In a speech on 19 July 2004, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, blamed the 1960s for many of the social ills besetting Britain at the moment. As he announced his government’s renewed efforts to deal with crime, he declared ‚the end the 60s liberal consensus on law and order”, blaming the swinging 60s for today’s epidemic of crime and anti-social behaviour. Summarily dismissing the Baby Boomers’ favourite decade is a risky political strategy. Is he serious?

In his own words, here are some extracts of Blair’s speech:
‚The 1960s saw a huge breakthrough in terms of freedom of expression, of lifestyle, of the individual’s right to live their own personal life in the way they choose. It was the beginning of a consensus against discrimination, in favour of women’s equality, and the end of any sense of respectability in racism or homophobia. Not that discrimination didn’t any longer exist – or doesn’t now – but the gradual acceptance that it was contrary to the spirit of a new time. Deference, too, was on the way out and rightly. It spoke to an increasing rejection of rigid class divisions.
All of this has survived and strengthened in today’s generation. But with this change in the 1960s came something else, not necessarily because of it but alongside it. It was John Stuart Mill who articulated the modern concept that with freedom comes responsibility. But in the 1960’s revolution, that didn’t always happen. Law and order policy still focussed on the offender’s rights, protecting the innocent, understanding the social causes of their criminality. All through the 1970s and 1980s, under all Governments, a key theme of legislation was around the prevention of miscarriages of justice. Meanwhile some took the freedom without the responsibility. The worst criminals became better organised and more violent. The petty criminals were no longer the bungling but wrong-headed villains of old; but drug pushers and drug-abusers, desperate and without any residual moral sense. And a society of different lifestyles spawned a group of young people who were brought up without parental discipline, without proper role models and without any sense of responsibility to or for others. All of this was then multiplied in effect, by the economic and social changes that altered the established pattern of community life in cities, towns and villages throughout Britain and throughout the developed world.
Here, now, today, people have had enough of this part of the 1960s consensus. People do not want a return to old prejudices and ugly discrimination. But they do want rules, order and proper behaviour. They know there is such a thing as society. They want a society of respect. They want a society of responsibility. They want a community where the decent law-abiding majority are in charge; where those that play by the rules do well; and those that don’t, get punished.‛
As a political move, this is a dangerous ploy indeed. Of course, Tony Blair is well into desperation territory, having had a shocking year politically. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that he has resorted to high risk strategies.
But will this one work?
The Baby Boomers are a powerful generation, with a strong sense of purpose and nostalgia. They were born after the Second World War and through into the 60s. The oldest Boomers came of age during the 60s, and although the youngest might not have actual memories of the 60s, its ethos drives and informs them to this day. Blair has accurately, if simplistically, described the era in his speech. But I believe he has misjudged the Boomers to whom his speech is addressed. He has also misjudged the younger generations who need to be wooed by all parties for the next election.
It appears as if his primary target is middle aged voters, probably with teenage children. He wants to let them know that he and his government are dealing with delinquency and crime (and will continue to do so after the next election, if they are re-elected). What he has succeeded in doing is to question and negate the one era of history that these Boomers hold dear.
Tony Blair is no fool. This move will have been well designed and its implications fully thrashed out. But it is misguided. The editorial in The Spectator of 24 July 2004, correctly argues that blaming the modern crime wave on social changes of 40 years ago ‚might have made a good political speech in 1973, but to deliver it now is mere laziness‛. Or, more likely an attempt to appeal to lazy privileged people, stuck in their ivory towers of 1950s morality. It may be true that the 60s saw one of society’s most rapid shifts in general values, but it is untrue that the average person today has less ability to choose between right and wrong than the average person in the 60s. And if hooligans and criminals were asked which law enforcement environment they’d prefer to operate in, I’d guess that most would choose today’s, where (at least in Britain and the US), housebreakers can sue home owners for injuries sustained during a robbery, and where policemen can’t do their work for fear of lawsuits for wrongful arrest and ‚brutality‛.
While the 60s may be to ‚blame‛ for a shift in values, the solution is not a return to pre-1960s societal strictures. Rather, it lies in new and creative approaches to the current problems in the current era. These include giving the police more powers (with obvious checks and balances being put in place), and protecting the rights of the victim more than the rights of the perpetrators. It also involves making systemic changes, such as updating the world’s creaking education systems to ensure young people are genuinely trained and ready to enter the world of work, dealing with growing unemployment and growing fears amongst those still employed in industrial era industries, and changing the welfare system so that it no longer encourages people to opt out of working society.
Most Boomers are likely to see Blair’s speech as a cheap shot. This will be picked up in the ubiquitous opinion polls utilised by all governments these days, and a group of 26 year old analysts will quietly instruct Downing Street to let this rationale disappear with no further comment � going the way of so many other well intentioned but misled ‚initiatives‛ of recent years. Those Boomers who oppose Blair will simply see this as further ammunition, while some who have not yet decided about the next election may be tempted away from him and his Labour party.
But probably the most dangerous consequence for Blair is how young people may perceive this statement. Around the world, Generation Xers, born largely in the 1970s and 80s, are opting out of the political processes of democratic countries. Most of them see little value in connecting with politicians who are perceived to be spin doctors, fickle and wholly untrustworthy. Xers are voting with their feet, staying away from polls and refusing to sign up with political parties. Xers are tired of two-faced politicians who are quick to take cheap shots, change their minds, and govern by opinion poll rather than conviction, principle or policy. Xers have largely given up on the Boomers.
One of the causes of this apathy is quite powerfully illustrated by the generational gap between George Bush, sr, and George W Bush, jr. Bush senior is from the GI generation and his son is a Boomer. The stark difference between them is described by Washington columnist, Jurek Martin, who wrote in the Financial Mail (‚Behind the Second Bush‛, SA, 28 March 2003):
‚The father fought honourably in war and knew its costs. He was an internationalist in his bones, a vice-president, head of the CIA, ambassador to China and the UN, and knew that the Cold War meant America needed friends and allies. He called Texas home but was a Yankee patrician at heart, diffident about public expressions of religious faith and steeped in the arts of diplomacy.
The son, who avoided military service during the Vietnam war, is a proud Texan, disdainful of the sophisticated eastern establishment (Washington, New York) that was the paternal milieu. He never hides his religious convictions and believes in Biblical concepts of good and evil, love and hate. Freed of the constraints and obligations of the Cold War, he sees a world where might is right and where America is, by a country mile, the mightiest of all � yet simultaneously the most threatened and misunderstood. His duty, as he conceives it, is above all to protect its security in a dangerous new world, by whatever means necessary.‛
So there you have it, father and son, two totally different personalities, shaped by the generational times into which they were born and grew up. And Xers are not connecting with the Boomer mindset.
Yet, Tony Blair’s attempt to write off the 1960s will probably have a negative backlash from the Xers. They often perceive their Baby Boomer elders as having the best of all possible worlds, while ruining it for the Xers. The Boomers appear to be spending the second half of their lives glorying old age, after spending the first half glorifying youth. They appear to be legislating against the excesses of their own youth. This will not go down well with Xers.
I am sure that this little episode will disappear and not be repeated, and, as such, will be relegated to the archives of political speech making. But the warning signs are there. Politicians are starting to understand that connecting with Xer voters is a critical issue for the years ahead. And it will take more than clever speeches and cheap shots to win them over.

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