Mr Blair sneaks Cool Britannia in through the back door

No minister will dare utter the words ever again. But it has become the linchpin of government once more
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WELCOME BACK to Cool Britannia. Now I know no one has actually dared to use the much-derided term over the past few days. Probably no minister will dare to utter the words ever again. But modernisation, a theme which Cool Britannia was supposed to convey, has become the linchpin of the Government's narrative once more.

Incongruously, the Queen mentioned the word in the second sentence of her speech this week, when she declared that the legislative programme would "focus upon the modernisation of the country". The bold declaration was a mere appetiser for what was to follow from her unlikely lips. There will be a "modern" NHS, legislation to "modernise" the youth courts, to "modernise" legal aid, and to "modernise" the welfare state, including "modernising" benefits for widows. Geddit? We stand for modernisation.

The theme has not been rammed home so persistently by the Queen, or anyone else, for quite some time. For the Government, with such a high reputation for presentation, has struggled to find a narrative which explains its wider purpose. The Third Way has been one such attempt, and is far from dead as far as Tony Blair is concerned. Indeed, the head of his policy unit, David Miliband, travels the world taking part in Third Way seminars. He has just returned from Brazil where, apparently, it is all the rage.

But even the most ardent adherents would accept that the Third Way has hardly caught the public imagination. In my view, it never will, as it is a term which can be applied to just about any thing. Nor, in its woolliness, does it do justice to the compelling synthesis of policies which New Labour has achieved so far.

Other catchlines come and go. There is "prudence with a purpose", which tends to make an appearance when Gordon Brown speaks, although Blair uses it as well. There have been "new dividing lines", "standards, not structures", and many other well-known phrases which have applied to specific policies. None of them have conveyed a sense of a coherent programme towards a recognised goal.

The theme of modernisation has been flirted with before, but was dropped when Cool Britannia became a joke. You will look in vain for any big speeches on this theme in the first nine months of the year. But now the Queen, not required yet to mouth the words "Third Way", has made clear that modernisation is the Government's overriding theme. There can be no going back on it now. Quite right too, because as a label it has the tactical advantages of the vagueness of the Third Way, but still gives genuinely a flavour of what this Government is all about.

New Labour tends to favour rhetoric which sounds decisive and strong, but actually leaves considerable room for manoeuvre. Stakeholding was dropped as a theme the moment it came to mean something. But "modernisation" is by no means a vacuous notion. It can be accurately applied to all the Government's policies in a way it could not have been to all of those pursued by the previous Conservative administrations.

New Labour is indisputably modernising the constitution in a way which makes the traditional rituals of the Queen's Speech look already more ridiculously dated than ever. Incidentally, in one of his interviews after the Speech, Tony Blair strongly defended the pageantry of the day when asked why it had not become more modern, saying how much he liked it personally. This is classic New Labour territory. It hints at modernising the ceremony, does little about it but creates an atmosphere where there is quite a clamour for its reform. At some point, Blair will act as an almost reluctant reformer, succumbing to public opinion, and scale down the pageantry, which is what he probably wanted to do in the first place.

But in a way which has been underestimated so far, the Government is also modernising the relationship between public spending and the delivery of services. This is the flip side of the debate about taxation, which tends to get all the attention. Before the election, Labour appeared to accept the Thatcherite consensus that public spending was sinful, starving Middle England taxpayers of the cash they needed to buy a second car or a better CD player. So stifling had this debate become that although Blair and Gordon Brown had decided privately in advance of the election to pump more money into education and health immediately afterwards, they did not dare say so.

Having won back some of the voters' trust on the issue of taxation, the debate is being moved on, in an attempt to convince voters that the Government can indeed be trusted to spend more of their money. This is why the reforms to the NHS and education that were highlighted in the Queen's speech are as important as the much more historic Lords reform. They will make more demands of teachers and doctors, in exchange for the substantial increase in spending in these areas.

The political stakes could not be higher. Voters need to notice a significant difference in these areas, so that a link can be made once more between higher spending and tangible improvements to their lives. There are, of course, risks in the modernisation theme. A country can never be truly modern with the chronic transport problems which afflict Britain. I never feel less "cool" than waiting for a train which never arrives, in the pouring rain on a vandalised railway platform. Nor are foreign tourists impressed. I recall one grim morning, feeling, and probably looking, like Basil Fawlty on a bad day, waiting on a platform reading a rain-sodden newspaper , which reported the plans for a Blair/Clinton summit that would take in a "modern" Conran restaurant. Next to me, a group of soaked American tourists whined: "This country is a shithole." We will not be truly modern until the trains run on time.

There is, though, one potentially huge political reward from the modernisation theme. The more the Conservatives oppose the policies associated with it, the more backward looking they will seem, clinging on to the past as the country moves forward. They were on the wrong side of the argument in the referendum for a Scottish parliament. They are on it again, in appearing to support the hereditary Lords. They will be so if they dance to the drumbeat of a backward-looking English nationalism, and oppose closer ties with Europe.

William Hague does not need to rebrand himself to appear "modern". His party needs to find ways of adapting its policies to the new terrain. In the same way that, in the Eighties, the "Labour party", as a name, became a vote loser, demanding a rechristening, the "Conservatives" may also have to think again. The name of their party no longer resonates, as Britain approaches the Millennium in a "cool" frame of mind.

Steve Richards is political editor of the `New Statesman'

Comments