So is society fractured or isn’t it? Politicians’ views on this seem to depend on whether they are in office at the time. When you are in opposition, a spate of street shootings—or even the distinctly atypical murder of a toddler (James Bulger) by two maladjusted children—can be a sign of endemic social breakdown.
But when your party is in power, gang members killing one another with apparent impunity is a “specific problem” in a small minority of the population. Not surprising, then, that David Cameron opts for the societal meltdown analysis while Tony Blair prefers to see the latest eruption of gun violence as an isolatable phenomenon which should not be taken as a “metaphor” (I think he meant “symbol”) for the country as a whole.
They are both right, and they are both missing the same crucial point. Mr Blair is clearly correct when he says that most teenagers are not members of armed gangs, and that the majority of young people in Britain are not even involved in low-level anti-social behaviour. The problem of gun crime is, as he says, almost entirely limited to what he calls a specific small sub-culture.
But while the actual crimes with which we are all so concerned at the moment are characteristic of a very small, identifiable minority in clearly locatable parts of our inner cities, the fact that they are occurring is not unconnected to the social and political philosophy which his party has endorsed (and which Mr Cameron’s party is failing to repudiate).
The sub-culture to which Mr Blair alludes in his coded way is that of black delinquency (the mores of which have drawn in quite a few non-black participants).
That neither he nor Mr Cameron will say precisely this (although they both go so far as to refer to the influence of rap music) is central to our failure to cope with it.
Just as using the word “black” in this context is to lay oneself open to the smear of racism, any perceptible targeting of black youths for particular attention by the police lays officers open to career-ending disciplinary procedures.
The “sus” laws, which allowed officers to stop and search people on suspicion of carrying weapons or drugs, were scrapped because they were said to be a form of racial harassment.
That was the beginning of what became a systematic programme of denial, the ultimate consequence of which was that blameless black people were left unprotected in effectively unpoliced neighbourhoods, and that many black mothers were left to grieve for their sons.
When your child has been shot, having droves of police combing the scene for forensic evidence after the event must offer little comfort. What you and your neighbours need is the kind of fearless, effectual police presence that will prevent these crimes from happening in the first place—and that does not mean “social outreach” or “working with community leaders”.
For the police to be nice to the most conscientious people in the neighbourhood is all well and good, but getting through to that small, specific minority of armed drug gangs involves something quite different—and it is often not “nice” at all.
The women in those communities who campaign against gun crime know this, but their courage is almost never matched by political spokesmen, for whom the fear of being labelled racist is rather more urgent than the fear of having their children shot in cold blood. (And, in Mr Cameron’s case, maybe the drugs question helps to make this an untouchable issue on another level altogether.)
But this is not all about gun crime in the black community. Most anti-social behaviour is a white youth problem but it is still, in Mr Blair’s terms, “specific”.
So Mr Cameron’s argument for society being fractured is—forgive the condescension—perhaps more right than he knows.
When he talks of the family breakdown, the failure of paternal responsibility, and the collapse of parental authority that seems to be epidemic in Britain, he is describing a minority phenomenon.
In affluent, middle-class life (which now constitutes a much larger proportion of our society than it did a generation ago), parenthood has never been a more conscientious vocation.
In my experience, today’s young parents are devoted to the welfare of their children to the point of obsession: a devotion which, perhaps to an unprecedented degree, involves fathers as much as mothers.
It is not British parenting as a whole that is failing. It is a segment of it: a noisy, belligerent, feckless, disruptive segment, the consequences of whose behaviour can wreak havoc on the quality of life of inordinate numbers of people in its vicinity.
Society is indeed fractured: it is broken into different parts which are growing more and more dissimilar to one another. The failing part is living in a parallel universe where irresponsibility is a way of life.
Isolated by welfare dependency from the need to come to terms with what has traditionally been considered the role of adults, which begins with the obligation to provide for a family, that part of society is being left behind in a morass of hopelessness and futile bitterness in which alcohol and drugs, and the anarchic thrill of delinquency, are ready diversions.
So it is literally true, as Mr Cameron says, that we have too many “adults behaving like children”, but I doubt somehow that he will recommend the radical reform of a welfare state which has made it possible (and even economically advisable) for fathers to abandon their children and for teenage girls to choose single motherhood as a lifestyle.
He talks of restoring support for marriage in the tax and benefit system, but would he actively dismantle the benefit support system which has created welfare ghettos?
What about Mr Blair? Will he acknowledge the role that has been played in this mess by his party’s commitment to non-judgmental permissiveness—which has left communities unable to defend themselves and the police afraid to protect them?
And will he ever say a word about the greatest retreat of his premiership: the abandonment of welfare reform that he once rightly believed was essential to restoring Britain’s moral health?
The whole country may not be going to hell in a handcart. But that does not diminish the problem we face with some parts of it, which we have no chance of solving unless politicians speak frankly about the existence of an underclass and the part they have played in creating it.