Anger and praise for Blair's call to duty

John Rentoul reports on reactions to the `Spectator' speech
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Indy Politics
Tony Blair yesterday denied "stealing Tory clothes" in his speech on Wednesday in which he stressed the duties of citizens and urged tougher action on truancy and noisy neighbours. But his approach was attacked as simplistic by teaching unions.

As Mr Blair insisted that "the notion of respect for other people is an essentially Labour notion", Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, accused him of "playing to the gallery" by urging councils to take parents to court if their children miss school, a practice they called "a waste of time".

David Hart, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "You have to be tough on the causes of truancy as well as on truancy itself. Mr Blair is right to raise the issue, but it is a great deal more difficult than he understands."

But Mr Blair's Spectator lecture was enthusiastically supported by most Labour MPs, who took issue with reports that it was aimed at "Middle England", with the implication that the language of responsibility was for the middle class.

"It was about the real concerns on the council estates, where young people are terrorising old people, throwing stones at windows - we get these every week in our surgeries, the police just can't deal with it," Judith Church (Lab, Dagenham), said.

The lecture was welcomed across the political spectrum, with David Alton (Lib Dem, Liverpool Mossley Hill) saying: "I'm very pleased to hear what Tony Blair is saying about rights and duties. There has been an exaggerated emphasis on Bills of Rights in the past."

It received a more sarcastic welcome from Eric Pickles, Conservative Party vice-chairman, who said he could have written most of it himself. "The substantive difference would be that I would have believed in it," he told BBC Radio's The World at One programme.

Mr Blair was also condemned from within his own party. Alan Simpson (Lab, Nottingham South), secretary of the left-wing Campaign Group, said that Mr Blair should have told his well-heeled audience: "When we look around for the first people to draw [education] resources from, you are the ones who will have to pay more in tax."

Privately, one Labour frontbench spokesman asked: "Is it practical? If you take action against parents you tend to get them chucking the child out."

Dominic Lawson, editor of the Spectator, was reluctant to criticise Mr Blair's speech, for which he had provided the platform. He was "dazzled by the fluid visionary quality of his oratory, but the actual proposals did not rise above the municipal," he said.

Mr Lawson said that he was unimpressed by proposals for "kidnapping people's stereos - imagine if that had been the centrepiece of Wilson's programme in 1963".