Leading Article: Real radicalism needs substance, not just some good tunes, Mr Blair

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The Independent Culture
TONY BLAIR's speech was a compilation album of his "Greatest Hits". And some of his numbers still play well. "I'm not Just a Politician, I'm a Father"; "The Many, Not the Few"; "Strong Families in Strong Communities". But some of them are beginning to feel a little dated, such are the fickle tastes of the modern political consumer.

There did not need to be so many of the old "Dividing Lines" tunes, attempting to distinguish himself and his party from William Hague and The Weirdos.

Mr Blair protested too much that he was not part of the new Establishment, rolling up his sleeves to help underprivileged Stephen Hawkings with their physics homework. And he protested too much that Mr Hague was part of the "old order" that held people back - as if the Tory leader were personally standing at the university gates turning away bright children from working-class homes.

The Labour Party's private polling - which found that Mr Blair was in danger of being seen as arrogant and out of touch - strongly influenced the playlist. "No Vanity in Achievement" was essentially a reworking of an earlier hit, "We are the Servants Now" - and it sounds a lot less convincing the second time around.

The other powerful influence on Mr Blair's performance was the vigorous rendition early yesterday morning by Lord (Roy) Hattersley and the Fundamentalist Tub-Thumpers. In order to try to head off competition from that quarter, Mr Blair included some of the Labour Party's oldest hits, recorded before he broke away to embark on his solo career. His cover version of "Equality" had them stamping in the aisles, as did his homage to Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin.

He knows how to play his audience now. His confidence and his skill were impressive, even when they were dressed up with a lot of New Age rhetoric. Every time he tried something that the traditionalists did not like, he then hit them with a favourite riff to keep them happy.

So he said teachers would have to have performance-related pay, but then pleased them by asking why a good headteacher should not be paid as much as a doctor, a banker or a lawyer. So he criticised the BMA and told doctors to speed up the NHS Direct helpline, but only after cheering them up with a reversal of Margaret Thatcher's famous defence of private medicine. And when he used the "equality" word, it was to tell the conference that "the class war is over".

The few new tunes he had were disappointing. Getting dentistry back into the NHS is worthy, but not of such a great cheer as delegates gave it. Rewards for 16-to-18-year-olds to stay in education are long overdue, but what of education's quality?

On the big test, he took half a step towards making the case for joining the single European currency. For a moment we thought he was going to say something big, when he said that the real threat to the nation state came not from change but from refusal to change. And, by directly contradicting Hugh Gaitskell's claim that being in Europe was the "end of a thousand years of history", he raised expectations of a statement equally historic. But it just trailed off. "If we believe our destiny is in Europe, then let us play our part..." A missed opportunity indeed.

Mr Blair was keen to tell us what he is not. He is not the elite, not the Establishment, not a conservative with a big C or a little c. But what is he, apart from a preacher of uplifting sentiment? He said he was the leader of the New Radicals, and he meant the coalition of progressive forces that he assembled at the last election, not the moderately successful pop group. It is an important role for a political leader to preach, teach and paint visions, but real radicalism needs substance, not just a collection of good tunes.