Leading Article: We've seen the caution, Mr Blair. Now where is the radicalism?
Monday 27 September 1999
There was a burst of constitutional radicalism right at the start of this Government, with independence for the Bank of England and devolution to Scotland and Wales. Then what?
What happened to freedom of information? Smothered. What happened to a fairer voting system? The long grass. What happened, above all, to our nation's destiny at the heart of Europe? A joint pamphlet with Gerhard Schroder which read as if it had been badly translated into German and then back again - before Mr Schroder took the Third Way to electoral meltdown. As for the single European currency; ah yes, well, there are conditions and... mumble, mumble.
Of course, Mr Blair's record to date is impressive and many good things have been done. But simply reciting the mantra of higher Child Benefit, the minimum wage and prudent economic management is not enough to carry a government into the future, to keep it one step ahead of voter disillusionment. The truth about the war against poverty is that it was slow to start and haphazard in strategy. The truth about the economy is that Gordon Brown inherited a golden legacy. That he managed to preserve it rather than throw it away is a huge achievement, but it is essentially a defensive one.
It is the defensiveness at the core of Mr Blair's Government that could be its undoing, and which Mr Blair should address in his conference speech tomorrow.
For all his attempts to portray himself as a daring moderniser, there is a sense in which New Labour has been fighting yesterday's battles. It is paradoxical that Mr Blair and his clique, who criticised the choice of John Smith as the leader to fight the previous election, should have ended up fighting the last war themselves. Mr Brown was right to be prudent, but did not need to be so rigid in sticking to Conservative spending limits in the first two years. It cannot have taken two years to work out where in the education and health services targeted extra spending could start to pay early dividends.
And now, says Mr Blair, he must avoid doing anything exciting because he must stay focused on winning the next election with a working majority, which would be a historic first for the Labour Party. So it would, but it must be said that a Labour win at the next election does not look, at this juncture, like a particularly tall order. The prospect raises the question of what precisely Mr Blair wants to do with what was effectively a double mandate granted to him at the last election - it was then that he was effectively given 10 years in which to go "on and on". He could have done what he liked, but what he liked to do turned out to be to sit tight.
So it is that his third conference as Prime Minister opens with speculation about the rift between him and his Chancellor.
What Mr Blair called the "titanic feud" between Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson, the full extent of which Donald Macintyre first revealed in our pages, has lent the early Blair Government something of the air of the late Thatcher government. As the rift between Mrs Thatcher and Nigel Lawson manifested itself, first in the dispute over her economic adviser, Sir Alan Walters, so New Labour already seems to have instability built in, right at its apex.
The only way for Mr Blair to overcome that is by regaining a sense of momentum.
On a wide range of issues, Mr Blair's instincts are not forward looking. On reform of the House of Lords, on the environment, on immigration and refugees, and on drugs, New Labour is behind the curve of history. On drugs, yesterday's plans for testing criminals and tougher bail conditions seem to be tackling the symptoms, whereas Charles Kennedy's call for a debate on cannabis at least begins to go to causes. And on taxes, the Government should not be thinking about tax cuts for middle and higher- income earners, but about liberating the working poor from the tax system altogether.
Mr Blair needs to throw caution to the wind. He needs to back his Foreign Secretary by agreeing that it would not be in Britain's interest to stay out of the euro for long. He needs to agree with Mr Mandelson that the case for joining the euro will become "unstoppable". He needs to say where he stands.
But, beyond that, he needs to come out and fight to make what could easily be a second landslide a meaningful mandate for wider modernisation. If he wins the next election, it should be clear that he has won in order to make this an open, liberal and democratic country.
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