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21 August 2011

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

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

By Jonathan Derbyshire

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.

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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.