Leading Article: Conduct in a grand English tradition

IT IS an odd notion, widely put about yesterday, that the behaviour of English football fans in the Netherlands and the England XI's dismal performance in Rotterdam in some way damaged this country's reputation. The Sun, for example, thundered: 'How much longer are we going to allow mindless morons to drag our name through the gutters of Europe?'

Yet contrary to the preconceptions of many Britons - in Westminster as well as Wapping - Her Majesty's subjects are not an object of general admiration on the Continent. To reduce further their already low repute, far worse conduct would have been required.

It is particularly hard to see why the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, as well as the Prime Minister, should have deplored the display of loutishness. They were, after all, simply expressing in their robust way the view of foreigners widely on view at the recent Conservative Party conference, notably by Mr Howard's fellow right-winger, Peter Lilley. 'We have all too many home-grown scroungers,' the Secretary of State for Social Security said. 'But it's beyond the pale when foreigners come here expecting our handouts.' He promised to end the 'crook's tour' of social security offices by EC visitors.

Sir Edward Heath dubbed Mr Lilley's speech 'the nastiest form of petty nationalism'. Lacking the minister's gift of eloquence, the England fans felt obliged to express the same sentiments in the only language they knew: violence.

It is equally puzzling that John Major, leader of a party that hymns and defends British traditions, should regard the Rotterdam violence as a 'disgrace and embarrassment' to this country. The fans were behaving in the violent, drunken and chauvinist manner associated with the English at home and abroad over many war-torn centuries. If government ministers want less-privileged Britons to treat foreigners with more respect, they should set a better example.