When the rhetoric of ideals meets the policies of prudence

Can the sensible, careful party be one which leads a moral crusade and a political revolution?
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The Independent Culture
NEW LABOUR is the Sensible Party of British politics. With its well-groomed representatives and carefully crafted policies, it is as far away from Monty Python's Silly Party as it is possible to be. In terms of style it is as far away, also, from Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party, which in its radical and revolutionary drive exuded Silly tendencies. Under New Labour there is no danger, in a thousand years, of a policy as silly as the introduction of the poll tax. Such a proposal would have been dropped, quite sensibly, with the first whiff of trouble. If the Conservatives are waiting for some massive, self-inflicted cock-up by this Government, they will wait in vain.

But can the sensible, careful party, which drops few headline-grabbing clangers, be one that leads a moral crusade and a political revolution?

Tony Blair's opening interviews of the new political season have been remarkable both for the sweep of their ambition and for the smallish, incremental policies that will apparently transform Britain and at the same time give it a new moral purpose. The gap between rhetoric and policy detail is always large in opposition. What makes Tony Blair so interesting is that in government his idealistic light continues to shine so brightly, while the policies that charge it seem to lack the necessary voltage.

In principle, Mr Blair's call for a new national moral purpose (in fairness, nowhere in the interview does he mention a "crusade") deserves support. Indeed, politicians would be irresponsible if they did not recognise the moral dimension to their job. As Jack Straw observed on the Today programme yesterday, politics would be vacuous without a moral side to it. Straw went on to point out that there tended to be a higher rate of teenage pregnancies in areas of industrial decline, such as the old mining towns.

Evidently this has political implications. If such areas could be revived through economic policies and better schools and transport, possibly there would be a decline in teenage pregnancies. Which brings us to the policies that accompanied the Prime Ministerial cry for a national moral purpose. This is where the problem lies. After all, the policies have to be as big as the ambitious intent.

Tony Blair cited hostels for teenage mothers, parenting helplines, opportunities provided by the New Deal and the curfews aimed at preventing youngsters from roaming the streets. All of these are sensible innovations, although they vary in terms of potential impact. (In my view there is nothing ideologically wrong about imposing curfews. On one level it is a libertarian measure, making the streets freer and more accessible for everyone else by keeping young troublemakers off them. Not surprisingly, though, councils have found them virtually impossible to implement effectively. No one has adequate answers as to where the street roamers should go instead.) But, taken together, these initiatives do not amount to a new moral crusade.

There is nothing inherently wrong with governments launching moral crusades, but they must have the policies to back them up. Slogans that include the adjective "moral", however vague, conjure up something bigger than parenting helplines. Ultimately, the fatal flaw in John Major's "Back to Basics" was raised expectations rather than the raised sexual passions of Tory MPs. The slogan could have survived the trouser-dropping antics of half the Conservative Party if it had been linked to recognisably substantial policies. Instead it was launched at a time when the Cabinet was split over the reintroduction of grammar schools and was cutting expenditure on education, when the Citizens' Charter had come to be associated with little more than the number of motorway toilets, and crime was rising, even though Michael Howard wanted to lock most of us up.

The policies, or lack of them, killed off "Back to Basics". It was a slogan that came to mean nothing - to such an extent that when it was quietly dropped nobody noticed. The enduring impact was to make Major look a little sillier, by launching a slogan without the policies to flesh it out.

Blair is taking a similar risk now, as he is portraying himself as a revolutionary leader presiding over a tirelessly radical Government. In both his recent interviews, "radical" and "revolution" recur in virtually every paragraph. What are the policies that accompany the rhetoric?

I have already listed those relating to the new national moral purpose. Those linked by Blair to a "revolution" in the two interviews were: the working families' tax credit (a measure that was seriously considered by Ken Clarke when he was Chancellor, and rejected on practical grounds rather than because it was too radical); tax cuts for "ordinary families"; performance-related pay in the public sector; a strong fiscal and monetary framework; numeracy and literacy initiatives in schools; and the introduction of NHS Direct.

All of these policies symbolise distinctive wider themes that are neither old Labour nor Conservative, certainly not as far as the modern Conservative Party is concerned. But are they revolutionary? Do they compare with Thatcher's tax-cutting, trade-union-reforming, council-house-selling policies, which were moving controversially ahead within two years of her administration? Blair genuinely believes them to be so. This is no carefully orchestrated spin, which is why he gets so frustrated when the policies do not have a revolutionary impact. Other solutions are sought: new ministers capable of "delivering", more "joined up" government; a better-resourced Downing Street.

All these are entirely sensible administrative initiatives. No doubt many policies have been delayed or distorted by departmental duplication, rivalries and bureaucracy. But, ultimately, the nature of the policies themselves will determine the impact they make. To give a few examples, a more radical government would have held a referendum on a single currency in autumn 1997, increased public spending while carrying out the much- needed public sector reforms, hit the motorist to pay for improvements in public transport, and given councils the power to raise and spend more of their money while making them more accountable through PR. We would all be catching our breath, as we were during the early Thatcher whirlwind, but claims to a revolution would carry more credence.

Of course, there would have been risks. I doubt if the Government would be so popular, although it would still be heading for an easy win at the next election. Quite possibly, given the whiff of excitement that continues to hang around Blair's presence, a second term will indeed be revolutionary with a moral purpose. But for now Tony Blair, the Sensible candidate, risks lapsing into Silliness by making such grand claims so early in the life of a pragmatic Government.

The writer is political editor of the `New Statesman'