Leading Article: Major is begging the question

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR's remarks on begging were planned for political effect. Since making them he has not tried to qualify or withdraw. Indeed, he has made it clear that he stands by them. He also believes in them, but that is not the main point: politicians decide when and how to express their beliefs. The remarks must, therefore, be taken as a calculated attempt to garner votes in the election campaign for the European Parliament.

He has clearly decided that there is no point in reaching out to the floating voters of the centre, who have now receded beyond reach. Instead, he must concentrate on persuading the disgruntled loyalists of the right to shake off their sulks and drag themselves to the polling stations.

These people will not need much intelligence to see that supporting a Conservative candidate for the European Parliament will do nothing to reduce the number of beggars on the streets. Nor will it even help Mr Major in those constituencies where the local candidate is one of those who explicitly endorse European federalism. But these considerations are probably irrelevant for Mr Major. What he is seeking is not support for policies but a vote of atavistic loyalty to save the party from humiliation.

Has he got it right? His remarks have certainly struck a chord that reverberates not only among Tories but across the political spectrum. Many people are disturbed and sometimes frightened by the grimy, importuning hands that reach out to them on the streets. Some feel guilty, others angry. Most probably believe the taxes they pay should take care of the problem. Few, however, would assert that the majority of beggars are crooks or work-shy, even though some are. Enough beggars have now been interviewed by journalists for a more complex, but no less distressing, picture to emerge.

It is not so much what Mr Major said but how he said it. His lack of human sympathy or understanding and his refusal to admit that the Government bears a share of responsibility for the number of beggars on the streets have probably alienated as many people as they have attracted. He has infuriated respectable charities, which are closer to the problem than he appears to be. He has given Labour politicians a field day in portraying him as heartless. He has legitimised a shift of the campaign to domestic issues, which may have been one of his aims in view of his party's vulnerability on Europe.

But he has also made a statement about himself that he may come to regret. He appears to have put aside his promise of 'Conservatism with a human face' and a return to one- nation Toryism. In its place comes a spokesman for the basic instincts of a section of the party that turns away from people who cannot or will not find a place in conventional society. This creates a wide opening for the more sophisticated thinking on social problems that now pervades the upper reaches of the Labour Party. Even in the basest tactical terms, Mr Major has made a mistake.