In a rerun of Matthew Parris’s
experiment of the 1980s, David “Two Brains” Willetts decided to take both
his brains to live among the lowlife in Birmingham for a few nights in
February 2002. He went along to the Christian missionary group, the Birmingham City Mission, which organises public speaking and runs a
number of homes for the homeless near the city centre.
There he met some tales of woe
from the few tramps that the Mission had managed to coax into its homes. One
man told him that he had become homeless as a result of reporting benefit
cheats. The cheats somehow found
out about it and attacked him and his girlfriend last Xmas. As they have a
two-year-old son, things were not so good.
Willetts thought that this outcome was undeserved as they were only
trying to do the right thing. The
MP for Havant pushed on to the second building that the Mission runs, just
over the road. He there met other inmates and voluntary workers, some who
thought he was only on the make. One of them said so. A member of the staff,
Steven Jackson-Parr, thought that Willetts had not come properly dressed for
his task. He ought to have worn a
tee-shirt and trainers rather than his usual shoes and suit. The chief problem
was drugs, Jackson-Parr said, and the Tories might do well if they were to
sort that problem out.
The television news showed
Willetts having tea, presumably in the new buildings that the Birmingham City
Mission had built in the early 1990s in Granville Street.
“Everybody has an extraordinary story to tell about how they have
been down on their luck, often from drugs, alcoholism, armed robbery,”
Willetts said. “I have just had
a meal with a guy who said he would be dead if it wasn’t for the hostel.
He was an alcoholic with a heart problem who was sleeping rough.
But it is moving to see people who are being helped.”
This, Willetts haply hopes, will display his soft heart.
As a former student of John Gray,
with whom he has written a book recently, he seems keen on reform in his party
to show that they are all very caring. “I
am doing this because I want to listen and to learn,” he added.
“However much you research a subject or debate it in the House of
Commons, nothing beats real human experience.
Here it is, real human experience in the raw.”
Willetts later gave a speech to Conservative
Future at the Tory central office. He
is amongst those in the Conservatives who are set to try to reclaim their old
One Nation credentials in a move that is aimed at getting away from
Thatcherism. He feels, or says he
feels, sad that the deprived parts of the UK now feel forgotten by his party.
For him, renewing the Conservative approach to poverty is crucial to
the renewal of his party.
Willetts made a big fuss about
spending the night in a Birmingham council house. Mr Willetts’ speech follows another by Oliver Letwin, in
which the shadow home secretary called for a more “neighbourly” society.
But he has made way more impact of late than Willetts has, or will.
Letwin has a way with the media and though he got fooled and robbed a
month or so back when he let a stranger into his house to go to the toilet,
and earlier was in hiding from the media following his tax cut speech before
the election, he nevertheless has probably risen faster in the media esteem
than any other politician since the election.
His leader, Duncan-Smith displayed similar sentiments on needing a
caring image in a later speech in March 2002 and it coincided with a rise in
the polls for the Tories, reported on the media 25 March.
For only the second time since 1997, New Labour seems to be on the
wane, but maybe that is owing to their internal problems rather than this new
ploy of the Tories.
Willetts said in his speech:
“The renewal of our approach to poverty is not just essential for people
living in our most hard-pressed areas. It
is also crucial to the renewal of Conservatism itself.” He now feels that there has to be more to the Tory party than
the economics that Mrs Thatcher’s party was good at. In the third week of March Mrs Thatcher was told by the
doctors that she should no longer do public speaking and many in the media
feel this can only aid the Tories. It
will certainly aid those that long to see the back of her, and Willetts looks
like one of them. He holds that
politics is more about obligations to our fellow citizens and it needs to be
rooted in society. The media
welcome all this as a move away from what they still repeat more than once a
week as Margaret Thatcher’s comment that “there is no such thing as
society”. They never fail to
take this out of the context that it was made – that of denying that society
itself could be responsible for immoral behaviour on the part of individuals.
Willetts thinks that he can forge a policy on poverty that is less
confusing than the one that New Labour has.
He places it as the traditional concern that Conservatives have shown
for the family. “It is
difficult to envisage the renewal of our poorest communities without a
strengthening of the family. We
want to see stronger local communities and networks of neighbourliness.
That is what society is all about.”
But when this new outlook was put on BBC’s Question
Time held at Wolverhampton on 28 March 2002 the audience was sceptical.
However, they showed more hostility to New Labour than has been evident
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