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Leading Article: Britain's changing virtues and vices

THE PRIME Minister has given us another glimpse of his view of quintessential Britain. Last April it involved long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer and Shakespeare still read in every school. On Sunday, he told James Naughtie on Radio 4 about 'certain lasting values that are instinctive to the British. Everyone knows what they are: respect, courtesy, obedience to the law, self-discipline, no-nonsense decisions between right and wrong.'

Over the past 20 or 30 years these had, he reckoned, been pushed aside, taken for granted, neglected, and needed to be placed 'smack in the middle of our public life again'. His interviewer respectfully allowed this catalogue to go unchallenged. But his comments must have suggested to many listeners that the Prime Minister lives in an unreal world, to which each day must bring cruel discoveries.

Take, for example, that basic British instinct for obedience to the law. It was variously pushed aside, taken for granted or neglected by the hundreds of thousands who, in the year to June 1993, committed an estimated 15 million crimes in England and Wales, of which a record 5.7 million offences were actually reported. Plenty of no-nonsense decisions there between right and wrong - all, alas, in favour of wrong. Yet according to Mr Major, these values are 'known to everyone in the country, and understood by them'.

They include, naturally, the fine old instinct for self-discipline, so prominently in evidence when lager-soaked English football fans run amok in some hapless European capital, or drunken holiday- makers throw up all over the Costa del Sol.

The point need not be belaboured. Mr Major seeks to strike a chord when he evokes British virtues associated with earlier eras. But in doing so he not only sounds insular, nostalgic and out of touch, but also makes Britain seem a much less interesting country than it has become.

In reality, its virtues are no more immutable than its vices. Thanks in part to latter-day Conservative radicalism and mould-breaking, Britain's strengths include an unexpected degree of adaptability to new labour practices and technologies; and a sharp decline in deference and respect has played an important part in the social revolution of the past decade.

Mr Major should update his list. It not only strains credulity, but also undersells modern Britain.