Do we want naked policemen on the beat?

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The Independent Online
THE Conservative Party is running short of victims and has set its collective mind to work to discover some new or old ones. This is the theme that unites the apparently disparate efforts of Winston Churchill, the Lilley/Portillo axis and the Prime Minister. They are all flying victim-kites. They are all asking: what would be the effect if we were beastly to x, y or z?

For the paranoid style in politics depends on uniting the populace against the victim. This is the social cement that appears of late to have been working loose, to have cracked under the alternate stress of economic frost and thaw.

If I were Prime Minister of this administration and due to appear before the Conservative Welsh Women (who must be a pretty specialised bunch: I lived for a reasonable time in Wales without ever encountering one), I should turn to my advisers and ask: where are my victims? Where are my objects of persecution?

Whom am I to kick around the room?

Seen in this liqht, the Churchill offensive was simply a 'deniable' exercise in research. Mr Churchill bished it, of course, with his inability to master his brief. But the little flare-up taught us something, nevertheless. Persons of colour were not going to make good victims this season.

The Lilley/Portillo plan to tax invalidity benefit and reduce its scope while not reducing insurance contributions - this was a truly creative piece of work, and I'm not surprised that Mr Lilley, in his overexcitement, inadvertently faxed the whole thing to the Press Association before sending it to the Prime Minister.

There is, however, a weakness, an illogicality in the plan, which does indeed exercise Mr Lilley, and it is this. To lake the test cases quoted in the the document: in the future, a retired builder with angina who has chest pain after excessive exercise, who cannot walk more than 200 yards or climb stairs - this man will not be considered an eligible invalid. Nor will an ex-policeman with arthritis of the neck who has pain turning his head and who cannot dress himself. And nor will - a complicated case this - a 58-year-old teacher retired because of a peptic ulcer, who is better after treatment but who still has relapses, who is a hospital outpatient and who anticipates surgery.

Should any examples of these cases dare to apply for invalidity benefit in future, they will be considered to be swinging the lead. But past examples, as they stagger along, will be considered to have slipped through the net. This is the admitted illogicality.

But let us consider the three from the point of view of a Party in Need of a Victim. I thought at first that it was a brilliant idea to start hitting builders. Everyone has a builder they detest - even builders have builders they detest. So to set the nation baying after the builders - what could be better?

But look a little closer at the case. The builder had angina, which means that he would be prone to sudden, terrifying, incapacitating chest pains. He would therefore be unsafe on a ladder. Not only that: as the case is explicitly framed, he cannot get upstairs. Nor will he be very keen to retire if he knows he has no chance of an invalidity benefit.

What I'm about to say may sound selfish, but I'm not sure we want too many builders of this kind hanging around in their jobs, curiously unwilling to mount a ladder, strangely reluctant to tackle any upstairs job, always finding something in the skirting board to engage their attention. No, I think even the Welsh Conservative Women would see the disadvantage.

What about the second test case, the policeman who cannot dress himself? Here again, the initial effect of the proposal is very positive because it seems such a brilliant example of 'thinking the unthinkable'. Let's persecute the police - a welcome novelty in Tory thought]

But is it really such a great idea to have nude policemen on the beat? Or policemen who go for days without changing their clothes? Again, I recognise that this may seem selfish, but presumably the only reason for having policemen at all is that they should perform a function. If, as explicitly stated in this case, the arthritis is such that the policeman cannot turn his head without pain, how is he going to turn round when I shout 'Stop thief'?

So even though it is in principle always a good idea to incite envy and suspicion of anyone claiming benefit, I cannot think that the first two test cases will count as useful victims.

The third example, the teacher with the ulcer, is perfectly straightforward - quite as clear an example of swinging the lead as one could hope to find. The only problem is it does not add to the list of available victims because the man in question is, already, a teacher. It was in a way somewhat unimaginative of Mr Lilley to fall back on this old chestnut.

And somewhat unimaginative of Mr Major, too, to make this the centre of his business-

as-usual approach. But in the absence of dockworkers or printers, or trade unionists in general, and in the absence of Communists, and at a time when it has long been hard for the most shameless politician to blame Labour for anything effectively because there is more or less nobody left alive who can remember a Labour government - in the absence of all these things, whom else can Mr Major persecute? Whom, I repeat, can he kick around the room?

The document quoted one example of a man who would remain eligible for benefit. He was 'a middle-aged steel worker who has had a heavy job in a foundry since his teens. He suffered minor back injuries, but now has degenerative arthritis of the spine, and constant pain'.

By my calculations, by the year 2000 there will be approximately one human being who will fit this brilliantly contrived description, and even then one could always question whether a 'heavy' job had been as heavy as all that, or whether this pain was, truly, constant. Whether he had in the past been, or was now, merely, as the phrase has it, swinging the lead.