Yes, it is a race issue

If you want to understand what William Hague is up to, look at British Social Attitudes, the 17th annual report from the National Centre for Social Research. It was published in November, and Mr Hague has almost certainly read it. It shows that there is now almost no difference between the social classes on economic issues. The middle class and working class agree that the gap between high and low incomes in Britain is too great and that we should increase taxes in order to spend more on health, education and social benefits. Such views, it is well known, do not always correlate with voting intention (indeed, more than half the Conservative voters in the survey claim to favour tax-and-spend policies), but they appear to leave little scope for an electoral offensive based on a "tax guarantee", which the public seems, in any case, disinclined to believe. Moreover, it seems likely that, after several years of economic growth and rising incomes, the spectre of higher taxes (even if new Labour were to threaten them, which it will not) would have nothing like the effect it had in 1992.

Now turn to the report's findings on attitudes to minorities. Here, there is a clear social class divide, and it is widening: more than half the working class agree that immigrants take jobs away from people born in Britain, and well over one-third agree that attempts to give equal opportunities to blacks and Asians have gone too far. For a desperate Mr Hague, the logic is clear. Just as new Labour, along with the Liberal Democrats, has made deep inroads into the Tories' traditional middle-class support, so the Tories can now invade Labour's traditional working-class heartlands. This is particularly so when those heartlands are thought to be disappointed by what a Labour government has delivered to them, and are inclined at least to abstention. As Geoffrey Evans, a politics don at Nuffield College, Oxford, and co-author of the British Social Attitudes report, puts it: "Working-class voters might look for a party that more closely represents their views on issues such as immigration and minorities . . . Add together the number of press reports about asylum-seekers, the putative effects of the present government's targets for ethnic-minority employment, and the apparent rise in unsolved, unpunished crimes in Britain, and it amounts to a potentially powerful right-wing appeal." Mr Hague may risk alienating middle-class Tories of more liberal mind; but it is doubtful that their liberalism would run so deep as to cause them to abandon the party.

It is this context that turns what may seem a reasonable debating point from Mr Hague into something more sinister. To accuse him of Powellism may seem absurd. But to refer now to "wide-grinning piccaninnies" is less acceptable, even in the most impolite society, than it was when Enoch Powell used the phrase in 1968; his listeners, Mr Hague may calculate, will know very well what he means, just as readers used to know what newspapers meant by "intimate relations". Again, there is certainly nothing inherently racist in Mr Hague's concern for the state of police morale. Yet morale has long been a problem across the public sector, where low pay, low esteem, inadequate resources, excessive paperwork, growing managerialism and proliferating performance targets (all evident when the Tories were in power) have combined to produce a recruitment crisis in teaching and the health service, as well as in the police.

So why pick out the police? And why pick out the decline in "stop and search", the use of which affects the black population to an ever more disproportionate extent (the number of whites stopped and searched in Greater London has nearly halved since 1997)? Why pick out street crime rather than, say, dangerous driving, which leads to far more death and injury, or white-collar fraud, which leads to losses of money and property on a far larger scale? Why parody the Macpherson report's use of "institutional racism" to describe how the Metropolitan Police operates - admittedly, an ugly term, but one that was deployed specifically to avoid any suggestion that all individual officers are themselves racist? Why, if Mr Hague is so exercised about the difficulties of police recruitment, does he not focus on the police failure to attract more people from the ethnic minorities?

The conclusion is that Mr Hague has indeed chosen to play the race card. His speech to the Centre for Policy Studies on 14 December was calculated to appeal to white people's fears that, as they walk down the street, they will meet gangs of knife-wielding black youths in woolly hats. At least Powell said what he meant.