Leading Article: A throwback to an earlier age

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The Independent Online
HISTORY, as Hegel observed, tends to be cyclical. In the early Eighties, Margaret Thatcher capitalised on popular disgust with the overweening, self- serving trade unions that had held the nation to ransom in the Winter of Discontent preceding her election victory in 1979. The trade unions, in particular the public-sector unions, had grown too powerful. To general applause, she gave the pendulum a massive heave.

But by the end of the decade, she was generally seen to have gone too far. Having become a liability to her party, she was forced out of office. As demonstrated once more by present divisions within the Cabinet over public spending, some of her followers have still not grasped that her era is over.

One effect of her reforms was to break the post-war consensus on the welfare state. The excesses into which her own ideological zeal gradually led her had the effect of polarising political debate. The same arrogance that produced the poll tax persuaded her government that the NHS could be reformed - for many reasons a desirable move - without an adequate programme of experiment and public education. It is now very difficult for a fair-minded outsider to reach an objective view of the merits of the entire NHS reform programme.

John Major's Cabinet represents a swing back to a more caring brand of Conservatism. The party's liberal wing is in the ascendant. While masochistically adhering to some unpopular Thatcherite proposals, such as the privatisation of British Rail, the Government takes a more compassionate view of society, and is markedly more consumerist in approach. Unfortunately, it is faced with a public-spending deficit of about pounds 50bn, and is therefore obliged either to reduce outgoings or increase revenue. That requirement has been seized on by such right-wingers as Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, and John Redwood, the new Welsh Secretary. They have used the budget deficit to pursue an outdated political agenda while pandering to popular prejudices based on ignorance.

Hence Mr Redwood's absurd suggestion, rejected even by Mr Lilley, that single mothers should be denied benefits until absent fathers have been pressed to return home to support them. Any divorced members of the Cabinet could as sensibly be told to return to their first wives.

The Cabinet's liberal majority knows just how alarmed the public is by ill-considered proposals that jeopardise the health and well-being of the poorest third of society, boost crime and increase homelessness: the well-intentioned but inadequately prepared closing of most mental hospitals being a case in point. Kenneth Clarke, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, has made it clear that he believes in public spending, and is prepared to increase taxation to fund it. In the longer term, it seems certain that trends in employment and demography, not to mention the competitiveness of Western economies, will require structural alterations to social security benefits. But public opinion has swung heavily against hasty measures that seem to hit the weakest members of society. The Government must listen before it acts.