Blair on riots (22.8.11)
Much of what former PM Tony Blair had to say in yesterday's Observer was welcome to those who have despaired at the bland predictability of commentary on the recent riots in England:
The left says they're victims of social deprivation, the right says they need to take personal responsibility for their actions; both just miss the point. A conventional social programme won't help them; neither – on its own – will tougher penalties. [...]
This is a hard thing to say, and I am of course aware that this too is generalisation. But the truth is that many of these people are from families that are profoundly dysfunctional, operating on completely different terms from the rest of society, either 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.
This sounds about right to me. Yet, in an example of the sleight of hand Blair made his trademark, he goes on to explain that he attempted to address these problems while in office:
The agenda that came out of this was conceived in my last years of office, but it had to be attempted against a constant backdrop of opposition, left and right, on civil liberty grounds and on the basis we were 'stigmatising' young people.
Blair speaks as if the riots somehow deliver a logical defeat to his opponents. This is specious reasoning, and he must know it. That there exists a social class "operating on [...] different terms from the rest of society" does not entail that Blair's proposed "solutions" (such as ASBOs, etc.) were the right ones. Indeed, the kind of opposition that we liberals made to Blair's authoritarian policies was often based precisely on a conviction that disaffected people will not be brought back into mainstream society by curtailing their civil liberties, particularly when it is only theirs that are curtailed. Neither does the conviction he mentions -- that Labour policies stigmatised young people -- prove him "right" now that a few stigmatised young people are causing trouble. Indeed, that evidence would lead many people to reach a quite contrasting conclusion about Blair's record on social cohesion.