Their threatening behaviour is not, and never was, the issue. Most beggars are huddled, their voices thinly reaching out - and rarely to curse. You get the occasional nasty one. But there is probably less alcohol-induced aggression on the street than in, say, the average newspaper newsroom. You get con artists. But then you get them everywhere. No, the issue as carefully described by Mr Major was basically aesthetic. The term he used was 'eyesore'. Begging was offensive 'to many people who see it'. Beggars look nasty.
And he was right: they do clutter up an image of Britain, sprawling across pretty urban squares and occupying the foreground of ancient cathedral views. Whether the backdrop is 19th-century London or Regency Bath or medieval anywhere, beggars add to the authenticity of the scene, but their presence is a drag. It drags the self- communing pedestrian, worker or tourist down to earth. And the passer-by's gut reaction - an irritated 'ugh' - is what the Prime Minister, with the full authority and ancient splendour of his high office, was appealing to.
He followed with political arguments and rationalisations which, again, many passers-by, only average Samaritans, will share. Don't they have a Welfare State to go to? What do I pay my taxes for? Why can't someone carry them off safely out of sight?
Mr Major's comments were neither a mistake nor atypical of his views. This was the man who urged us, apropos young criminals, to condemn a little more and understand a little less; and who has allowed his ministers to frighten voters with the prospect of further mass immigration. He is following the familiar agenda of the Daily Express. Tactically, it may work.
Mr Major is a politician in trouble, pushing any button that might reconnect him to the instincts of core Tory voters. These instincts are not a mystery. His comments have polarised opinion but, at this stage of the political game, that is a positive advantage, and probably intentional. The European elections, which may decide his future, are notable for their small British turn-out. Here, their outcome can be affected by driving relatively small numbers of people back to their old ballot-box loyalties. If the price for firing up the old faithful is that he disgusts many others then, for the time being, that may be a price worth paying.
Longer term, of course, it may do the Prime Minister harm. More floating voters may come to think that his fabled decency is a quality more written about than witnessed. There was a readiness to lump together the unfortunate and the idle in what he said, a kicking of the down that will have been widely noticed in the quiet corners of the British electorate.
That is his affair and his calculation. The deeper theme in all this is that his handling of the begging issue provides a near-perfect example of what may well be the great cultural sea-change of our times - the long, withdrawing roar of liberalism and its replacement by something older and harsher.
The roar can be heard right across the political spectrum, as well as outside it. It is, partly, the lament of a society which has tried state action, and found that no gateway to paradise; which has also rediscovered the limits of competitive individualism; and which is now turning back to the basic building-blocks of social life, the obligations of the family and of citizenship - mutuality and duty.
This may seem straightforward enough, but it is happening at a time when it is perfectly plausible for two different versions of 'community', right or left, to prevail. Put briefly, either the middle classes could buy their way into private education and health care, fortify their houses, surround their tribal homelands with private security guards and in general turn their backs on people they stigmatise as feckless, criminal riff-raff. Or, attracted by the idea of rebuilding a wider community, they could seek their security by turning outwards to re-engage in social action. Then they might be more tolerant of high taxes and vote for politicians who promised to invest to boost employment and reinforce the Welfare State, albeit in new ways.
Charles Murray, the American social scientist who rose to notoriety for his theory that state welfarism, by encouraging single motherhood, had produced an 'underclass', now speaks of a remoralised British middle class as the 'New Victorians'. The underclass, meanwhile, continues to degenerate until it becomes a 'new rabble' of the uncivilised urban lower orders. Society diverges. The language he uses would recently have been considered unacceptably offensive. No longer.
The special significance of beggars in all this is that they are the 'underclass' group from whom the New Victorians find it hardest to escape. Live where you like, guard your life as rigorously as you can, and you are still likely to pass beggars, brush against them, smell them. Mr Major's 'eyesore' people represent millions more who are, for most of the time, hidden away on housing estates. One model of community would have them swept away; the other would spend a lot more money to try to reintegrate them as productive and useful citizens. The former blames; the latter is ashamed.
So the beggar has a message still. Although these are grossly simplified models, they do represent a real choice. Mr Major's attacks on trendy liberal theorising and Tony Blair's talk of building family values out into the community are both part of the same shift to older, more moral thinking. Neither man is exactly an old-consensus liberal. But their arguments then head off in totally different directions, to drawing up the drawbridge or thundering back across it. Which of these post- liberal visions prevails may be the most important political choice for this generation.Reuse content