Leading Article: Our tolerance wears thinner

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL PORTILLO, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and, by general consent, a likely future prime minister, spoke on Friday night about 'one of the greatest threats that has ever confronted the British nation' - a threat that was 'more insidious' than any from a foreign power or terrorism. 'It is not an external threat, but an internal one. It comes from amongst us.'

Mr Portillo is a cultivated and intelligent man. One can only assume that, when he wrote his speech, he failed to consider its effect, failed to imagine the demons and fears it might unleash, and, above all, failed to remember that prime ministerial prospects have been ruined before now (Enoch Powell, Keith Joseph) by a single set of ill-judged phrases. We reprint the speech in full on page 2, with its warnings of 'a New British Disease' of cynicism, pessimism, self-doubt, nihilism and defeatism, attributable to that convenient collective villain, 'the chattering classes' or 'the new establishment'. It calls for some kind of national regeneration. It includes a claim that, since Marx and Engels, foreigners 'with anti-establishment views', who have been allowed 'to settle here and develop their ideas', have 'corrupted a fine tradition of national tolerance'. This from a man whose own father came to Britain as a Republican refugee from Franco's Spain. It concludes: 'If defeatism has become the fashion of an elite, it must be thrown out. We must temper our traditional tolerance when confronted by those whose stock-in-trade is to belittle and undermine the fabric of our society.'

What is most extraordinary about the speech is its timing. It comes when people are indeed concerned about the activities of an elite: a governing elite whose corruption, as one scandal succeeds another, seems to approach Italianate proportions. Fathering children through lovers on the side is the stuff of ordinary human frailty; adultery is usually the result of complicated emotions which can never be under certain control (though ministers might have considered that before their onslaught on single mothers). Buying council houses is another matter. One cannot be 'carried away' buying houses; one cannot exchange documents, deposit money or organise loans under the temporary influence of love, lust or alcohol.

The District Auditor's report on Westminster Council - and the separate allegations that Tory MPs benefited from buying and selling council houses in the borough - do more than damage an already discredited government. They suggest that, even at Margaret Thatcher's high noon, the public was being conned. Westminster was hailed as the flagship of Thatcherism. Now it is accused of leaving council flats in marginal wards empty so that blocks could be sold to owner-occupiers, likely to vote Tory. Meantime, the homeless, whose presence on the same local authority's streets are the most visible symbol of the less palatable aspects of Tory government, were either ignored or sent to temporary accommodation. What is alleged in Westminster is a deliberate, covert operation - involving elected politicians, including the then leader, Dame Shirley Porter, and salaried officials - to subvert the democratic process. We knew that the Tories were arrogant. Swallowing their own propaganda, they had come to believe that Labour rule would be such a disaster that they should go to almost any lengths to stop it. But we had not known how arrogant. A similar attitude - that anything was justified to keep the Communists out of power - put Italy on the slippery slope.

Many disliked the rampant greed of the Thatcher years, but at least it looked like honest greed. Now, it seems that it was underlaid by sleaze the whole time. The Westminster allegations, it is true, are denied and may have to be tested in the courts. But if there is cynicism and nihilism, as Mr Portillo claims, he must understand that it is because the British people have lost not just confidence in the political party that has governed them for nearly 15 years, but respect for it, too. And as the scandals pile up - yesterday there were allegations against Wandsworth Council, another Tory flagship - the voters wonder if the party deserved respect in the first place. 'Without respect for others,' Mr Portillo said on Friday, 'self-respect also falls away. A society in which people hold those in authority in contempt, and don't even think much of themselves, is set upon the road to disintegration.' Yes, indeed. But Mr Portillo should think again about where the blame lies.