David Cameron’s speech today on Britain’s “social recession” bore an unmistakable resemblance to Tony Blair’s speech on the murder of James Bulger. As shadow home secretary in 1993, Blair described the murder as “a hammer blow against the sleeping conscience of the nation”. Today, Cameron warned that the shocking Edlington case was not an “isolated incident of evil”.
Blair was rightly castigated at the time for using the death of a child for political advantage. The argument that the torture and murder of Bulger by two ten-year-old boys was a symbol of the decline of Britain under the Tories was morally and empirically unsound. Such attacks take place without reason or pattern. They are, thankfully, too rare to tell us much about the state of the nation.
But Cameron today insisted that the torture of two young boys near Doncaster was a sign of what’s “going wrong” in Britain. He is less vulnerable to charges of political opportunism than Blair because the speech relates to his wider narrative of the “broken society”, but Labour has gone on the attack.
Here’s Liam Byrne:
When people read what Mr Cameron is saying today, they will see this is quite an unpleasant speech. What Mr Cameron appears to be trying to do is seizing on one absolutely horrific crime and almost tarring the people of Doncaster, if not the people of Britain, with the same kind of standards, and I think that people will recoil from that.
Byrne’s attack strikes me as crude and ineffective. There are two good reasons why politicians should not use specific tragedies to make wider political points. First, because such cases are often at odds with broader statistical trends. Figures released yesterday showed that the murder rate in England and Wales has fallen to its lowest for 20 years.
Second, because highlighting individual cases in a dramatic fashion can have unintended consequences. The hysterical response of the Sun and other tabloids to the death of Baby P led to a social work recruitment crisis that continues to endanger children.
I expect some Labour MPs to make these points later today, but in doing so they should be aware that Cameron is following a precedent set by Blair.