In a time warp with Granny's handbag

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THE political atmosphere in which Margaret Thatcher was deposed is described by her as one of 'funk and frivolity' - a nice phrase, possibly even from her pen. Funk and frivolity] It trips well off the tongue. It shouts well. It comes well from between clenched teeth. We are a country sunk in funk and frivolity, whereas not so long ago we had . . .

. . . We had a Prime Minister who, in January 1990, was trying to create a secret alliance with France against West Germany, and who had in her handbag - her handbag] - a map 'showing various configurations of Germany in the past, which was not altogether reassuring about the future' - a visual aid which she slipped under the nose of President Mitterrand, in an effort to stiffen his sinews against German reunification.

And no doubt Mr Mitterrand played her along for a bit, during these 'private meetings', and even authorised some diplomatic and military talks on the subject of 'checking the German juggernaut'.

And then one morning he must have woken up and thought: this is utterly crazy; eveyone can see that Germany is reuniting, whatever we do, and as it happens I already have a strong relationship with Bonn; why on earth should I listen to any more Loony Tunes from Maggie? Why should I patiently absorb any more lessons in historical geography? Why should I pore politely over any more of these maps?

So Germany reunited and Margaret Thatcher fell. Out went the Higher Battiness. In came funk and frivolity, an era which continued, mysteriously enough, until the Tory party conference this year, when Thatcher decided to let it be known that her legacy was in safe hands after all. Everything was fine now under Major. The Tories had returned to the True Path.

It's interesting how few of the professions agree with that judgement. The teachers do not agree. The doctors are alarmed. The police are hostile. And now the judges are sticking their wigs above the parapet and comprehensively rubbishing both the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary. Given that the clergy deserted long ago, and that the only thing holding back the Tory press is a lack of a clear successor, one wonders where to turn to find a government supporter.

You would think that a commitment to build six new prisons might have been presented by a minister in such a way as to command universal support, instead of heralding a public rift between the upper reaches of government and the legal profession. But the party conference applause died swiftly away at Blackpool and we are left now with the unfamiliar voices of indignant judges.

Not everything they have said commands easy assent, as the Daily Mail was quick to recognise last week when it mocked Lord Woolf's suggestion that people should be fined for failing to protect their property.

Noteworthy, too, is the allegation by judges that both government and opposition are guilty of turning the administration of justice into a political football. It is true that campaigning by Tony Blair on the issue of law and order put the Tories under pressure - you could see that Kenneth Clarke, in his old job as Home Secretary, was unnerved to find Blair engaged in this game of grandmother's footsteps.

Labour's Clintonian tactic in not letting the Tories monopolise the debate on law and order is obviously just that - a tactic. But it is also well within the terms of its remit: Labour is indeed obliged to have a position on the issues normally covered by the Home Office. How could it not do?

And the Tories are obliged to reply to the Labour challenge. But what nobody obliged them to do was, for instance, to take the opposite view from the Runciman Royal Commission report on the right to silence. They had commissioned the report. They could perfectly well have listened to its majority opinion on that issue. Nobody obliged the Tories to turn a fair and straightforward political challenge into an excuse for recrudescence of the kind seen at Blackpool in the speeches of Major, Howard and Lilley. That recrudescence, welcomed yesterday by Baroness Thatcher as a fundamental policy shift, was the government's own idea.

At the centre of it, as re- emphasised last week by both Major and Howard, was the simple populist concept: let's lock more poeple up] If they're locked up, they can no longer prey on the community. So locking them up works. And so that's what we're going to do.

The judges replied by condemning this sort of talk. Yes, locking the criminal up does take him out of society, but this does not mean it works if, by the end of the sentence, you have turned a petty criminal into a hardened one. Nor did the judges believe that long sentences had a deterrent effect. They didn't believe that the serving of the sentence did, of itself, have a deterrent value. They believe in the current policy of using prison sentences as a last resort, and keeping prison terms short.

Mr Howard came back yesterday with a new line, to the effect that he had been misunderstood by the judges: it was not by a change of sentencing policy that he was going to fill up his six new prisons, but rather by securing more convictions in the first place.

All one can say to this is that if the judges were mistaken, then it is not perhaps surprising the general public also received the impression that by talking of locking more people up, they were talking about a change of sentencing policy. No doubt Mr Howard's real aim was to give one impression to the conference and general public, and another, quite distinct, impression to the judiciary.

Or is he beginning to back down? Was the Higher Battiness at Blackpool an aberration, and are we veering back again to Funk and Frivolity? Lady Thatcher says no - we're on the True Path: Granny's still around, and will not be shut up. The government will be kept on the straight and narrow.

The depressing thing about this era - whether funk or batty - is that it feels as if it should be a post- Tory era, and yet there seems to be no way of putting the administration out of its misery. A dozen and a half Lloyd's bankruptcies in Parliament would do it neatly, but they have been slow to materialise.

And so we are forced into a kind of inner emigration, to live mentally in the post- Tory world, while acknowledging that in the world of conventional time there are still Tories in power. Granny is still there in the shadows, and her fantasy battles are pursued. But the general public has moved on into a new era, and is waiting for conventional time to catch up.