Notes From the Margins…

The wisdom of Tony Blair

  • August 21, 2011
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The sage of Fettes offers us his thoughts on the riots in today’s Observer and his analytical instincts remain as shallow as ever.   Blair rightly rejects the moralistic Cameronian rhetoric about a broken society.   But his own analysis is no less vacuous, moralistic and self-serving.  Blair engages in a satire-defying moment in declaring his agreement 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?’

Coming from a man whose taste for corporate mammon has outstripped any of his predecessors, some readers may resist the desire to chuckle or perhaps to gag, but Blair is a serious man – or believes that he is.   Attempting as always to present himself as the visionary independent thinker rising above the ideological straitjackets of left and right, Blair concludes that the riots are largely due to ‘  the group of young, alienated, disaffected youth who are outside the social mainstream and who live in a culture at odds with any canons of proper behaviour’

How did this group of ‘individuals out of control’ as Blair calls them, come to reject these ‘canons’?  Recalling his own experience in dealing with the phenomenon, Blair argues that

these individuals did not simply have an individual problem. They had a family problem….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.

Some might ask why there are so many dysfunctional families, and even question whether such dysfunctionality might be rooted in poverty, deprivation, longterm unemployment, lack of opportunity, poor housing and the absence of resources. Others may be inclined to point out that it is difficult, if not impossible, and perhaps even fatuous, to reduce a multi-faceted phenomenon such as the riots to inadequate parenting.

Rejecting the tendency to ‘muddle-headed analysis’ Blair comes up with an analysis that is no less muddle-headed and riddled with contradictions.   One minute he is attributing the riots to disaffected individuals, then he is suggesting that these individuals are acting as a group.   If the riots stem from dysfunctional families, they are also a  product of ‘ the growing disparity of incomes not only between poor and rich but between those at the top and the aspiring middle class’ and ‘the paradigm shift in economic and political influence away from the west’.

Such observations are typical of a mind that tends to skate rather than dive deep, in which disaggregated concepts and facile and semi-digested quick fixes invariably take precedence over logic, depth and consistency.  As we have seen on too many occasions, Blair is not the kind of man to question his own beliefs and assumptions, and once he identifies a paradigm shift he very quickly comes up with a policy to deal with it:

By the end of my time as prime minister, I concluded that the solution was specific and quite different from conventional policy. We had to be prepared to intervene literally family by family and at an early stage, even before any criminality had occurred. And we had to reform the laws around criminal justice, including on antisocial behaviour, organised crime and the treatment of persistent offenders.

We had to treat the gangs in a completely different way to have any hope of success. 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. After I’d left, the agenda lost momentum. But the papers and the work are all there.

There is no evidence that this authoritarian social agenda was successful even in its own terms – to say nothing of its underlying assumption that family breakdown could be detached from any wider social and economic context.  For Blair however

Breaking it down isn’t about general policy or traditional programmes of investment or treatment. The last government should take real pride in the reductions in inequality, the improvement in many inner-city schools and the big fall in overall crime. But none of these reaches this special group.

Never mind the fact that under New Labour social and economic disparities reached record levels, and so did the prison population, without any noticeable decline in the gang culture that Blair describes.   Never mind Labour’s concession to the booze industry which did so much to contribute to the phenomenon of aggressive anti-social behaviour in British cities.   Never mind that gangs were only one component of the riots.

Whether having a shot at Gordon Brown in that ‘after I’d left the agenda lost momentum’, praising ‘  young people engaged as volunteers in the work I do in Africa, and in inter-faith projects’ or ‘ youngsters who are from highly disadvantaged backgrounds where my Sports Foundation works in the north-east’ Blair cannot resist the opportunity to remind his country just how indispensable and important he is.

It’s  difficult to avoid the conclusion that in Blair’s view the underlying cause of the riots – and indeed the underlying cause of all the world’s problems, is the absence of Tony Blair himself.  Others may disagree, and wish that this vain snake-oil salesman would limit his contributions to the businessmen who – for reasons that remain mysterious to this reader at least – remain credulous enough to pay for his banal and ultimately irrelevant observations.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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