Leading Article: Nobs can be as damaging as yobs

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR must have thought that his call for 'a real national effort to build an 'anti- yob' culture' was unlikely to rebound against the Conservatives in the same way as last year's 'back to basics' crusade. That was followed by damaging revelations of sexual by-play involving Tory ministers and MPs. At least, the Prime Minister must have reckoned, his colleagues were unlikely to be caught tearing through town centres, beer cans aloft, chanting football slogans and intimidating the locals.

Yet just three days later there was the new Tory Party chairman, Jeremy Hanley, initially failing to recognise a prime example of yobbish behaviour: the riot at Saturday's super-middleweight title fight in Birmingham starring Nigel Benn. To dismiss scenes of violence seen across the nation on television as 'just exuberance' so soon after Mr Major's call for an anti-yob alliance was politically inept. Embarrassingly, Mr Hanley subsequently felt obliged to amend his reaction to one of total condemnation.

Mr Major's new slogan could continue to boomerang, at a subtler level. As generally used, the word yobbishness covers a range of loutish, anti-social behaviour, including ghetto-blasting, litter-dropping, graffiti-scribbling, threatening behaviour and actual violence. All of these are associated - though not exclusively - with lower socio-economic groups. It is rash for a Prime Minister to condemn those forms of anti-social behaviour without demonstrating a matching awareness of other, more discreet forms closer to home.

Take the continuing case involving allegations of insider dealing against Lord Archer. The former deputy chairman of the Tory party has himself admitted that he made a 'grave error' in allowing his name to be associated with the purchase and sale of shares in Anglia Television - for which a takeover bid was soon afterwards announced. The issue is simple: he should never have considered buying shares in a company of which his wife was a director, either for himself or anyone else, at such a moment.

The Archer case comes at the end of an unhappy 12 months for the Tories on the moral front. Leaving aside the sexual behaviour of MPs, arguably a private matter, there has been public disquiet over the number of paid consultancies taken on by MPs, and over the spectacle of former Cabinet ministers taking well-paid seats on the boards of industries they have privatised.

Just as yobbish behaviour sometimes has no easily identifiable victims, some of these trends in public life may seem to hurt no one. Yet cumulatively they both change the quality of life in this country for the worse. It is too simplistic to blame them all on that handy scapegoat, the so-called Thatcherite philosophy of consumerism and individualism. Football hooliganism, a distilled form of yobbishness, was at its worst in the late Seventies when Labour was in power. Similarly it was the Conservatives, not Labour, who made insider trading a crime.

There are social movements that transcend borders and governments, but in which governments find themselves caught up, for better or worse. With his anti-yob rallying cry, Mr Major may be articulating one such shift in attitudes. But if he wishes to avoid charges of hypocrisy, he should balance it by showing he is conscious of the less obvious but in some ways more corrosive forms of aberrant behaviour practised by his own party's natural supporters.