Tony Blair: there's no moral decline in this country

Former PM challenges left and right to think again about the riots.

Tony Blair makes a rather thoughtful contribution in today's Observer to the debate about the riots that began two weekends ago in Tottenham in north London. Those who suspected his populist instincts would lead him to endorse the response of the law-and-order right to the disorder (that it was a matter of "sheer criminality") will, I suspect, be surprised. "We are in danger," he writes, "of the wrong analysis leading to the wrong diagnosis, leading to the wrong prescription."

Tougher, punitive prison sentences of the kind currently being handed down by magistrates across the country aren't the answer, Blair argues. But nor are "conventional social programmes" of the kind that the left routinely supports. I think he means by that attempts to mitigate the effects of "social deprivation" that are held to be the root cause of the violence. And as for the question of causation, Blair is briskly dismissive of the idea that Britain is in the grip of some far-reaching "moral decline". Thinking that it is just leads to "muddle-headed analysis".

So if it isn't moral decline that's fanning urban discontent, what is it? The man who once told Jeremy Paxman that "It's not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money" acknowledges that entrenched and deepening inequality has something to do with it:

I do think there are major issues underlying the anxieties reflected in disturbances and protests in many nations. One is the growing disparity of incomes not only between poor and rich but between those at the top and the aspiring middle class.

That last reference to the gap between "those at the top and the aspiring middle class" suggests Blair has been listening to what Ed Miliband has been saying about the "squeezed middle". But he says we should be wary of drawing together, as Miliband has done to considerable effect in recent days, "the MPs' expenses row, bankers and phone-hackers in all this" (though he says he agrees with the Labour leader on "the theme of responsibility"). And his Panglossian remarks on "corporate social resonsibility" suggest he still hasn't grasped the scale of the calamity that befell the global financial system in the autumn of 2008 nor the extent to which the City of London remains a source of untamed, unaccountable power:

I agree totally with the criticisms of excess in pay and bonuses. But is this really the first time we have had people engaged in dubious financial practices or embracing greed, not good conduct? If anything, today's corporations are far more attuned to corporate social responsibility, far better in areas like the environment, far more aware of the need to be gender- and race-balanced in recruiting.

But at least Blair thinks, as Iain Duncan Smith said last week (directly contradicting David Cameron), that you can't arrest your way of deep-seated social problems:

[T]hese individuals [involved in the rioting] did not simply have an individual problem. They had a family problem. This is a hard thing to say and I am of course aware that this, too, is a generalisation. But many of these people are from families that are profoundly dysfunctional, operating on completely different terms from the rest of society, middle class or poor. ... This is a phenomenon of the late 20th century. You find it in virtually every developed nation. Breaking it down isn't about general policy or traditional programmes of investment or treatment.

We should be grateful, I suppose, that Blair doesn't think, as the current Prime Minister seems to, that jerking the knee suffices at moments like this.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.