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". …