspaper, the Grimsby Evening Telegraph, had plastered on its front page earlier this week photographs of beaten-up pensioners who had been robbed or attacked by teenage yobs complete with a vitriolic headline: "When are you going to do something, Mr Straw?" Mr Hague has shown that he does want to do something. It is his turn to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime and retake the traditional Tory ground of law and order.Reuse content