Leading article: David Cameron's cynical moral panic

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Before the financial crash of 2008, David Cameron envisaged himself running in this election as the politician who would fix Britain's "broken society". It was only after the economy tanked that the Conservative leader realised that the British economy was in rather more urgent need of repair than its society.

Yet Mr Cameron never abandoned his old theme of social breakdown. And yesterday, he returned to it with all the vigour of a bible-thumping preacher. "Something is broken", he declared before an audience in London. "Society is broken".

This is a mistake on Mr Cameron's part. For one thing, the idea that society is in sharp decline does not stand up to scrutiny. Recorded crime has been on a declining trend for 15 years. So are numerous other social indicators such as the rate of teen pregnancies. Horrific crimes such as the death of Baby P and Khyra Ishaq capture the headlines and provoke intense bouts of national soul-searching, but the fact is that the number of child homicides in Britain has been falling for decades. By brushing aside these inconvenient statistical realities, the Conservatives are doing little to raise the quality of the political debate on such matters.

It is also likely to prove unwise politics for Mr Cameron to return to this theme at this crucial stage in the election campaign. Mr Cameron might imagine that he is tapping into the everyday anxieties of ordinary people, but what he is actually doing with his generalisations is demonstrating how out of touch he is.

No one disputes that there are serious social problems in modern Britain in the form of drug abuse, welfare dependency, anti-social behaviour and binge drinking. It is also true that our education system is in need of improvement and that there is too much poverty (in terms of both money and aspiration) in many of our communities. But Mr Cameron's attempts to lump all these different and complex problems together to support his slogan that British society as a whole is "broken" is likely to strike many people as deeply cynical.

This flawed analysis of the state of modern Britain has helped to lead the Tories down some blind alleys in policy terms. The Conservatives claim that their marriage tax break will help avert family breakdowns. But those who will benefit from this money are likely to be the families who were in no real danger of breaking apart in the first place. And while the Conservative idea of allowing the voluntary sector to play a larger role in the provision of public services has its attractions, this is accompanied by a deeply regressive criminal justice agenda. The Tories propose the same old discredited solutions for dealing with crime – more custodial sentences and longer prison terms – that we have had since the early 1990s.

Mr Cameron's sensible former emphasis on drug rehabilitation as a means of breaking the cycle of crime, prison and re-offending has fallen away. For all their attempts at modernisation, Mr Cameron's Conservatives are scarcely any more progressive on law and order than the party that was led by Michael Howard in 2005.

The pity of all this is that Mr Cameron has missed an opportunity. If he had swapped his crass sloganeering for a technocratic approach, focusing on the complex social problems of certain communities, he would have shown that his party has progressed since the days when Margaret Thatcher declared that "there is no such thing as society". Instead, the Conservative leader has chosen to promote a moral panic about social breakdown which merely serves to demonstrate how little the Tories have really changed.