THE GENERAL election campaign is under way. Wounded by Iraq, the Government is proud that it has made us all richer and is slowly attending to public services. The churches, on the other hand, are beginning to ask: "What's it all for?" The issue has been raised most sharply by the Salvation Army in recent years. They are a tightly focused, professional provider of services to Britain's poorest people. So it is a surprise to find them dealing in a sophisticated way with the questions that arise from modern prosperity.
It was even more of a surprise to hear what David Willetts, the Conservative spokesman on work and pensions, said recently at a Salvation Army event:
The danger is no longer the encroaching state. The danger is the encroaching market. The market threatens my children, everything from their teeth to their innocence . . . as a modern Conservative I find myself in a dilemma - I am a free marketeer, with children.
It would be easy to mock this Damascus Road experience. Does Willetts mean that greed was good till he had kids, and that the Thatcher episode was all a horrible mistake? But what he is suggesting is that the old problems of poverty have been somewhat overlaid by new questions arising from prosperity. We now enjoy an incredible array of choices, and suffer an equally stunning array of suggestions as to what choices we might make. It's the omnipotent, omnipresent advertising phenomenon that makes the suggestions - no longer an industry, but a planetary atmosphere.
I love the ads, but don't really want the stuff. That's because I live in a mainly child-free zone. My grandson is oblivious to it all. But he's only eight months old. So, following the Willetts trail, I took a look at Saturday morning television, and talked a bit to parents. They confessed to lots of devious schemes to keep their kids away from the telly.
The channel they tend to fear most is the Cartoon Channel, on cable. It is wall-to-wall graphic violence, interspersed with ads selling Spiderman junk, hamburgers and sweeties. But the ads are kept out of the programmes. Not so at the posh end of public service broadcasting, BBC2's Saturday Show. Here there are no ads, and so no divide between product and programme. The audience was offered the whole range of Spiderman tie-in products. Then on to a phone-in competition to win a "fabulous trip to LA". The audience seemed to be about 14.
So teeth are certainly under threat, …