Mr Hague makes a belated but welcome move towards tolerance

The speech by William Hague to the Society of Editors in Cardiff yesterday contained confused messages. The Conservative leader made it clear that he remains determined to keep the offensive legislation of Section 28. His assaults on political correctness, too, can be seen as code for permission to make intolerant comments about foreigners and asylum seekers.

The speech by William Hague to the Society of Editors in Cardiff yesterday contained confused messages. The Conservative leader made it clear that he remains determined to keep the offensive legislation of Section 28. His assaults on political correctness, too, can be seen as code for permission to make intolerant comments about foreigners and asylum seekers.

Overall, however, there is a welcome sense that sanity may now be allowed to prevail as Mr Hague at last begins to follow his presumed better instincts. Until now, he has seemed to labour under the delusion that he would only look like a true leader if he also sounded like a reactionary buffoon. It was as though he had never grown up from that teenage schoolboy at the Tory party conference, who was so eager to impress the grown-ups with his ferociously right-wing views.

There has never been any evidence that Mr Hague himself is a homophobe or a racist. But he apparently believed that, by pandering to such prejudices (under the guise of "common sense"), he could make himself look like a powerful leader. If he has finally moved away from that short-sighted philosophy, so much the better.

Mr Hague has been frightened of the bigots in his party for too long. After all, how can they hold him to ransom? Which party would they flee to, if they desert Mr Hague out of pique? Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats would provide a natural home. In that respect, Mr Hague's return to moderate views hardly has an electoral downside. The bigots can grumble, but they can't hide. The moderate ground is therefore easy to occupy.

There were obvious contradictions in yesterday's speech. When Mr Hague declared that there was "no contradiction" between saying "of course we respect people of different sexual orientation, but we don't want Section 28 repealed," one might be forgiven for raising an eyebrow. In reality, the contradiction is plain. The main practical effect of Section 28 - theoretically intended to prevent the "promotion of homosexuality", as though it were a brand of soap powder - is to stigmatise gays.

Just as importantly, however, Mr Hague seems ready to move away from the moral absolutism (and lack of understanding) of Ann Widdecombe and others in his party, with his championing of "tolerance, mutual respect and the rich diversity of our country". This intolerance is not just wrong in its own terms. Crucially for Mr Hague, it has also come to seem increasingly out of touch. One distinctive feature of Big Brother, a programme noted for its exceptional popularity, was that the series itself, and the pattern of voting, showed a complete lack of racism and homophobia: black Darren and lesbian Anna were two of the most popular characters of all. For all its faults, Big Brother was clearly a programme of our time. Mr Hague, who needs the support of all the Big Brother viewers he can get, should take note.

The gentler, softer Mr Hague may prove to be a nine-day wonder. But we must hope not. The left-right arguments in British politics should not simply be between the tolerant and the intolerant; the Labour Party needs a more intelligent challenge than that. Already, the clock is ticking before the next general election. It may be too late for Mr Hague to save his party's political bacon. He is, however, moving away from lunacy. For that at least, we should be duly grateful.

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