It may be true that no British government can do anything about the rising crime rate; it is certain that this Government can do nothing. We have had 14 years of a tough, law'n'order administration, massive increases in spending on the police, and party conferences slavering at Willie Whitelaw's promise of short, sharp shocks for young people with tattoos, ear- rings and excessively short haircuts. Yet we continue to burgle, mug and vandalise each other with mounting intensity. After a brief and barely detectable statistical plateau in the mid-Eighties, the vertiginous post-war rise in the crime figures has returned - 16 and 17 per cent in 1990 and 1991. Expect celebrations next month when the 1992 figures come out - the increase will be down to between 5 and 10 per cent - but do not be fooled. The total figure is historically massive and the trend glaringly obvious.
The British can reasonably take this badly. Not long ago we saw ourselves, with some justification, as inhabitants of the most peaceful, law-abiding nation on Earth. Throughout the Victorian age crime fell, bottoming out around the turn of the century. For the first half of this century the figures remained low - last year's increase alone was one and a half times more than the total for 1950.
But then the curve of the graph turned out to be a 'U'. The rise since the Fifties has been shocking, so steep as to be a wild statistical improbability. And clear-up rates are abysmal - around one in ten for burglaries. In London the clear-ups per police officer are so low that some wag has suggested it would be less fuss to disband the Met and the relevant departments of the Home Office and give the liberated cash direct to the victims.
The result is a climate of paranoia and cynicism. People are afraid and expect nothing of the police. Mr Major has in the past tried to wriggle off this politically dangerous, feel-bad hook by stressing that much of the increase is in petty crime not in crimes of violence. But that just means having to watch yet another policeman shrug his shoulders when your video or car stereo is nicked. Anyway, all crime is violence - to be a victim, unless you have no imagination at all, is to be linked to the entire culture of aggression, intrusion, injustice and destruction. Bland disclaimers on television programmes such as Crimewatch UK that the crimes they have so ghoulishly and lovingly reconstructed are not to be worried about are absurd. Not to be neurotic about crime is crazy.
Confronted with all this, there are two politically polarised responses. The right will say it is all about declining moral standards. Correct values are not being taught by parents and schools. Individuals must be held utterly responsible for their criminal acts. The left will say it is about social inequality and deprivation. Big wealth differentials combine with unemployment and discrimination to foment hopelessness and crime. To deal with the criminal we must first understand him.
Neither of these cases is remotely provable. For the right, Professor Christie Davies has produced an ingenious inverse correlation between crime figures and Sunday school attendances. For the left, Professor Jock Young has provided evidence that Tory administrations increase crime by increasing inequality. But these games are about evidential scraps recruited in the name of rigid prejudice. The crime figures are a big, shiny, gilded mirror in which criminologists and sociologists see precisely what they want to see.
Even if either explanation were right, neither offers workable short- or medium-term policy options. If the moral climate has collapsed, it could take at least a generation to rebuild it. If the economy has to be regenerated to level out inequalities and produce jobs - well, we all know how improbable that is. Furthermore, it may be impossible to recreate a moral consensus in an advanced, plural democracy. Nobody has ever done it and there are good reasons for thinking it cannot be done. Equally, it may be, as some American academics have suggested, that high crime is in fact an index of economic success - the richer you get, the more criminal you get, and that is virtually the reverse of the left's argument.
This leaves us racing up the side of the U-curve, bewildered and defenceless. Behind us lies the golden age of peace, morality and Dixon of Dock Green; ahead lie the lawless inner-city 'neighbourhoods' of the United States, wealthy 'communities' with armed guards, and Dirty Harry. Finally we crouch in fear and mistrust while an embattled police force struggles to do nothing more ambitious than keep the lid on.
Any British government would, therefore, appear to be on a hiding to nothing on the matter of crime. The best bet for the Tories might have been simply to keep quiet. In any case, their fascination with crime has always been anomalous. Their natural constituents in the shires and the rich suburbs are the least affected by crime. However bad the middle classes may feel about the incoming tide of hoodlums, most violence and most theft is self-inflicted by the working class.
Yet the problem with keeping quiet is that the middle class is articulate and increasingly frightened, and has more to lose. Equally, there are now signs that working-class anger can be mobilised on the issue. Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary, has found, from his surgeries and party members in his own constituency, that crime has become the single most pressing anxiety and is suddenly generating a real political demand - reasonably enough since, if the middle classes are being hurt by crime, then the working classes are in agony.
The surfacing of such demands among Labour voters suggests a transformation. On crime, the old ideological left was prone to anti-police rants, lectures on sociology for the victims, and caring and counselling for the perpetrators. Crime in their book is simply a Tory, anti-working- class issue. But if the real, living, breathing constituents on the council estates and in the inner cities are claiming the issue as their own, then the party will have to think of something new to say.
Mr Blair is trying to do this. Inside the party he has the political instincts of the old left to deal with, but externally he is on solid ground. These constituency demands can now be combined with the failure of the Tories on crime, the disaffection and demoralisation of the police and the fears of the middle classes to form a persuasive package. Further piquancy is added by the fact that in the last three weeks Mr Blair's own car has been broken into twice and his house once.
But what, in the light of history, can he say or do? His starting position is resolutely centrist. He accepts parts of the right's case, though reinterprets the collapse of moral standards as a collapse of communal cohesion. But even going this far is something of a revolution - hearing a Labour frontbencher using words such as 'respect' and 'discipline', as Mr Blair does repeatedly, is like finding oneself transported back to the Attlee years. On the other hand, he sees that economic factors can destroy this cohesion and cannot believe that the steep rise since 1988 has nothing to do with the recession.
In the short term, turning this centrism into policies will be difficult, and in the long term there is no reason to suppose any such policies will have the slightest effect. Nevertheless, it is clear that Mr Blair has glimpsed the beginnings of sense on the crime issue.
He has seen that the moral-economic polarity is inadequate and that any serious analysis must involve complex interaction between the two. From a political perspective, he has seen that crime has the potential to widen the appeal of the Opposition. After the last election, received wisdom said that Labour was stuck with a minority constituency of losers. We had entered what J K Galbraith calls the culture of contentment, in which the two- thirds of the population in work and reasonably well off would always outvote the remaining one-third. But both sides of the electorate are suffering from crime. And if the complacent two-thirds are sufficiently shaken by the failure of their government, they might reasonably decide to give Mr Blair and his colleagues a chance.
Mr Blair is being politically acute. Whether he can be socially effective is an open question. The remedy you choose still depends, for the time being, on temperament. Either the figures are the price we pay for wealth and we can only secure and insure ourselves as best we can; or they are symptomatic of social dissolution, of moral and cultural fragmentation. I incline to the latter, precisely because there really was a golden age not so long ago when the British were not habitually vicious towards each other's bodies and property. Something, very frighteningly and very rapidly, has gone wrong. Pretending otherwise is no longer an option.