Is Tony Blair an entirely serious person? One is forced to ask the question, because he sometimes sounds like a man governing the country according to the principles of the saloon bar. One half fears that, at breakfast one morning, we shall wake up to find Mr Blair on a television sofa, using the argot of a London taxi driver: "String 'em up, it's the only language they understand." Docking benefit from the parents of uncontrollable children - it is not at all clear whether we are talking here about housing or child benefit, or about violent children, truants or just the generally unruly - is just the kind of idea that sounds good after the fourth pint. As did the idea of marching yobs off to the nearest cashpoint to pay an instant fine for vandalism. But Mr Blair's circle do not actually drink much; indeed, No 10 is full of awesomely cerebral wonks who often issue documents of impenetrable abstraction. It is all very strange.
The proposals to dock benefit are so patently ridiculous that hardly any serious commentators have bothered to analyse them. But that somebody in Downing Street even thought the idea worth airing is disturbing and symptomatic for three reasons. First, it betrays the authoritarian streak that increasingly damages new Labour with liberal opinion (or the people who "come over all social workerish", as they say in Downing Street). There are already mechanisms for penalising the parents of truants: they can be fined by a court of law for not ensuring that their children receive an education, a social responsibility that long predated this government. The only possible reason for bringing the benefit system into it, allowing for instant fines imposed by state bureaucracy, is to bypass due legal process.
Second, the proposal wilfully ignores what is most significant about badly behaved children, whether they are truants, thieves or vandals: that they nearly always come from poor homes. It may be argued that, if the parents are poor, docking their benefit will be all the more effective, but this is to miss the point. The attitudes and personality disorders that lead to teenage crime and truancy are founded in early childhood; by the age of 13, it is too late for either parents or the courts to do more than make the best of a bad job. Mr Blair has courageously (if rather recklessly) set a target date for the abolition of child poverty. If achieved, this would do more for education and health, as well as law and order, than a thousand ministerial initiatives. Look at low school achievement, ill-health and criminality, and all three are more strongly associated with poverty than with anything else. But as poverty is (rightly) defined relatively, its abolition requires redistribution of income. Mr Blair aspires to the end, but cannot reconcile himself to the means. This creates a vacuum at the heart of his political project which he fills with gimmicky solutions that can be partial and temporary at best.
That brings us to the third point. New Labour cannot see a headline without feeling impelled to respond to it. It must always attend to the latest media panic about falling school standards, rising hospital waiting lists or soaring street crime, proposing clever new ideas that often bear a remarkable resemblance to the last clever idea but one. It seems unable to expose these panics for what they are, and to treat the voters as adults who can bear to be told that, for once, their rulers do not have a smart answer. Any debate about crime, for example, becomes nonsensical unless it considers not only the extent of poverty, but also demography and other social factors. At present, there is a sharp rise in the number of young teenage boys in the population - the result of a high birth rate during the Lawson boom of the late 1980s - and that partly explains the rise in street crime. It is also explained by a change in the targets for theft - from car radios, which as a result of new security technology are now far more difficult to steal and sell, to mobile phones. The latter is classed as a crime against the person, the former as a crime against property. On such statistical quirks hang the panics that lead ministers to consider undoing policies that they have spent years developing.
The truth is that overall crime rates (as measured by surveys of what people have experienced, as opposed to what they report to the police) have been falling since 1997 and that the numbers of under-17s convicted or cautioned are just over half what they were two decades ago. But ministers clearly do not believe that the public is intelligent and mature enough to accept such things. In that sense, new Labour has turned government into just another source of instant gratification: to a culture that holds out the promises of instant riches, instant entertainment and instant speed, Mr Blair adds instant action, leading him, for example, to promise that by September there would be no more muggings. After five years in office, leading a government that has many genuine achievements to its credit, he should know better.
Nostradamus writes . . .
The future has been unavoidably delayed. We apologise for any inconvenience. Following the collapse of ITV Digital, Britain will not, after all, go digital by 2010, as sages predicted. Nor, according to a report from the Economic and Social Research Council, does the future hold the exciting, flexible, home-based, portfolio working that was promised in the 1990s. The proportion of people on temporary contracts is actually falling, as is the frequency with which we change our jobs. Indeed, if this is the future, it looks to be one of nine-to-five jobs - except that they are now more than nine-to-five, because we never got the promised leisure revolution either. Only a few things are therefore certain about the future: that England's cricketers will not win back the Ashes next winter; that Rupert Murdoch will always come out on top; and that, to middle-class amazement, house prices will rise a little more, fall a long way, then rise again.