Saturday 30 April 2011

Where I would be tough and sensitive

Tomorrow Tony Blair will have been Prime Minister for 10 years. On Saturday he sought in these pages to explain the failure of the most famous promise he made in opposition: to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime".

Responding to my speech last week on the growing incivility of our society, the Prime Minister argued that I am making the same mistake that he once made. He used to think, he tells us, that incivility and crime were problems arising from, and affecting, "society as a whole". Tackling them would therefore require "investment in poorer areas and regeneration".

He now says this approach was "misguided" - that these social problems are in fact restricted to a small number of dysfunctional families. And so he argues that, in calling for greater responsibility in "society as a whole", I'm falling into the same trap he once did.

I agree with the Prime Minister that he was wrong then. The trouble is, he's also wrong now. Of course state "investment" (or what we might more accurately call public spending) provides no lasting solution to incivility and anti-social behaviour. But the Prime Minister simply shows how out of touch he is by arguing that today these issues are limited in their cause and effect and not symptomatic of a wider social breakdown.

Let's start with the first mistake - that it's all about investment. In his Daily Telegraph article, Mr Blair writes that he "regarded this as an issue about the nature of society as a whole, curable by Sure Start and the New Deal on jobs, better and improved schooling and so on".

In this one sentence, the Prime Minister captures perfectly the fundamental philosophical difference between us. He believes that state initiatives and taxpayers' cash can ''cure'' the "nature of society". Anyone who still believes either that Mr Blair is a ''closet Tory'', or that I am anything other than a Conservative, should stick that quotation on their fridge door.

Only a Labour politician would think that you can pump billions of pounds into public services and expect crime to fall and social wellbeing to rise in direct consequence. Yes, more public money has been spent on education - but standards remain stubbornly low, and pupil behaviour has got much worse. Yes, more public money has been spent on housing - but too often (as Mr Blair found in Moss Side recently) the smart new buildings are overrun with crime and drugs.

Labour's intentions may have been good, but its approach failed because its only instruments were taxpayers' money and mechanical central control.

This brings me to Mr Blair's second mistake, his belief that crime and incivility are confined to "a tiny minority". I find it extraordinary that Mr Blair could go from thinking incivility was a widespread social phenomenon in 1992, to a limited and localised one in 2007. Maybe this is what happens after 10 years as Prime Minister. Rarely travelling on public transport, constantly told what you want to hear, only aware of the most sensational breaches of public order, Mr Blair has missed one of the most pronounced and important social changes of our times.

The decline in civility is not confined to a few unruly families and neighbourhoods. It is all around us - on buses and trains, in shops and on the street. The abusiveness of many young people and the indignity suffered by the elderly; the lack of respect for authority and the consequent lack of courtesy from authority - all this is increasingly part of the normal daily experience of living.

The recent Unicef report was not a study of the most deprived children in each country, but of children in general. Britain came bottom of the list. We have the loneliest, unhappiest, worst-behaved youngsters in the rich world.

Of course the minority who are responsible for the worst crime and incivility need targeted action and stiff penalties. Blair is wrong to say I want to scrap Asbos - I don't, but I know they are being handed out like confetti, are frequently breached and then nothing is done.

The fact is that British society in general needs a different approach to Labour's. Not more control. Not more money. But more responsibility.

Responsibility is not something you can pay or coerce people into adopting. It is a learned behaviour - it comes from having the consequences of your actions made apparent and personal to you, and from witnessing the positive and negative behaviours of others. It is something that we acquire through membership of families and communities that instil decent ethical values.

During this election campaign I have visited a number of organisations that turn around the lives of young people who have been excluded from school. These are amazingly successful projects because they address the whole person. They are tough and sensitive, caring as well as demanding, with the flexibility and compassion that the state so often lacks. Needless to say they struggle to get by on a fraction of what state schools and pupil referral units receive.

That is what I mean when I say that ''there is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state''. When Labour politicians talk of ''society as a whole'', they mean the state. For me, ''society'' is more plural and unstructured. It is composed of all the institutions and associations that individuals form for business, pleasure and social action. It is here that the real answers to crime and incivility lie.

The fact that a statist approach to social problems has failed does not mean (as Mr Blair argues) that they are not, in fact, social problems after all - it just means that the remedy was wrong.

We cannot address social problems merely with state solutions. Government has a role to play in setting the framework of law and incentives that encourage the right behaviour. But the best thing that the state can do is to help build the independent institutions of a responsible society - strong families and strong communities.

Reforming the benefits system; recognising marriage in the tax system; freeing police from central bureaucracy; long-term contracts for voluntary and social enterprises - all these things can make a difference. But to make them happen we need a Prime Minister and a government who understand the proper role of the state and society. Then, slowly but surely, we would find both crime and its causes falling off.

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