Good God, did I really say that? My immediate reaction was to bite off my tongue. My three colleagues (we were relaxing over a beer in a cubicle at Hugo’s – our local pub – rather than over a chaste cup of tea in the staff room) stared at me, open mouthed.
What had I said? Well, I'll tell you: “Tony Blair is dead right!” That’s what I had said. Really. The morning newspapers had carried the story of some new pronouncement from the Prime Minister on dealing with difficult youth. There was nothing new in this. He tended to put his big foot in his mouth on this subject every few days, and his ideas were invariably met with jeers and outrage.
Sue Elliot had recently made an equally outrageous suggestion: “If you gave me the choice,” she had thought aloud during an argument a week or so before (also at Hugo's), “Given the choice, I would rather have been brought up by Maggie Thatcher than by Tony Blair!” The other three of us were caught off guard: as Sue was talking we had all three been sucking through the creamy foam atop our newly-filled glasses, and in unison we had exploded our beer all over the table. (Very disapproving glances from the next table.) We demanded from her, respectively, a retraction, an apology and an explanation.
“Well,” said Sue, with surprising authority. “At least with Maggie I would have known where I stood. The world would still be rational.”
"Rational?” demanded Gregory. “Woman, explain thyself!”
We were used to being asked to explain ourselves. Back at the ranch (Preston House, 40 beds, serious kids) our team had opted for group supervision rather than the individual variety. We had thought at the time that as a group we could easily outnumber a supervisor, but we hadn’t banked on Marjorie Summers. Tough character. For one thing, she knew her stuff, which by itself put us all at a disadvantage! For another, she played us like the instruments of an orchestra. In one session she would single us out (clarinet, viola, big bass drum) “and then get us all building an idea together and feeling very fulfilled (tutti). On another she would adopt a maddeningly and persistently Socratic approach asking “What do you mean by ...?” or “Do you think that ...?” so that one or other of us was really on the back foot ... and on yet another day we would be role-playing a situation, marvellously directed by this brilliant leader who made us feel that we had staged one of the plays of William You-Know-Who. One day she’d go all didactic on us (Miss Marble, we’d call her, though none of us could remember why) and on another she would be a profoundly insightful and empathetic support. But we were always prepared to “explain ourselves”.
On that Maggie Thatcher/Tony Blair occasion, Sue, I thought, made her point very well. Maggie was the dyed-in-the-wool conservative, nay, Conservative. “Her script was well known and predictable, so had a certain internal consistency about it. One could have played Maggie.” By contrast, Tony Blair is your frightfully ever-so-sensible, shoot-from-the-hip, throw-the-book-at-them guy who can’t bear the sight of blood when it comes to difficult kids. Lock them up, kick them out of school, slap them with an ASBO. That'll teach them.
The past week had therefore been filled with ironic Thatcherisms and Blairisms during our regular escapes from the ranch to Hugo's. Like all child and youth care workers (so we thought) we were always shouting the odds about certain methods and approaches in our work – and just as often wanting to change the awful, mismanaged world which continually produced troubled families and hurting youth. Our rage and ridicule would be directed as much at the “punitives and consequencers” in Preston House as at the pathetic politicians and administrators in Westminster, County Hall or the City – whichever was nearer!
In support of Sue’s opinion, I must agree that Blair had been through some particularly disturbing troughs in his IQ scores recently. One of his real doozies had been the idea that when kids play truant their parents should be thrown into prison! Worse, he actually put this into practice. From the point of view of every profession in the world (from aromatherapy to animal husbandry), what earthly help would this be? While he was filling up young offender institutions he had another eminently sensible idea: we must demand respect from disaffected young people. Demand it. No doubt he had a quiver full of appropriate contingencies up his sleeve to deal with the non-compliant, or at least some self-delusional medication which might have helped. While he was appointing new teams and commissions and things, he added truly creative dimensions to his ASBO ideas: throw whole families out of their houses and out of their estates (suburbs) if their kids continue to annoy. Oh boy, what brilliant interventions! And while we have the troublesome and disrespectful on the run, let’s exclude them from the shopping malls or anywhere else where they tend to assemble when they are bored and looking for stimulation and companionship.
You can imagine how we took off child and youth care expert Tony Blair and his encounters with the really troubled youth of the UK. He was the (no doubt surprised and offended) butt of our pub (and staff-room) role-plays. We longed to be able to pit him against our Marjorie Summers, who now became our champion against the dimwit of Downing Street. “And upon what do you base this cretinous idea, Mr Prime Minister? Could you explain yourself!” Mr Blair, of course, could not. He is, after all, a politician, and politicians do not think. They base their pearls of wisdom on what the opinion polls suggest as the most popular sentiment of the moment, and fire away.
He (Mr Blair, that is) was not yet finished with the youth. We found ourselves remembering (by repute) the 1950's when kids were classified as to whether they had British Army haircuts or “ducktail” styled hair cuts. All problems with young people might be solved by the barbers of Britain: trim off the hair so that there are no more ducktails – or in the next decade no Beatle-style haircuts – or in the next decade no country singers' long hair ... you get the message. Do away with what looks like non-conformity. So Mr Blair and his advisers moved into the world of fashion. In one of their “that'll teach 'em” moods they proposed that troublesome youth sentenced to community service should wear orange overalls to distinguish them from the law-abiding public. Two thousand years ago in ancient Rome the authorities carved the word FUR (maybe it looked like FVR because the Romans couldn’t do u’s) into the foreheads of thieves – the Latin word fur means thief. Well, like the orange uniforms, that’d leave no shred of self-image, would it? Then they went for the track-suits with hoods. Kids wearing “hoodies” were instantly tried, judged and sentenced, whether they were baddies or goodies.
I’m getting ahead of myself. We are still in that week of Sue Elliot’s preference for Maggie Thatcher as a hypothetical parent. I need hardly say that now Maggie was a political has-been and posed no current threat to anyone, and that we had all come to see Sue's point about Tony Blair. He was definitely not top of the hit parade in our particular clique. Give us Maggie 29 days out of thirty ...
And here am I (go back to paragraph 1) having just expressed the unutterable: “Tony Blair is dead right!” And am I in trouble! But let me explain, to you the reader as much to Sue, Henry and Stuart (to fill you in on our fearful foursome). What Blair had said in the morning paper (whether this was his idea or that of a speech writer, I don’t know ... probably a speech writer, for Tony could not possibly have gone so out of character in so short a time ... ) sorry, I keep digressing ... what Blair had said was that when kids are quite insufferable at school they should be sent home (well, that’s Tony, for sure, but then he went on ...) and they should not be sent home to an empty house but one of their parents must be at home when they get there and while they are at home!
Maybe it’s too much to hope for, but has Tony made the ultimate volte-face? ("about-face” for those of you for whom there is far too much Latin and French in this piece). Has he, please God, experienced some epiphany, actually recognised the fact that rejection, blaming, judgement, labelling, banishment and humiliation are not the way to engage with the younger generation, and that he has previously altogether missed the heart of the problem our industrialised societies have with kids – namely that we do separate ourselves from youngsters as generations and that we do fail to challenge and reject the heresy that young and old should not mix socially, whether in families, communities, schools and cities; that we don’t bond with our kids and spend time with them and admire them and enjoy their thinking and their company; that our timetables and jobs and roles and working hours are more important to us than the seemingly unprofitable time we might spend with them ... Has Tony finally realised that adults are responsible for accompanying their kids through the first 18 or 21 or 25 (select whichever fits for you) years of their lives, and that teaching them, loving them, modelling for them, talking with them, listening to them, supporting them, correcting them, and forgiving them, are our primary (not secondary) tasks as adults and families and communities?
"Here, for the first time,” I conclude my case before my detractors Sue, Henry and Stuart, “Tony Blair has emphasised that when our kids get into difficulty we grown-ups should get alongside them rather than get rid of them. We should show we are concerned rather than merely disgusted; we should acknowledge that the situation is important to all of us and not just another example of their tiresome, juvenile acting out ... “
The voting on my impassioned motion was 3-1. I won't say which was for or against. Certainly there was enough feeling aroused for there to be a full, free and fair vote. We ended the evening as continuing friends and all reported for duty the next morning, sober and sensible, at the ranch.
I wonder! Could Tony be for real?