The Conservatives have ruled Britain for the past 17 years. What have they actually achieved? Paul Barker reflects on the remaking of Britain; overleaf, Peter Kellner looks at the figures
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Nowhere is more distant than the recent past. Before the Conservatives came to power in May 1979, you had a Britain with no Channel Tunnel, no Canary Wharf (where this newspaper, which also did not exist, is now produced), no Charles-and-Di saga (not married, never mind divorced), and no inner- city riots. John Lennon was alive and fairly well, and living in New York. No one had been diagnosed with Aids. The only thing most people knew about Argentina was its stage-door success as the background of the latest Webber- Rice musical, Evita, and its bitter-sweet hit-song.

Do I cry for that dead world? In many ways, no. But it has been a rocky ride. Alfred North Whitehead wrote that "the major advances in civilisation are processes which almost wreck the societies in which they occur." Has it, in fact, been an advance? There have certainly been heaps of wreckage. Institution after institution has been shaken to its foundations. This has been the Conservatism of Robert Peel (begetter of the police force and of Corn Law reform), not the Conservatism of Lord Salisbury (never change today what you can put off till tomorrow).

Visually, the Channel Tunnel and Canary Wharf are the Yin and Yang of Thatcherism. I think the lady herself is prouder of the tower. Hers, paradoxically, were the years of Yang, of machismo, of stand-on-your-own-feet. Little interest in cradle-to-grave, plenty of interest in money-into-pocket. (In this, as in every other way, Majorism is only Mark II Thatcherism.)

Mrs Thatcher's populist memorial is the proud array of neo-Georgian doors and carriage lamps on thousands of council houses, bought at a knock-down price by their tenants. It was the greatest-ever gift of wealth to the working class in British history.

Architects build public dreams; and these were the years of flash. In 1983, TVam unveiled Britain's first sizeable post-modern monument as its new headquarters. Like the fledgling station, it was all show and little substance. Thereafter, every major public building - from Richard Rogers's new Lloyds insurance offices (the most glittering coffin an institution ever commissioned for itself) to Terry Farrell's Wurlitzer-like Embankment Place - shouted, "Look at me." In these years, opera suddenly, and probably briefly, became a popular art. Building design also became a form of theatre; or, as one practitioner said, "B-movie architecture".

The Conservatives relentlessly waved the flag - but made Britain more and more American. People talked constantly about money. The FT-SE share index rivalled the weather forecast. Men in braces and women in shoulder pads paraded in front of computer terminals to interpret the wild twists in the economy. The British went mad on gadgets : astonishing percentages of video-recorders, of personal computers, of mobile phones. The thieves and burglars followed on behind, adapting their targets to the latest techno-fashion.

American-style mass higher education arrived, with one in three school- leavers beginning a degree course. The production of logos became a boom industry: every ex-poly commissioned one; so did every NHS Trust. In the arts, every poster and catalogue carried a crop of sponsorship logos, like a Ruritanian general's medals. Public relations began to claim it was a profession, instead of organised lying. Solicitors, freed to advertise like any car salesman, touted for personal injury claims.

Socialism collapsed just when it should have had a field day. In Britain as in the United States, the gap between top and bottom incomes was widened as an act of policy. Depending on which statistician you talk to, the poor may or may not have become worse off in absolute terms; but no one would now argue that they became very much better off. Men found it harder to get jobs; women found it easier; but the jobs were usually low-paid and part-time. Beggars became a commonplace on city, and even suburban, streets.

It did become a more open society. Fax and photocopier outgunned official secrecy. Parliament was televised. Deference sank pretty close to zero. After the successful hearth-and-home imagery of the previous 60 years, the House of Windsor declined to Hanoverian levels of general mockery.

More people acquired cars (especially women). They didn't want to shop where they couldn't park. A scheme designed to bring economic regeneration to the North-East was used by a property developer to build Britain's first regional shopping centre, copying US models. Shop-pers came in coach- loads from all over the North. A social history of Tory Britain since 1979 could borrow the title of a Bette Midler-Woody Allen film: Scenes from a Mall.

Any Audit of Britain since 1979 must explain a number of paradoxes. Many of our industries have been transformed from flabby sloths into sleek gazelles; yet our overall productivity record is poor. Successive Tory chancellors have cut the standard rate of income tax by more than a quarter; yet more of the average worker's income is seized in tax today than under the last Labour Government. Tax rates for the highest earners have tumbled, yet they contribute a bigger share than ever of the government's income- tax revenues. Even after allowing for inflation, more money is spent on our public services than ever; yet experience tells of schools and hospitals starved of cash. We have had one prime minister who promised harmony instead of discord, followed by another who sought a nation "at ease with itself"; yet we live in a country where crime has doubled since 1979, and the gap between rich and poor has widened more than in any other West European country. What has really been happening?

The easy, cop-out, answer is to trot out Disraeli's dictum: there are lies, damned lies and statistics. The trouble with that view is that it is too powerful. It is more like Pathclear than Weedol: it destroys every number-based statement, true or false, when what we want is a selective lie-killer. Any assessment of the past 17 years that goes beyond anecdote must involve the use of statistics. The task is to nurture those figures that lead us to the truth, and discard those that lead us astray.

Here is an example. One familiar refrain from Government ministers is that Britain under the Tories, far from suffering mass unemployment, has one of the best job-creation records around. Pressed to justify this claim, they point to figures from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) which show that a higher percentage of Britons of working age are in work than in any other major western European country.

It is true.

End of story? Not quite. When ministers claim that Britain, relatively speaking, is awash with jobs, they leave four things out of account. First, one reason why Britain scores so high is that people tend to start work far younger here than in other advanced countries. The reason - a source of weakness, not strength - is that fewer teenagers stay in the education system to strive for degrees or other qualifications. Second, people in Britain tend to retire later than in the other three countries. Third, for all kinds of cultural and historical reasons, many more women have paid work in Britain than in Germany, France or Italy. There is nothing new about this: the trend long predates Mrs Thatcher's arrival in Downing Street. To ascribe the phenomenon to the job-creating policies of the Tory years is absurd. Fourth, the four-country comparison omits the rest of Europe, and also countries such as Japan and the United States.

One way to correct for these four factors is to compile a table for all 15 European Union member states, together with Japan and the United States, and to compare the proportions of men aged 25 to 54 in those countries who are currently in work.

Not such an impressive record, is it? We come 12th out of 17. Equivalent OECD figures for 1979 are not available for all countries; but in as far as comparisons are possible, Britain's position in the jobs league has almost certainly not improved, and may have got worse. The best we can say is that Britain is one of a number of countries clustered in the middle of the table, comfortably above Ireland, Spain and Finland, but well below Japan, Luxembourg and Austria: not a shameful record, to be sure, but nothing to boast about.

Or Consider another area prone to statistical sleight-of-hand: the crime figures. Ministers have made much of the fact that the crime rate fell last year and the year before, with 5.1 million notifiable offences recorded by police last year in England and Wales, well down on the 5.6 million recorded in June 1993. Even after the slight increase in the year to this June, Michael Howard was able to announce 10 days ago that "recorded crime is still 10 per cent lower than it was three years ago."

Is that the true picture? The key phrase in the paragraph above is "recorded by the police". Many crimes are not reported: especially modest, if infuriating, acts of pickpocketing, thefts from cars and minor burglaries. What is the point if the police are unlikely to catch the villain, and your insurance policy does not cover the loss?

A fuller picture of the incidence of crime in Britain today comes from the British Crime Survey. Every two years the government publishes figures based on a survey of around 16,000 people in Britain. It puts detailed questions to a cross-section of the public about any violence, vandalism, burglary or theft they have experienced - whether or not the victims have reported the incidents to the police. The BCS's latest figure, for 1995, puts the number of notifiable offences at no less than 19.1 million - more than four times that logged by the police for equivalent offences. And far from recording a decline in the crime rate, the BCS finds a continuing increase, albeit only two per cent, between 1993 and 1995. The real lesson to be drawn from the police figures is not that the crime rate fell, but that a growing number of people were unwilling to notify small-scale crimes to the police. This is largely the result of rising insurance premiums: some people have been anxious to keep their no-claims bonuses; others have agreed a higher "excess" figure on their household and/or motor policies in order to keep premiums down. So fewer thefts from homes and cars have been reported to the police; and, hey presto, these are precisely the crimes that appear, on police figures, to be on the decline. Police figures for violent crimes, drug trafficking, criminal damage and theft from the person (which are all largely immune to the insurance effect) all now stand at record levels.

Measuring the overall crime rate using BCS data, rather than police figures, rubs some of the gloss off the ministerial shine. Yet it also causes problems for the Government's critics. For while the police figures have almost certainly overstated the fall in crime since 1993, they equally overstated the rise in some crimes during the Eighties. For example, opposition politicians made great play with the fact that violent crime doubled (according to police figures) between 1981 and 1991. But the more reliable BCS data found that more people, especially women, were willing to report violent attacks to the police. The reality was that violent crime did not double at all: it rose by 20 per cent - too much, certainly, but not quite the disaster that the Government's opponents depicted. On the other hand, the BCS figures show that burglary and theft did double during the Eighties.

The Statistics on jobs and crime - after being treated carefully with Weedol, rather than obliterated with Pathclear - illustrate a general theme. Ministers boast that Britain has passed successfully through a vale of tears to reach the sunlit uplands of prosperity and harmony; their opponents say Britain is stuck deeper than ever in the vale of tears. However, when statistics are used properly to divine truth, rather than selectively to score points, the reality that emerges is more complex and - for anyone interested in trying to make Britain a better place - more challenging than either side of the political divide is willing to admit.

Consider the taxation paradox. Margaret Thatcher's promise could not have been clearer. "The state takes too much of the nation's income," said the Tories' 1979 manifesto. "Its share must be steadily reduced." The standard rate of income tax was then 33 pence in the pound. It is now 24p. Promise kept?

Not exactly. In 1978/9 - the final year of the last Labour Government - taxes, excise duties and national insurance payments totalled 34 per cent of national income. This year the Government expects to raise 35 per cent. And the Treasury's latest projections are that the figure will continue to rise through the rest of the Nineties, to reach 37 per cent in the year 2000.

The reason is that government spending has proved damnably hard to reduce. During Labour's last year in office, public spending was 42 per cent of national income; it has fluctuated around that figure ever since: above in recession years, below when the economy has been growing well. That fluctuation is not surprising. Every country experiences much the same thing. It reflects the fact that unemployment and other welfare costs vary through the economic cycle.

The more important question is: why has the long-term trend in public spending not responded to the Conservatives' attempts to reduce it? And: if public spending has remained so high, how can we explain the paradox that public services such as schools and hospitals still seem so starved of cash? The answer is that cutting public spending is like trying to run down an up-escalator. For example: in 1979 the United Kingdom had 2.9 million people over 75, all needing pensions and many needing health care. We now have 4.2 million. Simply to provide the same level of financial support and health care to each elderly person costs the state at least pounds 7bn a year more than it did 20 years ago.

At the other end of the scale, we have 1.4 million fewer children of school age than in 1979; yet the room for savings has been limited. More pupils are staying at school after 16; numbers in higher education have doubled. Add to that the cost of equipping schools with computers - unheard- of in the classroom in the Seventies - and all the Government has been able to do is keep the share of GDP spent on the state education system roughly constant at 5 per cent. And this has been possible only by doubling the student/teacher ratio in higher education, from 7:1 in the late Seventies to 15:1 today, and still rising.

These examples illustrate a wider point. Health, education and welfare are deemed by economists to be "superior goods". That is, the better-off we become, the bigger the share of our income that we wish to spend on them. This trend is common to all industrial societies. Each generation seeks a better education and more skills than the one before, lives longer and wants to save more for old age, and demands access to the latest drugs and medical technology. It also needs more roads (for the extra cars) and more police officers (to deal with rising crime).

One of the abiding characteristics of modern government is that it supplies a large share of society's "superior goods". That is why public spending always seems to be on a rising escalator; and why we have the pain of "cuts" each year without any visible sign that the long-term trend of public spending is downwards. (Probably the only "inferior" good supplied by the state is defence. Fifteen years ago this consumed 5 per cent of national income; the proportion has now fallen to 3 per cent. One of the oddities of the Tory years is that the biggest change in the way the public spending cake has been carved up since 1979 has been the shift from defence to social security. For every pounds 1 spent on defence in 1978/9, pounds 2 was spent on social security. This year the ratio is pounds 1 defence: pounds 4 social security. A politician in 1979 advocating such a switch would have been condemned as a left-wing extremist, playing fast and loose with the country's security.)

So the Conservatives have failed in their central aim of reducing the share of national income controlled by the state. This is probably just as well. Had they succeeded, the condition of our public services would surely have been far worse. But, by the same token, an incoming Labour government would face a series of tough choices. The escalator will not stop rising: our appetite for "superior goods" will continue to grow. Fundamentally, a Labour government must raise taxes; or reduce the quality of public services; or progressively shift some of the costs currently borne by the state into the private sector.

Despite the spending pressures that the Tories have faced, they have still managed to reduce the standard rate of income tax by 9p in the pound. How can this be squared with the stubborn refusal of the tax and spending totals to fall? The answer is that taxes have not been reduced overall, merely switched about. The basic rate of employees' national insurance payments, for example, has climbed from 6.5 per cent in the late Seventies to 10 per cent today. VAT has more than doubled, from 8 per cent to 17.5 per cent. Mortgage tax relief has been reduced sharply; so has the value of the married couple's allowance. And so on.

To illustrate the total effect of these changes, consider a married couple, where one spouse is working, earns the national average, and the couple have a mortgage for twice their income. This is how the sums work out.

What those figures show is that while income tax, before mortgage tax relief, has been reduced by 2.2 per cent of average earnings - or a handy pounds 9 a week - this has been more than offset by far lower mortgage tax relief (down by 4.2 per cent of earnings, or pounds 17 a week), higher national insurance (up by 2.3 per cent, or pounds 9.50) and VAT (up by 3.1 per cent, or pounds 13 a week). The overall impact of all the changes to direct and indirect taxation has been to increase the burden by no less than one-fifth, from 31.1 per cent to 37.2 per cent. That 6.1 point increase is equivalent to almost pounds 25 a week.

Of course, individual circumstances vary greatly. People living in council homes have not suffered from the reduction in mortgage tax relief - but they have had to pay far higher council rents instead.

The People who have fared best under the Conservatives have been very high earners who own their own homes outright. They have seen their marginal rate of tax drop from 83 per cent to 40 per cent.

Ah yes, say the Government's supporters; but don't be caught out by the politics-of-envy argument that high earners do not pay their fair whack. In fact - these supporters argue - top earners contribute more to the exchequer than they did before; cutting taxes has done wonders for incentives, and produced an increase rather than a reduction in the tax-take from the better-off.

These are the figures that are cited in support of that argument:

The figures appear compelling. When Labour was last in power, the bottom 50 per cent of taxpayers contributed far more to the exchequer than the top 10 per cent; this year the positions are reversed. On the face of it, Tory chancellors from Sir Geoffrey (now Lord) Howe to Kenneth Clarke look like a phalanx of Robin Hoods, eager to help the poor and do down the rich.

Once again, however, the simple statistics tell less than the whole story. The top 1 per cent - the "rich" - are those currently earning more than pounds 75,000 a year; the next 9 per cent - the "prosperous" - currently earn pounds 30,000-pounds 75,000.

Consider the "prosperous" first. They currently pay a marginal tax rate of 40 per cent. But when Labour was last in government, most of the equivalent 9 per cent paid only the standard rate of tax, 33 per cent. What has happened is that the number of high-rate tax payers has trebled during the Tory years from 750,000 to 2.3 million. The average and marginal tax rates of most "prosperous" people thus are significantly higher today than they were in the late Seventies. The "prosperous" column in the table simply reflects this fact.

What, though, about the "rich" - the top 1 per cent? Their marginal tax rates have certainly fallen; yet they now contribute 17 per cent to the government's tax revenue, compared with just 11 per cent in 1978/9. This, surely, shows that you can reduce taxes and still collect more money?

Not necessarily. Although the 83 per cent top rate in the late Seventies has entered the demonology of the Tory press and party, it applied to very few people - only 33,000 in the final year of Labour rule, or just 0.13 per cent of all taxpayers. What might be termed the "ordinary rich" - the equivalent of those who earn pounds 75,000-pounds 120,000 today - paid a marginal rate of 55 or 60 per cent. It is true that this has now come down to 40 per cent; but that has been largely offset by reductions in tax allowances.

Most economists applaud the trend towards lower tax allowances, balanced by reductions in the marginal rate. It produces a fairer tax system, easier to administer and with fewer distortions. It also shoots one of Labour's foxes. While a tiny minority of very rich people have undoubtedly done well out of the tax changes of the Tory years, the beneficiaries have been rather fewer than the change in headline tax rates would lead either the Government's friends or its critics to believe. (No wonder Gordon Brown is scared of raising the taxes of people on pounds 50,000 a year: far from doing well out from Tory budgets since 1979, their overall tax burden has barely changed.)

These Tax changes explain why the share of taxes paid by the "rich" has not fallen; they do not explain why the share has actually risen. The answer to this lies not - as free market enthusiasts would have us believe - in the magical effect of greater incentives, but in the rapid growth of inequality in Britain since the late Seventies.

Part of this is due to unemployment: never above 2 million before 1980, seldom below it since. The raw numbers conceal the fact that each year almost 4 million are unemployed for all or part of the time. Their earning power is reduced - and so is their liability to tax. If higher unemployment were the only cause of greater inequality, then the obvious answer (although not necessarily easy to implement) would be to shorten the dole queues. That, however, would solve only part of the problem. For the rise in inequality goes way beyond the rise in the jobless figures. Earnings differentials for people in work have also widened sharply.

Here are the figures for each of the big "G7" economies, and also for that beacon of social democratic equality, Sweden. The table compares the earnings of people 10 per cent from the top of the pay scale (currently pounds 30,000 a year in Britain) with those 10 per cent from the bottom (currently just over pounds 9,000 a year) Divide the larger number by the smaller (in this case 3.31) and we have an index of inequality: the higher the index figure, the greater the inequality.

Britain is neither the most unequal of the eight countries, nor the country where inequality has increased most. Both prizes belong to the United States. But the gap between rich and poor has widened more in Britain than in any country outside the US. In the late Seventies our income distribution was broadly the same as in Japan, Germany and Italy. We are now substantially less equal than any of those countries.

Nor are these differences trivial. To illustrate the point, suppose that a progressive party (no names, no pack-drill) sought to take Britain back to the 1979 spread of incomes. All workers on pounds 30,000 a year would have to take a pounds 3,000 a year pay cut, while everyone on pounds 9,000 a year would receive a pounds 2,000 pay rise.

So the Tories have caused Britain to become a more divided society? Again, the truth is more complex. The trend towards inequality did not begin in 1979, but two years earlier. Until 1977 pay differentials were gradually narrowing. Then, in the middle of the Wilson/Callaghan Government, they began to widen. The process simply continued after 1979, and at about the same steady, remorseless rate.

What seems to have happened is that Britain's income distribution had been distorted by a series of incomes policies between the early Sixties and the mid-Seventies. (The word "distorted" is used here in its technical, rather than pejorative, sense, to mean a deviation from what would have happened had employers been free to set wage rates solely according to the laws of supply and demand.) However, as Labour's pay laws started to fray at the edges, the market began to reassert itself. The gap between rich and poor began to widen once more. That process has continued under the Conservatives. They helped it along by passing laws to curb trade unions rather than curb pay rises; and the rise in unemployment meant that the Eighties and Nineties have seen a plentiful supply of unskilled workers, for whom the laws of excessive supply confronting weak demand have meant that their wages have been held down. But the Tories did not cause the trend towards greater equality to reverse in the first place.

Nor can the Conservatives be blamed for the huge changes in technology and the global economy that have helped well-qualified "knowledge" workers - the best lawyers, business consultants, financial dealers, scientists, accountants and so on - to do extremely well, while unskilled manual workers (and, more recently, non-manual workers doing routine office tasks) have seen their jobs taken by robots, or computers, or people in the Far East, or some combination of the three.

If there is a charge to be levelled against the Tories, it is not that they caused the growth in inequality, but that they did too little to prepare Britain for its new economic condition and too little to shield the greatest sufferers from the harshest effects of the new economic climate.

Equally, the figures pose a challenge for Labour, if it wins the coming election. Better training, and a national minimum wage, may help at the margins. But there will still be global market forces, tending to make the gap even wider between the incomes of qualified "knowledge" workers and those of unskilled men and women.

Three strategies are available to any British government: to accept this widening gap, and persuade the poor to accept their fate; or to interfere in the market mechanism for fixing pay rates; or to use the tax and benefits system to affect after-tax incomes by redistributing more aggressively from high-income to low-income house- holds. If Labour achieves Tony Blair's ambition of winning the next two elections, we can safely predict that one of the most contentious issues on the centre and left of British politics during the next 10 years will concern which of these three strategies to adopt.

The Conservatives have a reply to charges of economic failure. Britain's economy was in a terrible shape in the Seventies. It has since revived. We currently have the best growth rate of any major European economy, and the lowest inflation and interest rates for a generation. To which the reply must be, once more: that is true, but not the whole truth. Here are the OECD's latest estimates for the total growth between 1992 and 1996 for the four biggest EU economies:

You can be sure that during the coming election campaign the Conservatives will parade those figures, or something very much like them, to show how well Britain has done since the last election. What they will not say is that the reason why Britain appears to top the leagues is that their figures cover only the upswing of our economic cycle, but include the downswing of the others'. If we look at the figures for the eight years since 1988 - roughly a complete economic cycle for each country - and include all G7 economies, then the story looks rather different:

Comparing the UK's recent growth rate with those of our rivals provides one measure of economic success; comparing our record with our own past provides another. Has Britain done better since 1979 than it did before? The short answer is no. The following table updates an analysis done by the stockbrokers UBS in 1992. It shows how the UK's gross domestic product has grown in each economic cycle since the mid- Fifties. (The fifth cycle is assumed to continue to the end of next year; I have taken the OECD's latest estimates for growth in 1996 and 1997.)

Clearly Britain did badly during the 1973-79 cycle - a period that largely coincides with the last Labour Government. If we limit our historical comparison to that single six-year cycle, then the Conservatives can claim an improvement. (Though even that improvement may have little to do with politics: growth rates throughout the industrial world suffered from the huge increase in oil prices in 1973; almost every country took some years to adjust to the oil shock.) But measured in any other terms - either against Britain's previous post-war experience, or against the record of our competitors abroad - Britain has not done well.

Does our inflation record tell a different story? Up to a point. Consumer prices rose by 8.3 per cent in 1978, the last full year of Labour rule. Since the last election, inflation has generally remained within the 2- 3 per cent range. There is no doubt that prices are rising more slowly today than during the Seventies and early Eighties. But so they are in almost every industrialised country. Consider Britain's inflation record since 1979, compared with the average for the G7 countries:

What these figures show is that the Conservatives inherited an inflation rate just above that of our main competitors, and have kept it there. The main deviations from that trend have had short- lived, one-off explanations: the doubling of VAT in 1979, followed by high interest rates between 1979 and 1981; the introduction of the poll tax and sharp increase in mortgage rates in 1990; the equally sharp reduction in interest rates in 1993, following sterling's exit from the ERM. Apart from those events, our inflation rate has risen and fallen roughly in line with that of other countries. Domestic politics have had little to do with these trends.

What, though, of productivity? Surely the privatisation of our old, inefficient state industries has caused output per person to soar? Clearly individual industries have seen huge efficiency gains. There is, however, little evidence that this has made a large difference to the economy as a whole. These are the basic figures for Britain's economy since 1951:

As with our overall growth rate, our overall productivity record since 1979 has been better than during the Seventies, but worse than during the Fifties or Sixties. But within the overall figures, there has been a sharp divergence between our manufacturing productivity since 1979 (good) and the productivity of the rest of the economy (still awful). There are all kinds of reasons for this: the "rest of the economy" covers everything from fishing to finance. A part of the explanation, however, is that many of the new, often temporary, jobs are in low-productivity industries. If a factory worker loses her job on a newly automated assembly line and becomes a cleaner instead, the factory's productivity figures will look good - but those for the whole economy will seem only marginally better. That, roughly, has been the story of the labour market since 1979. Jobs have been lost in the high-productivity sectors, and gained in many low-productivity sectors.

The Overall message from this array of data is less dramatic than either supporters or opponents of Government policy would have us believe. There has been no economic miracle, but neither has Britain become an industrial desert. Relative to other countries, we have not become vastly healthier or better educated since 1979 - or any sicker or more stupid. The way the government levies taxes has changed, but the overall level of taxation is much as it was 17 years ago. (Indeed, the main reason why taxes have not risen higher is that the public sector balance sheet has been allowed to deteriorate from a surplus of pounds 20bn in 1979 to a deficit of pounds 153bn last year.) Some industries have become notably more efficient; most have not. Inequalities have widened - but largely in response to forces that predate Tory rule.

The three biggest influences on life in Britain continue to be our history, long-term social trends and the world economic climate. The Tories do not deserve all the blame for what has gone wrong since 1979 (for example, the increase in crime); neither do they deserve much credit for what has gone right (such as inflation). In general their policies have contributed only marginally to success or failure. With or without Tory rule, computers would have arrived and jobs in manufacturing would have disappeared.

Chou En-Lai, asked about the long-term consequences of the French Revolution, replied: "It's too early to tell." Maybe the same verdict applies to the Thatcher and Major years. Meanwhile, the evidence points to the incredible difficulties faced by democratic politicians who want to make a big difference to a modern society. Honest Tories know this; how long before honest Labour politicians learn it, too?