Leading Article: Tory 'choice' gave us yobs

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THIS TIME LAST year, as the Tory party conference approached, the Prime Minister prepared his 'back-to-basics' campaign. It rebounded on him disastrously because he chose to highlight not just crime, but moral behaviour in general, thus laying himself and his party open to ridicule when MPs and Cabinet ministers were discovered in adultery. This year, he has taken more care, choosing to highlight the 'yob culture' which causes people to be 'jostled, jeered at, made to feel insecure by rowdy or offensive behaviour'. The Prime Minister has presumably calculated that he can rely on Tory MPs not to jostle old ladies in the street.

That is about all that can be said for his speech at Church House, London, on Friday. He looks and sounds, otherwise, like a man in a snowstorm. Like rising crime and increasing use of drugs, yobbery indeed represents, as John Major puts it, a shift in 'the boundaries of acceptable behaviour'. He and his colleagues are apt to blame this on the permissiveness introduced in the 1960s. But to what extent has his own party's philosophy contributed to what he calls 'derision of decent social values'?

It is all very well for Mr Major to demand 'more support for those who contribute to our community'. But Tory rule has encouraged people to see themselves not as members of communities, but as consumers, perpetually calculating personal gain and satisfaction. Parents are to pick and choose schools, for example, according to whether they can deliver a few extra exam grades. People are to 'shop around' for private health and private pensions. Even trade unions are driven to offer individualised services that potential members may take or leave. In other words, under the market individualism that the Tories have promoted for 15 years, people have learnt to derive their identity from what they buy and what they possess, not from where they belong - whether it be family, job, trade union or place.

This is why both crime and the yob culture thrive. Why should people not steal if this is the only way they can consume? Why should they not drink in the street and throw empty cans in the gutter if it suits their individual choice? Why should they have a mind for frightened old ladies if there is no economic advantage in doing so? Mr Major demands more concern for 'our community'. But community is not an abstract thing: it depends on shared activities, shared interests, shared values, usually at a very local level, and on a certain pride in the institutions that embody them. In short, it depends on a degree of collectivism - but collectivism is regarded as a devil of the 1960s and 1970s, which the Tories have tried to exorcise.

In Friday's speech - as in many others - the Prime Minister betrays a nostalgia for the 1950s, the world of his childhood, when it was possible to walk the streets, even in Brixton, without being troubled by the singing and shouting of more than the odd drunk. Yet that world owed almost nothing to the market individualism that his party espouses. Mr Major attended a local authority school, where he drank state-provided milk and ate meals determined by state nutritional standards. If he needed medicine, he went to the National Health Service, if he wanted a book, to the local council library. The water he drank, the coal, gas and electricity that warmed and lighted his home, came from nationalised corporations. The Children's Hour that he enjoyed on the radio was produced by a state-regulated, monopolistic body. The buses that ran up and down the Vauxhall Road as Laker and Lock bowled opponents out at his beloved Oval were run by the London County Council. Many of the boys in his street would have entered apprenticeships of one sort or another - restrictive and exclusive employment contracts based on collectively determined rules that went back to the Middle Ages.

It was a world in which choice was limited and in which the concept of the consumer hardly existed. There can be no return to that world; in many respects, it was already dead by 1979. But Mr Major should recognise that it was all of a piece - if it was a society that seemed stable and certain and secure, where people behaved less selfishly and unpredictably and irresponsibly, that was at least partly because it was a society that restrained (some would say stifled) the excesses of individualism and enterprise. Mr Major's party has already done much to destroy what remains of that society; and, as its attitudes to the railways, the mines and the post offices suggest, it wants to finish the job before too long.