Guns in suburbia, glib words in Blackpool

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EARLY one evening a year ago, a few hundred yards from my front door in a quiet, leafy suburb, I was held up at gunpoint by two white men, who warned that I would be 'blown away' if I resisted, and efficiently robbed. In a bizarre Dickensian twist, one of them paused and half-apologised: 'Sorry 'bout this, but you understand, times is hard.' He was wearing a baseball cap but I almost got the impression that, had he had a forelock, he would have tugged it.

The police did not seem surprised. They went through the motions of taking a statement but conveyed not the slightest impression that they were confident of catching anyone. Or eager. It was all very difficult, I was wearily told, there was a lot of this sort of stuff happening. What? A lot of armed robbers roaming suburbia and preying on commuters? Well, I suppose there must be.

So, standing listening to Michael Howard doing his best to be tough about crime, I felt a certain personal interest in the subject. Politics aside, I was keen to be reassured. I guess most people were. The Conservative record on crime has been dreadful. Yet, despite some thoughtful speeches, most of the debate was predictable and depressing. There is something not quite respectable about these occasions. Why is it always the strange, clammy-faced young men who go on about birching and the rope? Anyway, if judicial violence is the answer, why stop at the birch? Why not amputate fingers, slit noses and flay a few naughty children? We could do it in public. Yum, yum]

Conservative friends tell me the conference is getting more sensible and humane these days, that the law and order debate is becoming more sophisticated. Maybe they are right: some representatives at least were ready to grapple with the real issues, like the deficiencies of bail conditions and the need for preventive measures.

And Mr Howard had a clutch of useful measures to announce on parish constables, help for victims, witness intimidation and the extension of the power of the Attorney General to refer lenient sentences to the Court of Appeal. It was good to hear that Mr Howard is acting on the series of suggestions from outside government about cutting police paperwork (grossly excessive, though, as a result of earlier Conservative legislation).

Yet this was not a fully satisfactory speech. A hail of administrative measures hurled through the air - a prison or two there, a longer sentence here - and were applauded as they flew. But they arrived without much philosophical underpinning or serious analysis. To be fair, the analysis had come earlier, at a fringe meeting, where Mr Howard blamed 'progressive' attitudes and the decline of parental authority for the rise in crime.

These are familiar Conservative themes, but they tell only part of the story. The Tories need a richer, more self-critical social analysis. For instance, Mr Howard, in his conference speech, described the police as 'the thin blue line which separates order from anarchy'. If that is really so, we have had it. No mention of society's own order, the binding power of mutual obligation, of the importance of decency and high standards in public life, even of a sense of community.

No mention of social atomisation, violence on television, and the pressure put on parents by ever-longer working hours or unemployment. Yet these all count. They may reflect awkwardly on the Thatcher years and the commercial interests of Rupert Murdoch, but they matter, and a properly serious debate on crime, which the country urgently needs, would have included them. Apart from an intervention by Lord Archer on the culture of violence, they were ignored.

Am I being nave? This is, after all, a party conference, not a seminar. One would hardly expect Mr Howard to have begun his speech with a formal apology for the Tory record on crime. But even in terms of party advantage, the Tories would do well to raise their sights higher.

Many of the criminal justice initiatives of the past 14 years, from the short, sharp shock to electronic tagging, have failed because they were designed as glib, eye-catching baits for party conference applause. It appears that the abolition of the right to silence is the latest panacea. But people have gurgled enough panaceas, and are hungry for more substantial fare.

For the overwhelming impression is that politicians, heavily protected and moving around in limousines, still don't quite understand how serious the crime crisis feels, particularly if you are poor or old or single. The Home Secretary told the conference that 'the biggest threat we face is from terrorists'. Terrorism is an issue, particularly for politicians. But the biggest threat? Not for 99 per cent of the population it isn't.

Nor do my fellow victims of crime want their worry turned into a party football. Labour does not, contrary to what Mr Howard told the Conservatives, blame crime solely on poverty and unemployment. Tony Blair repeatedly emphasises individual responsibility and comes from the same traditionalist moral standpoint as the Home Secretary. To mock his analysis as 'a pastry without a filling, shiny on the outside, empty in the middle' does the struggle against crime no favours. The country is keen to hear politicians standing together against crime, discussing it seriously, not knocking lumps out of one another.

Are the Conservatives serious about crime? It may seem an extraordinary question. But 'serious' means that they must make the imaginative leap beyond glib catchphrases, easy targets and party jibes. It means recognising that there is something degraded in our society and that it may be to do with the Eighties as well as the Sixties.

As a victim of crime, I hope to God the Conservatives are serious. If they are, they will find the electoral rewards are real. But if they want the political benefits, they now need to stop playing politics with crime.