Magazine article The Spectator

Memo to Gordon: It's the Broken Society, Stupid

Magazine article The Spectator

Memo to Gordon: It's the Broken Society, Stupid

Article excerpt

British politics used to be dominated by the country's relentless economic decline. Long before James Carville's mantra for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential election bid -- 'It's the economy, stupid' -- it was the economy which determined British general elections and alternative economic policies which most divided the parties.

I spent most of my early career as a journalist chronicling this economic decline and commenting on it. I travelled to Germany, Scandinavia, even Italy to bring back stories of how Continental companies were more efficient, their bosses more impressive, their unions more reasonable, their products, from cars to fridges, far superior. Most of the serious media did this sort of thing: the aim was to shame Britain into upping its game; but for a long while it seemed as if we were wasting our time.

By the mid-1970s, Britain's relative economic decline had become so engrained in the national psyche, so impervious to solutions from either the Left or the Right, that parts of the British Establishment had effectively given up: senior Whitehall mandarins and leading opinion-formers began to talk quietly about the 'civilised management of decline'. It was a measure of how hopeless things had become that accommodating decline had become a more realistic prospect than reversing it.

Today, as a new Prime Minister steps up to the plate, all that seems ancient history. The economic question no longer dominates British politics or separates the parties (indeed, I would be hard put to tell you any major difference between Labour and the Tories on economic policy) and economic decline no longer permeates our political discourse.

A combination of the Thatcher reforms and the decade-long Blair-Brown duumvirate has achieved what was once deemed impossible: Britain has stopped declining. The British economy might not be quite the modern miracle Gordon Brown claims, but it is no longer the basket case it once was. It is part of our new Prime Minister's claim to the top job that he deserves much of the credit for this. But his first lesson in the hot seat is likely to be that there is no gratitude in politics: the British now take for granted that they no longer have a Broken Economy; they are much more exercised about the Broken Society.

During the Blair-Brown decade social concerns -- what kind of society we have become -- have gradually replaced economic worries. People fear that we have become an increasingly fragmented, boorish, more violent society. The new barbarism of the Broken Society stalks not just the dilapidated parts of our inner cities but the high streets of once placid market towns.

Of course, the social trends which are now defining us started long before Mr Blair entered Downing Street; but they have grown worse under his watch. Violent crime has doubled during his decade. Gun crime has soared: in parts of our inner cities it is almost as ubiquitous as it is in America's ghettoes. In some areas of criminal endeavour we've even overtaken America: you are now much more likely to be mugged or burgled in London than New York, a remarkable reversal of fortune on 20 years ago.

Britain may or may not be blighted by a feral media but many people are in no doubt, as this week's survey from Barnardo's reveals, that we are blighted by a feral youth, often financed and fuelled by drugs, which is out of control and beyond the law. Every day brings fresh horror stories from the frontline of the Broken Society: teenagers are shot in their beds in gangland tit-for-tat killings; a youth is chased through the streets of West London by a gang of 14-yearolds shouting 'Kill him, kill him' -- which they do when they catch him, with a stab to the heart. This week another schoolboy was murdered in a pre-arranged mass gang brawl in Beckenham: he was beaten to a pulp with chains and baseball bats, then stabbed in the back.

Britain is now living with the consequences of allowing an underclass to take root and fester. …

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