Leading Article: A shameful intolerance

When Margaret Thatcher addressed herself to Christian compassion many years ago, there was some concern that she had not got it quite right. "No one would have remembered the Good Samaritan, if he'd only had good intentions," she remarked in 1980. "He had money as well." Christians will have been even more surprised, then, by revised thinking on the matter at Westminster last week. The Good Samaritan, had he been really good, would not have been rushing about with pieces of gold at all. He would have bellowed: "You're damned intolerable! Now be up out of that gutter and on your way, man, before I call the police." Had David MacLean MP been passing by, the Tory Scot might have added: "And get back to Scotland while you're about it." John Prescott, bless his bleeding heart, would probably have bought the fellow a cup of tea. But give him money? When a BBC interviewer suggested last week that he had once been spotted handing a beggar pounds 5, the Labour deputy could scarcely have been more insulted had he been accused of frightening commuters at King's Cross.

So open season has been declared on beggars. The wider target, however, would seem to be that other ugly blight on Britain: tolerance. This is an odd thing, for tolerance is something the British have always rather prided themselves on. It was, quaint as it seems, considered until recently a virtue. Now, we are told that zero tolerance - or, in plain English, intolerance - is an essential of good citizenship, and politicians of all hues are falling over themselves to pledge zero tolerance on anything from marijuana to schools with modest GCSE results. This is quite a coup for a concept that began life as a buzz word in 1982 in an American magazine article. The writers, George Kelling and James Q Wilson, thought perhaps if we stamped out petty offences, bad things wouldn't happen - a kind of "look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves" approach to policing. Americans are keen on catchphrases, and academics, looking to make a buck on the celebrity lecture circuit, can make quite a splash if they come up with a good one. And so zero tolerance was born, and - like Three Strikes and You're Out - we duly saw fit to import it. We should be sure we understand precisely what it means. If we are not careful, liberalism will soon have become a dirty word.

We have grown accustomed to hysteria from the right about the "tyranny" of political correctness. Now we are seeing a sort of counter-PC version, where compassion, or tolerance, or concern for the welfare of others, is becoming more offensive than molesting your secretary. When the Bishop of Edinburgh endorsed the Labour Party on Friday, the BBC reported that he "admitted" voting Labour all his life. The Good Samaritan, presumably, would today be described as a "do-gooder". And it is right, Tony Blair told the Big Issue, to be intolerant of homeless people. If New Labour say what they mean, and mean what they say, we should be deeply concerned about the language now being employed.

Except that Blair, as usual, will protest that we have got him all wrong. What he meant to say was that we mustn't tolerate graffiti and beggars and other unsightly nasties, not for the benefit of people like him who feel a bit frightened at King's Cross, but for poor people who have to live in places like that and the beggars themselves. We must crack down on the underclass's every misdemeanour for their own good. It would be nice to trust his motives. But in the absence of concrete policy proposals for real homes and jobs for these people - using money from those King's Cross commuters' pockets, if need be - it is hard to know what he really has in mind.

He and Jack Straw are too busy alarming us with "aggressive" beggar stories to explain. These wicked Bladerunner bogeymen are, apparently, prowling every street - though, strangely, one never meets their victims. What possible reason could Labour have for stirring up fear and loathing where once was compassion and concern? The same, perhaps, that prompted Peter Lilley to sing his welfare scrounger list. The beggars should be more frightened of Mr Blair than he of they. When a politician is preparing to give a group a good kicking, he is careful to make sure no one will feel pity before he lays in the boot.