Can the Government convince Britain to feel secure again?

Which institution faces the greatest PR challenge in 1996? President Bill Clinton, to demonstrate that he is a real world leader? Sinn Fein/IRA, to convince us that they believe in peace? Shell, to recover a reputation for environmental sensitivity after its Brent Spar and Nigerian misfortunes? The EC, to become the listening community, which might thus kill stone dead the elitist plan for a federal United States of Europe? Or ‘New’ Labour, to prove it is not just a spin doctor’s confection?

Which institution faces the greatest PR challenge in 1996? President

Bill Clinton, to demonstrate that he is a real world leader? Sinn

Fein/IRA, to convince us that they believe in peace? Shell, to recover a

reputation for environmental sensitivity after its Brent Spar and

Nigerian misfortunes? The EC, to become the listening community, which

might thus kill stone dead the elitist plan for a federal United States

of Europe? Or ‘New’ Labour, to prove it is not just a spin doctor’s

confection?



All of these are formidable tasks. But, in my book, the greatest

challenge confronts John Major’s Government. It is 17 months, at best,

from a General Election, 32 points behind in the polls, and has lost all

knack of securing credit for its good works. Everything it touches seems

to turn to dross.



This is a potentially terminal condition for any Government. Unless

treated quickly, it is almost certainly lethal for one that has been in

office for nearly 17 years. Worse still, the Government has not been

able to command good marks since the speculators removed us from the ERM

on white Wednesday in mid-September 1992.



I got the measure of its problem when, to mark Mr Major’s fifth

anniversary in office on Budget day, I rang the Treasury with a simple

question: ‘How much, if at all,’ I asked, ‘is the average family better

off than when Mr Major won the 1992 election?’



The Treasury defined the average family as one earner with two children

and a pounds 33,000 mortgage. Such households, it said, were pounds

1,170 a year, or pounds 22.50 a week to the good in net real terms -

that is, taking everything into account, including inflation and all

forms of taxation. And they have more, perhaps pounds 4 a week, to come

after Chancellor Kenneth Clarke’s much maligned Budget last week.



Yet, no one believes they are better off than three years ago. The

country is in a grumpy mood, brooding on its perceived misfortunes

instead of counting its blessings. And the Tories seem incapable of

coaxing them out of it.



Why? Have we grown so sophisticated that, however better off we know we

are, we hold the Government responsible for denying us the jam and

clotted cream on our scones by raising taxation to minimise the

borrowing needed to finance higher spending? Maybe. But why then do we

not credit the Government for bringing interest rates down some eight

percentage points and thereby saving home-owners a bomb in mortgage

payments?



It does not add up, unless the certainties of the Thatcher era have

ironically produced an economy which, while generally delivering more

real cash, has left the nation feeling more insecure. If so, how can

Government policy and PR eliminate a feeling of insecurity?



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