OPINION: Public affairs should listen to the public

If it is the PRO’s responsibility to spot trends and advise clients on the way the wind is blowing and how to handle it, we ought to sit up and take notice of Tory leader William Hague’s appearance before the Police Federation. He announced his intention to ’challenge the failed post-war liberal consensus’ on law and order. I am less interested in his reason for reclaiming the law and order party tag for the Tories than his understanding of trends in public thinking.

If it is the PRO’s responsibility to spot trends and advise clients

on the way the wind is blowing and how to handle it, we ought to sit up

and take notice of Tory leader William Hague’s appearance before the

Police Federation. He announced his intention to ’challenge the failed

post-war liberal consensus’ on law and order. I am less interested in

his reason for reclaiming the law and order party tag for the Tories

than his understanding of trends in public thinking.



In analysing this, I want to go back to 1945 when Clement Attlee

established for Labour a new economic and social consensus. The declared

aims were full employment, after the misery of the 1930s, and proper

social provision for the people, notably through the NHS, founded in

1948. The problem then was to reconcile full employment with low

inflation and a competitive economy and universal health and welfare

provision, free at the point of use, with economy with taxpayers’ money.

The unions abused the opportunities presented by full employment and the

rest of us the NHS with a ’cascade of pills down the nation’s throat’,

as Aneurin Bevan, the architect of the NHS described it.



The economic consensus, shared effectively by Labour and Tory alike, was

consumed in the flames of the winter of discontent in 1978-79. Margaret

Thatcher created a new consensus based on financial prudence and

enterprise which Tony Blair has more or less espoused. But the social

welfare consensus lived on because Mrs Thatcher thought the NHS was

fundamentally a good thing, although it must be made more efficient. It

is now pretty doddery in its old age with the exponential advance of

medical science and a rapidly ageing population. Even Labour has been

driven to embrace private health care and is beginning to realise the

state cannot alone provide a decent pension for its citizens. The second

consensus’s days are numbered but nobody dares pronounce it kaput.



The third - liberal - consensus in social behaviour is younger. It was

the product of the collapse of taboos and restraint in the 1960s. Its

treatment of criminals as victims of society who were to be reclaimed

rather than punished was, I am sure, well meant. But there can be no

doubt it has failed. Crime has increased tenfold between 1950 and 1993

and has doubled since 1979. But nobody until now - apart perhaps from

Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard - has proclaimed its failure. Mr

Hague’s announcement does not necessarily mean that we are entering what

liberals would describe as a new era of intolerance (of anti-social

behaviour). Real reform, as distinct from the pussyfooting which most

’reforms’ add up to, is a long time in gestation. But the Tory leader’s

boldness suggests we are closer to zero tolerance of crime than we are

to replacing the welfare state. Those in public affairs should ponder on

these things.



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