At his best and his worst: 5 thoughts on Tony Blair’s analysis of the UK riots

by Stephen Tall on August 21, 2011

It’s only been four years since Tony Blair resigned as Prime Minister (somehow it seems longer) — and he’s back today with an opinion piece for The Observer on the underlying causes of the riots, ‘Blaming a moral decline for the riots makes good headlines but bad policy’. Here are 5 thoughts on his article:

1) Mr Blair remains the ultimate triangularist

Witness the oxymoronic opening line: ‘Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband made excellent speeches last week and there was much to agree with in what they said.’ First, no they didn’t; neither speech rose to the occasion. Nick Clegg’s under-reported speech was a much weightier contribution than either the Tory or Labour leaders mustered. Secondly, to agree simultaneously with directly opposing arguments suggest that Mr Blair retains his crown as the past-master of intellectual flexibility.

2) Mr Blair remains at heart an authoritarian

As evidenced by his line, ‘my experience with the police is they need 100% backing’. Like all other professionals the police deserve respect and understanding for the immensely difficult job that they do. But politicians will not and should not earn the police’s respect unless there is a recognition that support requires challenge; and that if the police are seen to lack accountability, that politicians will automaticaly back them right or wrong, the public’s respect for the police will crumble.

3) Mr Blair is a much better, more intuitive communicator than David Cameron

The current Prime Minister has struggled to appear front-footed throughout the last few weeks of moral/social/political/economic crisis. His latest cliche-ridden utterings about the riots showing a need for a British Bill of Rights — an article appropriately kettled in the moral vacuum of the Express — suggest a leader who lacks original ideas, or at least is unable to couch his old ideas with any degree of originality. Contrast Mr Cameron’s “we’re all doomed” bluster about Britain’s moral turpitude with Mr Blair’s optimistic (and more accurate) analysis:

Britain, as a whole, is not in the grip of some general “moral decline”. … The true face of Britain is not the tiny minority that looted, but the large majority that came out afterwards to help clean up. 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. Another is the paradigm shift in economic and political influence away from the west. Each requires substantial change in the way we think and function.

He then looks at the stereotypical examples trotted out by rose-tinted commentators like Peter Oborne of the ways Britain has alegedly declined from top to bottom from the ‘good old days’ — the scandals of phone-hacking and MPs’ expenses, the excesses of bankers and boardrooms — and points out how simplistic and ahistorical such comparisons are, before highlighting his ‘key learning’ from his time at Number 10:

The spirit that won the Olympic bid in 2005 – open, tolerant and optimistic – is far more representative of modern London than the criminality displayed by the people smashing shop windows. And here is what I learned in 10 years of trying to deal with this issue. When I visited the so- called “bad areas”, whether in Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, London or elsewhere, what I found was not a community out of control. What I found were individuals out of control in a community where the majority, even in the poorest of poor parts, was decent, law-abiding and actually desperate for action to correct the situation.

It doesn’t matter what you think of Mr Blair’s politics: this is the message that our leaders should have been delivering, optimistic and realistic. Mr Cameron has often been casually dismissed as the ‘heir to Blair’. The truth is he’s just not that good.

4) Mr Blair’s prescription is for much bigger government.

The former Labour prime minister’s prescription for social ills is a liberal nightmare:

We [have] to be prepared to intervene literally family by family and at an early stage, even before any criminality had occurred. And we [have] to reform the laws around criminal justice, including on antisocial behaviour, organised crime and the treatment of persistent offenders. We [have] to treat the gangs in a completely different way to have any hope of success.

This is the paragraph which shows most vividly how Tony Blair (and those ‘Blue Labour’ adherents who agree with him) and the Lib Dems are poles apart: this is a top-down, Orwellian approach to social control, one which places unconditional trust in the state to intrude into the lives of individuals and families — with the best possible motives, I’m sure, but with all manner of unintended consequences that would further infantilise those who already have no feelings of responsibility to their communities.

5) Once again, a politician shows maturity happens after politics.

I agree with Tony Blair’s analysis; I disagree with his prescription. But what strikes me as I read his rational conclusion:

In 1993, following James Bulger’s murder, I made a case in very similar terms to the one being heard today about moral breakdown in Britain. I now believe that speech was good politics but bad policy. Focus on the specific problem and we can begin on a proper solution.

is that politicians seem to make these speeches only once they are no longer in power, when they can no longer influence either policy nor elevate the standard of public discourse regarding our deep-seated problems. I guess time and distance (and no longer having to contest elections) afford that luxury. But why do we have to wait til they’ve retired to get the grown-up politics we need?