Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband made excellent speeches last week and there was much to agree with in what they said. None the less, in the overall commentary on the riots, I think we are in danger of the wrong analysis leading to the wrong diagnosis, leading to the wrong prescription.
There were some proximate causes of what happened that are relatively easily dealt with. The police are under huge pressure. If they go in hard, they fear inquiry, disciplinary action and abuse. It's all very well to say that they should just follow the rules. The police need to know they have strong support from politicians and public. When the riots first occurred, they would have been naturally anxious as to how heavy to be. Once they saw the country behind them, they rallied.
But my experience with the police is they need 100% backing. Otherwise, you're asking a lot of the officer on the ground in a tough situation.
Then, some of the disorder was caused by rioters and looters who were otherwise ordinary young people who got caught in a life-changing mistake from which they will have to rebuild.
However, the big cause is the group of young, alienated, disaffected youth who are outside the social mainstream and who live in a culture at odds with any canons of proper behaviour. And here's where I don't agree with much of the commentary. In my experience, they are an absolutely specific problem that requires deeply specific solutions.
The left says they're victims of social deprivation, the right says they need to take personal responsibility for their actions; both just miss the point. A conventional social programme won't help them; neither – on their own – will tougher penalties.
The key is to understand that they aren't symptomatic of society at large. Failure to get this leads to a completely muddle-headed analysis.
Britain, as a whole, is not in the grip of some general "moral decline". I see young graduates struggling to find work today and persevering against all the odds. I see young people engaged as volunteers in the work I do in Africa, and in inter-faith projects. I meet youngsters who are from highly disadvantaged backgrounds where my Sports Foundation works in the north-east and I would say that today's generation is a) more respectable b) more responsible and c) more hard-working than mine was. The true face of Britain is not the tiny minority that looted, but the large majority that came out afterwards to help clean up.
I do think there are major issues underlying the anxieties reflected in disturbances and protests in many nations. One is the growing disparity of incomes not only between poor and rich but between those at the top and the aspiring middle class. Another is the paradigm shift in economic and political influence away from the west.
Each requires substantial change in the way we think and function.
However, I would be careful about drawing together the MPs' expenses row, bankers and phone-hackers in all this. We in politics love the grand philosophical common thread and I agree with Ed Miliband on the theme of responsibility.
I became an MP in 1983. Then, MPs were rarely full time, many didn't hold constituency surgeries and there were no rules of any bite governing expenses or political funding. So the idea that MPs today are a work-shy bunch of fraudsters, while back then they were high-minded public servants, is just rubbish: unfair, untrue and unhelpful.
Likewise with the boardroom. I agree totally with the criticisms of excess in pay and bonuses. But is this really the first time we have had people engaged in dubious financial practices or embracing greed, not good conduct? If anything, today's corporations are far more attuned to corporate social responsibility, far better in areas like the environment, far more aware of the need to be gender- and race-balanced in recruiting.
Britain gives generously to those in need abroad: faster and more than many other nations. At a time of cuts, our aid budget – which saves countless thousands of lives – is being protected. There is criticism but the remarkable thing is not how much but how little. The spirit that won the Olympic bid in 2005 – open, tolerant and optimistic – is far more representative of modern London than the criminality displayed by the people smashing shop windows.
And here is what I learned in 10 years of trying to deal with this issue. When I visited the so- called "bad areas", whether in Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, London or elsewhere, what I found was not a community out of control. What I found were individuals out of control in a community where the majority, even in the poorest of poor parts, was decent, law-abiding and actually desperate for action to correct the situation.
In witnessing the lifestyles these individuals have, I found two things came together. First, there was a legal system overwhelmed by the nature of the crime committed by these young people, buttressed as it is by gangs and organised crime.
Second, these individuals did not simply have an individual problem. They had a family problem. This is a hard thing to say and I am of course aware that this, too, is a generalisation. But many of these people are from families that are profoundly dysfunctional, operating on completely different terms from the rest of society, middle class or poor.
Most of them are shaping up that way by the time they are in primary school or even in nursery. They then grow up in circumstances where their role models are drug dealers, pimps, people with knives and guns, people who will exploit them and abuse them but with whom they feel a belonging. Hence the gang culture that is so destructive.
This is a phenomenon of the late 20th century. You find it in virtually every developed nation. Breaking it down isn't about general policy or traditional programmes of investment or treatment. The last government should take real pride in the reductions in inequality, the improvement in many inner-city schools and the big fall in overall crime. But none of these reaches this special group.
By the end of my time as prime minister, I concluded that the solution was specific and quite different from conventional policy. We had to be prepared to intervene literally family by family and at an early stage, even before any criminality had occurred. And we had to reform the laws around criminal justice, including on antisocial behaviour, organised crime and the treatment of persistent offenders. We had to treat the gangs in a completely different way to have any hope of success. The agenda that came out of this was conceived in my last years of office, but it had to be attempted against a constant backdrop of opposition, left and right, on civil liberty grounds and on the basis we were "stigmatising" young people. After I'd left, the agenda lost momentum. But the papers and the work are all there.In 1993, following James Bulger's murder, I made a case in very similar terms to the one being heard today about moral breakdown in Britain. I now believe that speech was good politics but bad policy. Focus on the specific problem and we can begin on a proper solution. Elevate this into a high- faluting wail about a Britain that has lost its way morally and we will depress ourselves unnecessarily, trash our own reputation abroad and, worst of all, miss the chance to deal with the problem in the only way that will work.