Leading Article: Cuckoo in clubland

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK, at the Carlton Club, John Major outlined once more his curiously nostalgic ideal of England - local bakers' shops, Rotary Clubs, the parent-teacher association, meals on wheels, Winnie the Pooh. This is our England - 'our suburbs and small towns and villages' (Mr Major's words, our italics). This is the lost England of Enid Blyton's novels, where uncles were jolly, picnic hampers were overflowing and policemen rode bicycles - a private England whose citizens went harmlessly about voluntary and neighbourly activities, without bothering their heads over politics. (Note that parent-teacher associations are denounced by the Secretary of State for Education as 'Neanderthal' when they dare to criticise Government policy.)

The 'big problem', according to Mr Major, lies in 'the inner cities'. (Not, naturally, our inner cities.) In these alien places, 'businesses have fled . . . vandalism is rife and property uncared for . . . violent crime makes a misery of old people's lives'. If the inhabitants of Toxteth or Moss Side were to form Rotary Clubs or read Winnie the Pooh, all would be well. Alas, they have insisted on embracing politics, and particularly socialism. 'Socialism,' proclaimed Mr Major, after nearly 14 years of Conservative government, 'must face up to its failures. It must recognise the harsh truth that it is where, over many years, the State has intervened most heavily, that local communities have been most effectively destroyed.'

Only the familiar Private Eye parody can do justice to the emptiness of Mr Major's analysis. (How to escape crime, unemployment and poverty. 1. Vote Conservative 2. Er . . . 3. That's it.) Tony Blair, Labour's home affairs spokesman, has dealt speedily and effectively with the Prime Minister's assumptions. Since 1979, he has pointed out, the biggest increases in crime have not been in the Labour- controlled cities, but in rural areas such as Gloucestershire, Norfolk, Devon and Cornwall, where Labour-controlled councils are as plentiful as fornication in Enid Blyton.

Mr Major's speech attracted most attention for its brief suggestion of some form of 'workfare' for the long-term unemployed. But all his Government seems to envisage is requiring the jobless to clean beaches or deliver meals on wheels in return for their dole. More radical solutions - which would involve subsidising, directly or indirectly, jobs in the private and public sectors - are apparently ruled out, partly because they would be too expensive, partly because they would interfere with the labour market.

They are also ruled out because, as Mr Major's speech shows, he and his ministers do not really believe that unemployment matters that much. He insists that there is no link between unemployment and crime. Yet only a fool would deny that, if nothing else, the lack of a job allows more time for violence, vandalism and burglary. Crime also brings rewards - money and possessions for burglars and thieves, sheer excitement for joyriders and vandals. Self-control and self-denial were not the dominant themes of the 1980s. Individual preferences were supreme; there was, in Margaret Thatcher's notorious words, 'no such thing as society'. The Tories glorified the market and implied that those who failed to participate were inadequate.

Crime, to many poor and unemployed people, is a logical response, based on a simple calculation about their best chances of acquiring money and status. What are the chances of finding a job? Low and falling. What are the chances of committing a crime and escaping undetected? High and rising. It is the kind of cost-benefit analysis that Tory ministers ought to admire. And, when the line between right and wrong is so blurred in the nation's boardrooms and in Whitehall offices (British Airways, Maxwell, Matrix- Churchill, for example), why should the unemployed worry about morality? The insult to them is not, as Mr Major suggests, from those who see a link between crime and unemployment but from those who, like him, believe that they cannot follow simple logic.