Leading Article: Is John Major a family man?

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JOHN MAJOR'S 'radical' social agenda will be measured by its effectiveness, not by the column inches it attracts. If cohesive family life is regarded as the bedrock of society, then initiatives should be rated according to how much they bolster the family. If they strengthen that institution, the Prime Minister can expect electoral reward. But he would be mistaken to imagine that exhortation and stigmatisation of 'out' groups will achieve much beyond headlines, followed by disillusionment. Nor will appeals to 'traditional values' fill voters' wallets and distract them from unease about the economy.

The policy shift towards social reform is plainly more than just the polemic of the party conference. Leaks of a Downing Street document indicate that social workers and teachers are next on the hit-list in a concerted attack on post-war liberalism. Recent experience of that reactionary strategy is uninspiring. Michael Howard's enthusiasm for filling prisons will not solve crime, while Peter Lilley's scapegoating of single parents is likely only to make life harder for an already hard-pressed group.

These initiatives have failed to draw on the great tradition of progressive Conservative social policy. Politicians such as Peel, Shaftesbury and Disraeli pioneered legislation that addressed the real needs of the population in curbing crime, improving housing, tackling poor working conditions and transforming public health. Such policies really helped families.

Serious and useful initiatives in social policy ensured that the Tories won long periods in government. In comparison, the efforts of Mr Howard and Mr Lilley look superficial and short-lived. They appear to be inspired by political rather than practical ends: to unite the party and to win back from Labour the law and order/family agenda that the Tories have traditionally regarded as their own. As Lord Salisbury said of Disraeli, that other social reformer, Mr Major sometimes appears like 'a statesman whose only political principle is that the party must on no account be broken up'.

The new right-wing social agenda will appeal to some voters. Rising crime and social breakdown are particularly worrying to those who made their first, halting progress up the economic ladder during the Eighties. Many bought homes for the first time. A clampdown on crime will probably be generally popular, but attempts by government to regulate personal mores are likely to be rejected by most people as highly presumptuous.

The Opposition has been subdued temporarily by the barrage of initiatives. But, come election time, the Prime Minister will have to offer proof that he is doing more than striking tough attitudes and playing to the nostalgia gallery. He will have to demonstrate clear improvement in crime statistics. If single mothers remain trapped at home for want of child care and nursery education and if millions of children are still living in poverty, Mr Major will find it difficult to present himself as a family man.