The current set of moral panics being orchestrated by the Conservative government surfaced early in February 1993 with the death of two-year-old James Bulger. The flurry of debate which followed revolved around the breakdown of the family, the growth of crimes committed by children, and the powerlessness of the police and judiciary in many cases to do anything more than caution young offenders. By the time the two boys were tried for murder several monthslater, the language of causality had been further reduced by ministers and media to a denunciation of ‘evil’.

The rhetoric of blame and the targeting of socially vulnerable groups to bear its burden is familiar enough to those who, like Stuart Hall, have paid close attention to the modes of managing consent which the Conservatives have developed from the mid 1970s on–relying on sectors of the mass media to pursue these panics with relish, and indeed to make them their own. Yet there are nonetheless quite significant changes between the mobilization of consent up to and during the Thatcher years, and the frantic attempts of the Tories in the last year to repeat the successes of the past. The Bulger case occupies a pivotal place in this extraordinary bid to panic the populace into expressing their wholehearted support for tougher measures for young offenders.Part of the panic is in fact that of the Tories themselves who see that for some reason the bonfire of blame has failed to ignite. Horror, consternation and even disbelief were more reflective of public opinion than any gungho call for punishment.

In the months that followed this incident, the twin themes of law and order and welfare dependence came to dominate news and current affairs. The absence of hard parliamentary news during the summer break offered a prime opportunity for scattering the seeds of moral panic in the expectation that by the autumn the groundwork would be done and the media, together with its platoons of moral guardians and experts, would be independently conducting its own fullblown crusades. These would pick up on and amplify the themes addressed by various mps, thus winning consent to the kind of legislation which might seem appropriate in the light of these dangerous or undesirable social phenomena. First there were the attacks on single mothers, and on girls getting pregnant and ‘married to the state’ rather than to a male breadwinner. In fact the question of single mothers has been simmering under the surface for some time now. Rhodes Boyson’s 1985 comment that ‘the state should not encourage bastardy’ was echoed at the last Tory party conference and in Peter Lilley’s insulting remarks about ‘young ladies’. The increasing instability of the family in contemporary Britain is unarguably a deep-seated source of Tory concern. Another minister could devote the greater part of a well-timed speech to the subject of girls preferring to remain single and becoming mothers for the benefits (including housing) that this status entitled them to. Alongside this there was the corresponding focus on young offenders. Throughout the summer the unctuous voice of Michael Howard was heard almost daily on the key radio and tv programmes promising tougher measures for young offenders and demonstrating the resolve on the part of the government to ‘do something about’ crime. This debate to-ed and froed its way across the air-waves throughout July and August, surfacing in every conceivable media spot that would accommodate its agenda.

Stuart Hall has recently documented the political significance of this campaign, which continued through the Tory party conference in October to the Queen’s speech in November, culminating in John Major’s ‘Back To Basics’ speech which attempted to maintain these items high on the political agenda and visibly on the front pages andtv screens.footnote1 Hall connects this ideological obsession with the family and law and order with the broader Conservative commitment (elevated to the level of doctrine by Mrs Thatcher) to radical social restructuring through a breakup of the postwar settlement of the welfare state. This process of dismantling allows for further privatization and deregulation which in turn paves the way for substantial reinvestment in areas which allow the ‘free market’ to flourish (private pension plans, right-to-buy schemes and so on).

These practices of government have been so focused, so sustained, so able to withstand deep-rooted disagreements and wranglings within the Conservative party itself, that the ‘exceptional state’ which ensuesis, as Hall previously described it, also an ‘authoritarian populist’one.footnote2 Or at least it was during the Thatcher years. There have been several shifts, especially in the style of government practised by the Conservatives, which suggest that we need to adjust this model of a strongly hegemonic form. While Major’s deliberate distancing from Mrs Thatcher’s strongly personalized style has been acknowledgedright from the start of his leadership, the broader questions of why the present government is neither convincingly authoritarian nor obviously populist have received scant attention. It cannot be thanks to Labour—that much seems certain. In his recent lecture Hall points to the failings of the Left and of Labour to provide an opposition ‘with conviction’. Elsewhere there has been a good deal of talk of the capitulation of that sector of the Left which has espoused a ‘new realist’ position;footnote3 so the waning of the authoritarian populism of the Right cannot be attributed to the success of those ‘realists’ who have directed their energies towards transforming what they perceive as outdated Left policies and creating a new kind of modern or even postmodern politics. (The Demos group might be seen in theseterms.) But what is absent from this round of discussions on ‘Majorism’ are those forces of opposition which come not from Labour or, for that matter, the Liberal Democrats, but from the margins, from the realms of pressure groups, associations, voluntary organizations and other forms of local, grassroots or campaigning politics. There has not been, it seems, a serious assessment of these admittedly scattered and fragmented and in some ways disassociated groups. How best can we understand their place in the dynamics of change, and perhaps also of crisis, in British society today? It will be part of my argument that these forms of political activity now play a key role in providing convincing opposition to the Conservatives. It is here that conviction politics is alive and well. Choosing to ignore their existence, pushing them to the margins of political culture, or questioning their validity within the democratic political process, can only hinder a fuller analysis of the range of forces engaged in contestation and popular radical democratic struggle today.