We are once again being invited to have hysterics about the yoof of today, and yob culture, and once again Tony Blair presents himself to us as the father of the nation, pater patriae, the man who is figuratively going to put the offending yobbos over his knee and give them a damn good hiding on behalf of us all.
We the British public will never recover our individual and collective courage as long as we think that nanny Blair is going to deal with the problem himself.
Blair is not going to get yobs off the streets - you'll have to
It was like being drowned in molasses. It was like being hosed in treacle. I was lying in a state of after-lunch torpor while the eight-year-old was playing and replaying her favourite track, and through the door it stole, and up the bed and into my ear until it filled the fjords of my brain with such glutinous aspartame-flavoured schmaltz that at last I could take it no more and cried: "Enough!" James Blunt, I thought, it's time to get a grip! Come on, man: stop being so indescribably wet. If she's so beautiful, stop standing there in your T-shirt and floppy fringe, and hush your hopeless falsetto crooning.
Go out and get her, is my advice, and if James Blunt seems drippy next to the rock stars of the good old days, he is positively macho by comparison with the Kaiser Chiefs. These are the weeds from Leeds whose hit single was I predict a riot, a tale about the bourgeois apprehension of a chap who tries to get a taxi on a Saturday night in the centre of town.
"Watching the people get lairy/It's not very pretty I tell thee./ Walking through town is quite scary/And not very sensible either," sing these epic softies. Then the chap meets another chap in a tracksuit, who looks as though he might offer violence, but doesn't, and that's about it. It's pathetic!
When I was a nipper it was standard practice for a rock star to start the evening by biting the head off a pigeon and throwing the television out of the window before electrocuting his girlfriend in the bath and almost drowning in a cocktail of whisky, heroin and his own vomit. The self-respecting British punk rockers didn't get up on stage and start whimpering about how they predicted a riot. They incited riots. "White riot, I want a riot, white riot, a riot of my own," they sang, if my memory serves me correctly.
Let's face it, the rock star role models of yesterday were far more thuggish, brutal and in-yer-face than the rock stars of today, most of whom are almost embarrassing in their niceness; and if one thinks back to the 1970s and 1980s, it is clear that the riots were nastier, too. I make this elementary observation, because we are once again being invited to have hysterics about the yoof of today, and yob culture, and once again Tony Blair presents himself to us as the father of the nation, pater patriae, the man who is figuratively going to put the offending yobbos over his knee and give them a damn good hiding on behalf of us all.
And, of course, he is right, in this limited sense, that Britain has long boasted quite large numbers of ill-educated and ill-disciplined young people. He is right, too, that under Labour there are more and more families lost in the bottom 20 per cent of the heap, who are simultaneously over-taxed and over-dependent on welfare, and who do not always have a sense of social responsibility, to put it mildly. But there is something about Blair's solution that makes me ill, and it is not just the ghastly, patronising, mockney voice he adopts when he is saying something that he believes will have universal appeal on the estates of Britain.
What really depresses me is that these gimmicks probably will be immensely popular; and people will look at Blair blithering away about respect and say, yes, good on yer Tony, you tell them. Fine them! Send them to parenting classes! Confiscate their spray cans and send the whole family to the sin bin. Take their money away, even if it's only on suspicion that it may be ill-gotten.
My objection is not just that these measures are centralising and authoritarian - an objection that is unlikely to cut much ice with people enduring anti-social behaviour. The trouble with this stuff is that it once again lulls people into the belief that the Government is really going to sort out their problems, when the reality is that the whole of the new anti-yobbo programme, parenting classes and all, will be about as much use to thug-plagued estates as Blair's doomed plan to march them to cashpoints for on-the-spot fines - i.e. no use whatever.
The police already have a panoply of powers to deal with these characters; they just don't have the resources to be everywhere at once and all Tony is doing is intensifying the illusion that he, Big Tone, is going to descend on your noisy neighbours and bang them away, or send them on parenting courses.
He would go up hugely in my estimation if he fixed us with his glittering eye and said, y'know, there wasn't a lot he could do, immediately, about the problem of these thugs, not with a million children being failed by schools. But what about you, he should say, pointing at the public with a Kitchener-esque finger. What are you doing?
I dislike his gimmicks because at every stage personal or communal responsibility is replaced by the state, and the more completely government assumes responsibility for problem kids, the less people will understand that part of civility is having the courage to reprimand someone for spitting on a granny, and not pass by on the other side. If we continue to treat comparatively small acts of thuggishness as matters purely for the Government, then we will never get thuggishness off our streets, and we the British public will never recover our individual and collective courage as long as we think that nanny Blair is going to deal with the problem himself.
The sad truth about Blair's "announcements" is that they will play beautifully. Everyone will feel that someone is doing something about the problem, and everyone will slump back further into apathy and atomism. Mr Blair has obviously decided that his last months must be adorned with "eye-catching initiatives" with which he can be personally associated, so that no one can say he is going gentle into that good night.
But when the same old thugs and the same old families are causing the same old havoc, and the "problem family sin bins" have gone the way of other eye-catching initiatives he has promised, it may be that people will decide enough is enough. At this rate I don't predict a dignified and glorious exit from Downing Street. I predict a rout.