Theological Notebook: Watching the UK Debate About Public Morality
Just wanted to copy a few columns or articles into the journal here. It has been interesting to watch this debate about ethics itself that's been happening in the UK since the riots. The number of writers drawing attention to the idea of public morality itself is interesting, particularly in a world of post-modern assumptions or dogma, where one (increasingly) ought not be allowed to articulate the idea of a binding morality that does not depend upon personal narrative or preference. Modernity was in many respects the attempt to find such an objective and publicly-accessible morality, but without recourse to a specific religious tradition, as a way of reinforcing a multi-religious society. Post-Modernity gave up on – or actively began to deny – that there was such a possibility, and resigned itself to moral relativism, taking the Modern idea of freedom and absolutizing that. So I find it especially interesting to read mainstream public writing in Europe that calls the absolutizing of freedom into question, for that is the sole great heresy and forbidden thought in contemporary/postmodern thinking. Classical liberalism did not so absolutize the idea of liberty. Does not doing so always end in injustice? Or is something like the emerging political theoretical language of "human responsibilities" to balance out the language of "human rights" (Pacem in Terris, The Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities) offering an acceptable way out of this ironic absolutism?
Years of Liberal Dogma Have Spawned a Generation of Amoral, Uneducated, Welfare Dependent, Brutalised Youngsters By Max Hastings, The Mail Online The Moral Decay of Our Society is as Bad at the Top as the Bottom By Peter Oborne, The Telegraph After Riots, British Leaders Offer Divergent Proposals By JOHN F. BURNS and ALAN COWELL for The New York Times Blaming a Moral Decline for the Riots Makes Good Headlines But Bad Policy By Tony Blair, The Observer
A few weeks after the U.S. city of Detroit was ravaged by 1967 race riots in which 43 people died, I was shown around the wrecked areas by a black reporter named Joe Strickland.
He said: ‘Don’t you believe all that stuff people here are giving media folk about how sorry they are about what happened. When they talk to each other, they say: “It was a great fire, man!” ’
I am sure that is what many of the young rioters, black and white, who have burned and looted in England through the past few shocking nights think today.
It was fun. It made life interesting. It got people to notice them. As a girl looter told a BBC reporter, it showed ‘the rich’ and the police that ‘we can do what we like’.
If you live a normal life of absolute futility, which we can assume most of this week’s rioters do, excitement of any kind is welcome. The people who wrecked swathes of property, burned vehicles and terrorised communities have no moral compass to make them susceptible to guilt or shame.
Most have no jobs to go to or exams they might pass. They know no family role models, for most live in homes in which the father is unemployed, or from which he has decamped.
They are illiterate and innumerate, beyond maybe some dexterity with computer games and BlackBerries.
They are essentially wild beasts. I use that phrase advisedly, because it seems appropriate to young people bereft of the discipline that might make them employable; of the conscience that distinguishes between right and wrong.
They respond only to instinctive animal impulses — to eat and drink, have sex, seize or destroy the accessible property of others.
Their behaviour on the streets resembled that of the polar bear which attacked a Norwegian tourist camp last week. They were doing what came naturally and, unlike the bear, no one even shot them for it.
A former London police chief spoke a few years ago about the ‘feral children’ on his patch — another way of describing the same reality.
The depressing truth is that at the bottom of our society is a layer of young people with no skills, education, values or aspirations. They do not have what most of us would call ‘lives’: they simply exist.
Nobody has ever dared suggest to them that they need feel any allegiance to anything, least of all Britain or their community. They do not watch royal weddings or notice Test matches or take pride in being Londoners or Scousers or Brummies.
Not only do they know nothing of Britain’s past, they care nothing for its present.
They have their being only in video games and street-fights, casual drug use and crime, sometimes petty, sometimes serious.
The notions of doing a nine-to-five job, marrying and sticking with a wife and kids, taking up DIY or learning to read properly, are beyond their imaginations.
Last week, I met a charity worker who is trying to help a teenage girl in East London to get a life for herself. There is a difficulty, however: ‘Her mother wants her to go on the game.’ My friend explained: ‘It’s the money, you know.’
An underclass has existed throughout history, which once endured appalling privation. Its spasmodic outbreaks of violence, especially in the early 19th century, frightened the ruling classes.
Its frustrations and passions were kept at bay by force and draconian legal sanctions, foremost among them capital punishment and transportation to the colonies.
Today, those at the bottom of society behave no better than their forebears, but the welfare state has relieved them from hunger and real want.
When social surveys speak of ‘deprivation’ and ‘poverty’, this is entirely relative. Meanwhile, sanctions for wrongdoing have largely vanished.
When Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith recently urged employers to take on more British workers and fewer migrants, he was greeted with a hoarse laugh.
Every firm in the land knows that an East European — for instance — will, first, bother to turn up; second, work harder; and third, be better-educated than his or her British counterpart.Who do we blame for this state of affairs?
Ken Livingstone, contemptible as ever, declares the riots to be a result of the Government’s spending cuts. This recalls the remarks of the then leader of Lambeth Council, ‘Red Ted’ Knight, who said after the 1981 Brixton riots that the police in his borough ‘amounted to an army of occupation’.
But it will not do for a moment to claim the rioters’ behaviour reflects deprived circumstances or police persecution.
Of course it is true that few have jobs, learn anything useful at school, live in decent homes, eat meals at regular hours or feel loyalty to anything beyond their local gang.
This is not, however, because they are victims of mistreatment or neglect.
It is because it is fantastically hard to help such people, young or old, without imposing a measure of compulsion which modern society finds unacceptable. These kids are what they are because nobody makes them be anything different or better.
A key factor in delinquency is lack of effective sanctions to deter it. From an early stage, feral children discover that they can bully fellow pupils at school, shout abuse at people in the streets, urinate outside pubs, hurl litter from car windows, play car radios at deafening volumes, and, indeed, commit casual assaults with only a negligible prospect of facing rebuke, far less retribution.
John Stuart Mill wrote in his great 1859 essay On Liberty: ‘The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.’
Yet every day up and down the land, this vital principle of civilised societies is breached with impunity.
Anyone who reproaches a child, far less an adult, for discarding rubbish, making a racket, committing vandalism or driving unsociably will receive in return a torrent of obscenities, if not violence.
So who is to blame? The breakdown of families, the pernicious promotion of single motherhood as a desirable state, the decline of domestic life so that even shared meals are a rarity, have all contributed importantly to the condition of the young underclass.
The social engineering industry unites to claim that the conventional template of family life is no longer valid. Protection: Asian shopkeepers stand outside their store in Hackney that was battered by the looters. This time, though, they're ready to take them on
Protection: Asian shopkeepers stand outside their store in Hackney that was battered by the looters. This time, though, they're ready to take them on
And what of the schools? I do not think they can be blamed for the creation of a grotesquely self-indulgent, non-judgmental culture.
This has ultimately been sanctioned by Parliament, which refuses to accept, for instance, that children are more likely to prosper with two parents than with one, and that the dependency culture is a tragedy for those who receive something for nothing.
The judiciary colludes with social services and infinitely ingenious lawyers to assert the primacy of the rights of the criminal and aggressor over those of law-abiding citizens, especially if a young offender is involved.
The police, in recent years, have developed a reputation for ignoring yobbery and bullying, or even for taking the yobs’ side against complainants.
‘The problem,’ said Bill Pitt, the former head of Manchester’s Nuisance Strategy Unit, ‘is that the law appears to be there to protect the rights of the perpetrator, and does not support the victim.’
Police regularly arrest householders who are deemed to have taken ‘disproportionate’ action to protect themselves and their property from burglars or intruders. The message goes out that criminals have little to fear from ‘the feds’.
Figures published earlier this month show that a majority of ‘lesser’ crimes — which include burglary and car theft, and which cause acute distress to their victims — are never investigated, because forces think it so unlikely they will catch the perpetrators.
How do you inculcate values in a child whose only role model is footballer Wayne Rooney — a man who is bereft of the most meagre human graces?
How do you persuade children to renounce bad language when they hear little else from stars on the BBC?
A teacher, Francis Gilbert, wrote five years ago in his book Yob Nation: ‘The public feels it no longer has the right to interfere.’
Discussing the difficulties of imposing sanctions for misbehaviour or idleness at school, he described the case of a girl pupil he scolded for missing all her homework deadlines.
The youngster’s mother, a social worker, telephoned him and said: ‘Threatening to throw my daughter off the A-level course because she hasn’t done some work is tantamount to psychological abuse, and there is legislation which prevents these sorts of threats.
‘I believe you are trying to harm my child’s mental well-being, and may well take steps . . . if you are not careful.’
That story rings horribly true. It reflects a society in which teachers have been deprived of their traditional right to arbitrate pupils’ behaviour. Denied power, most find it hard to sustain respect, never mind control.
I never enjoyed school, but, like most children until very recent times, did the work because I knew I would be punished if I did not. It would never have occurred to my parents not to uphold my teachers’ authority. This might have been unfair to some pupils, but it was the way schools functioned for centuries, until the advent of crazy ‘pupil rights’.
I recently received a letter from a teacher who worked in a county’s pupil referral unit, describing appalling difficulties in enforcing discipline. Her only weapon, she said, was the right to mark a disciplinary cross against a child’s name for misbehaviour.
Having repeatedly and vainly asked a 15-year-old to stop using obscene language, she said: ‘Fred, if you use language like that again, I’ll give you a cross.’
He replied: ‘Give me an effing cross, then!’ Eventually, she said: ‘Fred, you have three crosses now. You must miss your next break.’
He answered: ‘I’m not missing my break, I’m going for an effing fag!’ When she appealed to her manager, he said: ‘Well, the boy’s got a lot going on at home at the moment. Don’t be too hard on him.’
This is a story repeated daily in schools up and down the land.
A century ago, no child would have dared to use obscene language in class. Today, some use little else. It symbolises their contempt for manners and decency, and is often a foretaste of delinquency.
If a child lacks sufficient respect to address authority figures politely, and faces no penalty for failing to do so, then other forms of abuse — of property and person — come naturally.
So there we have it: a large, amoral, brutalised sub-culture of young British people who lack education because they have no will to learn, and skills which might make them employable. They are too idle to accept work waitressing or doing domestic labour, which is why almost all such jobs are filled by immigrants.
They have no code of values to dissuade them from behaving anti-socially or, indeed, criminally, and small chance of being punished if they do so.
They have no sense of responsibility for themselves, far less towards others, and look to no future beyond the next meal, sexual encounter or TV football game.
They are an absolute deadweight upon society, because they contribute nothing yet cost the taxpayer billions. Liberal opinion holds they are victims, because society has failed to provide them with opportunities to develop their potential.
Most of us would say this is nonsense. Rather, they are victims of a perverted social ethos, which elevates personal freedom to an absolute, and denies the underclass the discipline — tough love — which alone might enable some of its members to escape from the swamp of dependency in which they live.
Only education — together with politicians, judges, policemen and teachers with the courage to force feral humans to obey rules the rest of us have accepted all our lives — can provide a way forward and a way out for these people.
They are products of a culture which gives them so much unconditionally that they are let off learning how to become human beings. My dogs are better behaved and subscribe to a higher code of values than the young rioters of Tottenham, Hackney, Clapham and Birmingham.
Unless or until those who run Britain introduce incentives for decency and impose penalties for bestiality which are today entirely lacking, there will never be a shortage of young rioters and looters such as those of the past four nights, for whom their monstrous excesses were ‘a great fire, man’.
David Cameron, Ed Miliband and the entire British political class came together yesterday to denounce the rioters. They were of course right to say that the actions of these looters, arsonists and muggers were abhorrent and criminal, and that the police should be given more support.
But there was also something very phony and hypocritical about all the shock and outrage expressed in parliament. MPs spoke about the week’s dreadful events as if they were nothing to do with them.
I cannot accept that this is the case. Indeed, I believe that the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society. The last two decades have seen a terrifying decline in standards among the British governing elite. It has become acceptable for our politicians to lie and to cheat. An almost universal culture of selfishness and greed has grown up.
It is not just the feral youth of Tottenham who have forgotten they have duties as well as rights. So have the feral rich of Chelsea and Kensington. A few years ago, my wife and I went to a dinner party in a large house in west London. A security guard prowled along the street outside, and there was much talk of the “north-south divide”, which I took literally for a while until I realised that my hosts were facetiously referring to the difference between those who lived north and south of Kensington High Street.
Most of the people in this very expensive street were every bit as deracinated and cut off from the rest of Britain as the young, unemployed men and women who have caused such terrible damage over the last few days. For them, the repellent Financial Times magazine How to Spend It is a bible. I’d guess that few of them bother to pay British tax if they can avoid it, and that fewer still feel the sense of obligation to society that only a few decades ago came naturally to the wealthy and better off.
Yet we celebrate people who live empty lives like this. A few weeks ago, I noticed an item in a newspaper saying that the business tycoon Sir Richard Branson was thinking of moving his headquarters to Switzerland. This move was represented as a potential blow to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, because it meant less tax revenue.
I couldn’t help thinking that in a sane and decent world such a move would be a blow to Sir Richard, not the Chancellor. People would note that a prominent and wealthy businessman was avoiding British tax and think less of him. Instead, he has a knighthood and is widely feted. The same is true of the brilliant retailer Sir Philip Green. Sir Philip’s businesses could never survive but for Britain’s famous social and political stability, our transport system to shift his goods and our schools to educate his workers.
Yet Sir Philip, who a few years ago sent an extraordinary £1 billion dividend offshore, seems to have little intention of paying for much of this. Why does nobody get angry or hold him culpable? I know that he employs expensive tax lawyers and that everything he does is legal, but he surely faces ethical and moral questions just as much as does a young thug who breaks into one of Sir Philip’s shops and steals from it?
Our politicians – standing sanctimoniously on their hind legs in the Commons yesterday – are just as bad. They have shown themselves prepared to ignore common decency and, in some cases, to break the law. David Cameron is happy to have some of the worst offenders in his Cabinet. Take the example of Francis Maude, who is charged with tackling public sector waste – which trade unions say is a euphemism for waging war on low‑paid workers. Yet Mr Maude made tens of thousands of pounds by breaching the spirit, though not the law, surrounding MPs’ allowances.
A great deal has been made over the past few days of the greed of the rioters for consumer goods, not least by Rotherham MP Denis MacShane who accurately remarked, “What the looters wanted was for a few minutes to enter the world of Sloane Street consumption.” This from a man who notoriously claimed £5,900 for eight laptops. Of course, as an MP he obtained these laptops legally through his expenses.
Yesterday, the veteran Labour MP Gerald Kaufman asked the Prime Minister to consider how these rioters can be “reclaimed” by society. Yes, this is indeed the same Gerald Kaufman who submitted a claim for three months’ expenses totalling £14,301.60, which included £8,865 for a Bang & Olufsen television.
Or take the Salford MP Hazel Blears, who has been loudly calling for draconian action against the looters. I find it very hard to make any kind of ethical distinction between Blears’s expense cheating and tax avoidance, and the straight robbery carried out by the looters.
The Prime Minister showed no sign that he understood that something stank about yesterday’s Commons debate. He spoke of morality, but only as something which applies to the very poor: “We will restore a stronger sense of morality and responsibility – in every town, in every street and in every estate.” He appeared not to grasp that this should apply to the rich and powerful as well.
The tragic truth is that Mr Cameron is himself guilty of failing this test. It is scarcely six weeks since he jauntily turned up at the News International summer party, even though the media group was at the time subject to not one but two police investigations. Even more notoriously, he awarded a senior Downing Street job to the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, even though he knew at the time that Coulson had resigned after criminal acts were committed under his editorship. The Prime Minister excused his wretched judgment by proclaiming that “everybody deserves a second chance”. It was very telling yesterday that he did not talk of second chances as he pledged exemplary punishment for the rioters and looters.
These double standards from Downing Street are symptomatic of widespread double standards at the very top of our society. It should be stressed that most people (including, I know, Telegraph readers) continue to believe in honesty, decency, hard work, and putting back into society at least as much as they take out.
But there are those who do not. Certainly, the so-called feral youth seem oblivious to decency and morality. But so are the venal rich and powerful – too many of our bankers, footballers, wealthy businessmen and politicians.
Of course, most of them are smart and wealthy enough to make sure that they obey the law. That cannot be said of the sad young men and women, without hope or aspiration, who have caused such mayhem and chaos over the past few days. But the rioters have this defence: they are just following the example set by senior and respected figures in society. Let’s bear in mind that many of the youths in our inner cities have never been trained in decent values. All they have ever known is barbarism. Our politicians and bankers, in sharp contrast, tend to have been to good schools and universities and to have been given every opportunity in life.
Something has gone horribly wrong in Britain. If we are ever to confront the problems which have been exposed in the past week, it is essential to bear in mind that they do not only exist in inner-city housing estates.
The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the police and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.
LONDON — With neighborhoods across a wide array of English cities and towns still resounding with the clamor of cleanup crews and with police reinforcements cautiously drawing down, Britain’s top two politicians ventured Monday into a political landscape profoundly altered by last week’s rioting and offered competing prescriptions that seemed to rupture an uneasy consensus that has prevailed in British politics for a generation.
Radically different speeches by Prime Minister David Cameron and Ed Miliband, the leaders of the Conservative and Labour Parties, appeared to set the stage for the kind of gloves-off, left-versus-right politics Britain has not seen since Margaret Thatcher’s heyday in the 1980s. Both in their early 40s and both previously characterized by cautious efforts to command the center, the two men signaled that the riots had girded each of them for a new battle that could determine Britain’s future for years.
Mr. Cameron promised an uncompromising across-the-board reworking of the social policies he blamed for “the slow-motion moral collapse” across Britain in recent generations, while Mr. Miliband assailed the government’s punitive approach, saying “tough action against gangs” and other steps favored by Mr. Cameron needed to be complemented by action to “show young people there’s another way.”
The mood was captured by a headline for a column on the left-of-center Guardian newspaper Web site, proclaiming that Mr. Cameron’s effort had heralded “the return of the nasty party,” meaning the Conservatives of the 1980s and 1990s. Conservative-supporting columnists responded in kind, saying Mr. Cameron had at last spoken up for a majority in Britain, addressing moral issues too long avoided by politicians.
“Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face,” Mr. Cameron said in a speech in his home constituency in rural Oxfordshire. “Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices have no consequences. Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged, sometimes even incentivized, by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralized.”
The “responsible majority” of Britons, he said, were “crying out for their government” to confront these issues. Accordingly, he said, his government would set out over coming weeks to “review every aspect” of social policy. “On schools, welfare, families, parenting, addiction, communities, on the cultural, legal, bureaucratic problems in our society, too; from the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights that has undermined personal responsibility to the obsession with health and safety that has eroded people’s willingness to act according to common sense.”
Mr. Miliband spoke at his boyhood school in north London, a state school in a working-class neighborhood, as if to accentuate his differences with Mr. Cameron, who had attended the exclusive Eton College. He spoke derisively of the prime minister having chosen the “easy and predictable path” by blaming “criminality, pure and simple,” words Mr. Cameron used at the height of the looting and pillaging, and condemning him for suggesting, in reply to those who pointed to social deprivation as the cause of the disorder, “that to explain is to excuse.”
The speech took more direct aim at Mr. Cameron and his top ministers, who have announced an array of tough new measures to deal with the rioters and encouraged the courts to hand out stiff jail terms. “A new policy a day, knee-jerk gimmicks rushed out without real thought, will not solve the problem,” Mr. Miliband said. “We’ve heard it all in the last few days. Water cannon. Supercops. A daily door knock for gangs. And today, more gimmicks.”
Mr. Miliband called for a “national conversation” on the causes of the riots that would “give people a chance for their voices and views to be heard.” While the government has set out plans to evict rioters and their families from state-subsidized housing and to strip convicted rioters of welfare benefits, Mr. Miliband said weaning young wrongdoers from crime was “harder when support is being taken away.”
The implications for British politics were far reaching. Mr. Miliband was staking out ground that has strong support on the left wing of his party, if less among an older, traditionalist Labour bloc as incensed in many ways by the rioting as traditionalist Conservatives. Many of those who work with underprivileged youths have also spoken strongly against the kind of retributive measures Mr. Cameron and his ministers have advocated, and they have pressed for the continuation of the redemptive social policies that have prevailed for decades.
They have spoken out strongly, too, against round-the-clock courts that have been in session in London and other cities, sending 60 percent of the 2,500 people arrested in the riots to jail pending trial. The national average for those jailed while awaiting trial for criminal offenses was 10 percent before the riots. The courts have also handed down harsh jail terms even to the lesser offenders, including a five-month sentence in London to a 22-year-old single mother of two who was given a pair of shorts by a friend who had looted a local store.
But for Mr. Cameron, another political calculus was at work. He spoke of his determination to break with the conventions that have governed mainstream politics since the demise of Mrs. Thatcher’s my-way-or-the-highway approach in 1990, when she resigned. “We have been unwilling for too long to talk about what is right and what is wrong,” he said. “We have too often avoided saying what needs to be said, about everything from marriage to welfare to common courtesy.” But now, he said, “the party’s over.”
The prime minister’s new hard-line approach is not likely to sit well with the junior partners in his coalition government, the left-of-center Liberal Democrats, who have been increasingly restive about the impact of the harsh public-spending cuts demanded by the Conservatives. If they were to quit the government, that could force a new general election.
But with opinion polls since the riots showing strong support for a law-and-order crackdown, and support for the Liberal Democrats at a nearly historic low, Mr. Cameron may calculate that they have little choice but to stay with the Conservatives, bowing at least part way to Mr. Cameron’s new right-of-center impulses.
John F. Burns reported from London, and Alan Cowell from Paris.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 16, 2011, on page A9 of the New York edition with the headline: After Riots, British Leaders Offer Divergent Proposals.
Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband made excellent speeches last week and there was much to agree with in what they said. None the less, in the overall commentary on the riots, I think we are in danger of the wrong analysis leading to the wrong diagnosis, leading to the wrong prescription.
There were some proximate causes of what happened that are relatively easily dealt with. The police are under huge pressure. If they go in hard, they fear inquiry, disciplinary action and abuse. It's all very well to say that they should just follow the rules. The police need to know they have strong support from politicians and public. When the riots first occurred, they would have been naturally anxious as to how heavy to be. Once they saw the country behind them, they rallied.
But my experience with the police is they need 100% backing. Otherwise, you're asking a lot of the officer on the ground in a tough situation.
Then, some of the disorder was caused by rioters and looters who were otherwise ordinary young people who got caught in a life-changing mistake from which they will have to rebuild.
However, the big cause is 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. And here's where I don't agree with much of the commentary. In my experience, they are an absolutely specific problem that requires deeply specific solutions.
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 their own – will tougher penalties.
The key is to understand that they aren't symptomatic of society at large. Failure to get this leads to a completely muddle-headed analysis.
Britain, as a whole, is not in the grip of some general "moral decline". I see young graduates struggling to find work today and persevering against all the odds. I see young people engaged as volunteers in the work I do in Africa, and in inter-faith projects. I meet youngsters who are from highly disadvantaged backgrounds where my Sports Foundation works in the north-east and I would say that today's generation is a) more respectable b) more responsible and c) more hard-working than mine was. 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.
However, I would be careful about drawing together the MPs' expenses row, bankers and phone-hackers in all this. We in politics love the grand philosophical common thread and I agree with Ed Miliband on the theme of responsibility.
I became an MP in 1983. Then, MPs were rarely full time, many didn't hold constituency surgeries and there were no rules of any bite governing expenses or political funding. So the idea that MPs today are a work-shy bunch of fraudsters, while back then they were high-minded public servants, is just rubbish: unfair, untrue and unhelpful.
Likewise with the boardroom. 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.
Britain gives generously to those in need abroad: faster and more than many other nations. At a time of cuts, our aid budget – which saves countless thousands of lives – is being protected. There is criticism but the remarkable thing is not how much but how little. 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.
In witnessing the lifestyles these individuals have, I found two things came together. First, there was a legal system overwhelmed by the nature of the crime committed by these young people, buttressed as it is by gangs and organised crime.
Second, these individuals 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.
Most of them are shaping up that way by the time they are in primary school or even in nursery. They then grow up in circumstances where their role models are drug dealers, pimps, people with knives and guns, people who will exploit them and abuse them but with whom they feel a belonging. Hence the gang culture that is so destructive.
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. 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.
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.
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. Elevate this into a high- faluting wail about a Britain that has lost its way morally and we will depress ourselves unnecessarily, trash our own reputation abroad and, worst of all, miss the chance to deal with the problem in the only way that will work.