Leader: Beware the coming anarchy and Labour’s denial of it

Chris Grayling's speech showed that he understands the coarsening of our public culture

The true Conservative is an instinctive pessimist. He or she believes that the human animal is fallen, that Man is an original sinner. In this vision, all grand schemes to remake the world, all utopian projects - socialism, communism, liberalism, environmentalism - are doomed to fail. What is necessary is not revolution but gradual, piecemeal change, compromise and pragmatism. To create the good society and protect against the coming anarchy, one needs robust, enduring institutions, such as the monarchy and the great public schools, which embody the accumulated wisdom of past generations. One needs to invest in private property and to accept natural inequalities: it is liberty, not equality, that matters most.

A true Conservative would not call himself a progressive. But he would make a speech such as the one delivered by the shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, on 25 August, in which he spoke of the social disorder of contemporary Britain. "Under this government," he said, referring to an "urban war" between street gangs, “in many parts of British cities, The Wire has become a part of real life."

Searing in its critique of unrestrained capitalism, the American police drama The Wire has been acclaimed for its realistic and powerful portrayal of violent crime, drug gangs and public health failings in inner-city Baltimore. Leave aside that the creator of The Wire, David Simon, has repeatedly warned against politicians using his drama for transparently partisan purposes. One point nevertheless remains clear: Britain is not Baltimore.

Crime overall has fallen by a third since Labour came to power in 1997. No British city has a crime rate, let alone a murder rate, that comes anywhere close to that of Baltimore, Maryland - or "Bodymore, Murderland" - where there were 234 murders in 2008, and 282 in 2007. By contrast, Greater Manchester, for example, had 49 murders in the 12 months leading up to March 2008 - and official figures published in July showed that murders in England and Wales had fallen to their lowest level in 20 years.

So any comparison of Britain or British cities with either the fictionalised, blood-drenched world of The Wire or the real world of Baltimore, Maryland, is absurd, not to mention opportunistic. There is, however, a profound and genuine sense, across economic classes and geographic regions in Britain, of a public dissatisfaction, even anger, at the coarsening of our public culture and the slow degradation of our urban spaces. Britain is not a "broken" society as the Tories would have it in their resonant slogan, but there is civic disengagement and a widespread perception that something is not quite right in society at large. Our town centres have become the preserve of the binge drinker and brawler, our streets are squalid and our public discourse is coarse (how else to explain why the BBC paid Jonathan Ross so well and gave him such freedom to offend for so long before his deserved humiliation?). Even Labour's own Jon Cruddas has said that a society as unequal as ours is "simply dysfunctional".

The Tories in general - and Mr Grayling in particular - understand all this and yearn to do something about it. Mr Grayling is an interesting politician: candid, clear-eyed, tough. Like Norman Tebbit before him, he actually means what he says. With his dead stare and pallor, he may resemble a middle manager in a large corporation, slightly harassed and eager to catch the 6pm commuter train back to the Essex hinterland, but he has an acute intelligence and a forensic eye for detail and for the inconsistencies, cant and obfuscations of Labour policy. He is one of the best men David Cameron has, and he has been justifiably promoted.

Mr Grayling should be watched and listened to because he articulates many of the frustrations and anxieties of ordinary Britons and if, as expected, the Conservatives win the next general election, he will be making social policy. For better or worse, we will have a pessimist and social conservative at the Home Office. Labour ministers, so adept at robotically rehearsing national statistics on crime, unemployment, income and the rest even as they help to create the most unequal society since the Second World War, ignore at their peril the rise of Mr Grayling, what he represents and public anxiety about social disorder. The trouble is, they do not know what they do not know, and defeat awaits them.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years