As the 1960s drew to a close, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the Moon, pop’s dopeheads were experimenting with ten-minute-long guitar solos, and a mop-haired Tony Blair was in the sixth form at Fettes where, in between canings for insolence, he was railing against fagging. Now, we are led to believe, the Prime Minister has decided that the decade of his youth was all a ghastly mistake. Launching his government’s latest five-year plan on crime, he declared the ‘end of the 1960s liberal, social consensus on law and order’. In other words, he was wrong and the likes of ‘Bugger’, as one especially cane-happy beak at Fettes was nicknamed, had it right.
We have seen enough of Tony Blair by now to know what to make of his sudden declaration of war against 1960s values. It is all a load of hot air, designed to play to the Daily Mail readers whom he still fears even after winning two general elections against that newspaper’s implacable opposition. If the Prime Minister was really going to take on the ‘liberal, social consensus of the 1960s’ it would mean rejecting two of the central liberal reforms of the time: namely the legalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults and the legalisation of abortion. What chance of him following his initiative to this logical end? None at all.
It is feeble to attempt to blame today’s crime wave on social change 40 years ago. A rant against 1960s values might have made a good political speech in 1973, but to deliver it now is mere laziness. Or perhaps more correctly, in Mr Blair’s case, it is a calculated attempt to entice into his big tent a few lazy-minded emblazered old buffs down at the Lamb and Flag who are still frothing at the very idea of miniskirts and the Beatles.
That it is hard to walk down any urban street in Britain these days without witnessing some sign of antisocial behaviour, if not to be clobbered over the head and relieved of your wallet, has little to do with 1960s values. It has much, on the other hand, to do with Tony Blair’s values. It wasn’t a Californian social psychologist with a sharp haircut who turned our policemen into impotent pen-pushers by forcing them to spend much of their time collecting data on the ethnic origin of their ‘customers’, and made them disinclined to apprehend criminals for fear of falling victim to charges of ‘institutional racism’. It wasn’t some doped-up Sixties anarchist who enshrined the European Charter on Human Rights into British law, empowering and encouraging criminals to sue their victims for injuries received while breaking into houses. Never mind Woodstock, never mind Dr Spock; back in the 1960s English bobbies were still plodding their beats merrily clipping miscreant kids around the ear. Give a teenage delinquent the choice between plying his trade in the law-and-order environment of the 1960s and that of the present day, and there is little doubt which he would choose.
Implicit in the Prime Minister’s speech condemning 1960s values is the assertion that society has undergone some kind of moral decay. This canard against the general public is frequently repeated but is without foundation. It is true that we have moved from an age of collectivism to one of individualism, and that in the process many villages and suburbs appear less friendly than they used to. But there is nothing to suggest that the average Briton is less able to distinguish right from wrong than was the case 40 years ago. On the contrary, the Home Office’s statistics show that the criminal fraternity is tiny but prolific: a body of just 5,000 people, it says, is responsible for one in ten crimes. To adapt Winston Churchill, never before in the history of law and order has so much been committed against so many by so few.
The failure to tackle crime lies in the failure to act against this small number of criminals. To be fair, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, acknowledges this: his five-year plan for law and order turns its fire on the 5,000 ‘prolific and priority offenders’. Yet the government’s record on fighting crime suggests that this initiative will end up taking a form that affects us all rather than only the criminals. Just look at the anti-crime measures which it has already taken or proposed: banning sporting pistols in a futile attempt to cut gun-crime, obliging telephone companies to keep records of our emails for as long as five years, proposing a national database of those accused — not just those convicted — of sex offences.
When Tony Blair speaks of rejecting 1960s values, perhaps this is what he really means: countering the spirit of freedom with which that decade is associated. When he speaks contemptuously of the ‘liberal, social consensus of the 1960s’, it isn’t so much criminals he has in his sights as the ordinary freedom-loving citizen wafting on to some beach in a multicoloured Volkswagen Beetle, battered surfboard strapped to the roof. There were good and bad things about the 1960s, but we are far from confident that the Prime Minister would share our view as to which was which.