An historic choice for Britain - the case against cynicism

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Cynicism is cheap. It's important to remember, through the next sound-bitten, media- manipulated six weeks, that this election offers Britain a serious, potentially historic, choice. The result will imprint itself on our lives for years to come. It will affect our individual wealth and opportunities; how we are governed; how we feel about the country.

Yet many millions of us don't agree and have lost interest, never mind faith, in British democracy. In the final years of a turbulent century, which saw the arrival of the full franchise, and the declared victory of democracy across most of the world, a worrying number of Britons have become bored by the whole business. Some 9.6 million adults didn't bother to vote in 1992. This time, many voters have concluded that the country has already made up its mind and won't bother to inquire further.

Yet if the pollsters are vindicated and Tony Blair's New Labour wins on 1 May, then our political system will alter, probably quite fast and probably for ever. From Scotland to London, from Cardiff to Strasbourg, from town halls to the House of Lords, we will see the biggest programme of change to the governance of Britain since before the First World War. Many of these changes will be preceded by referendums. If Mr Blair relies on the Liberal Democrats in government, they will come faster and more strongly than ever. Some excitable souls think they will mean a radical change in the whole party system, giving us a new politics for the millennium. But whatever view you take, it is hardly unimportant.

What, meanwhile, if John Major confounds received opinion, as he has before and, teetering on his soap-box, wins a fifth Conservative term in the teeth of all expectation? That too would mean a changed political system, suggesting the destruction of the Labour Party and the confirmation of one-party government in Britain. It would keep us out of monetary union and ensure a glacial freeze in our relations with continental Union-builders.

These are, without hyperbole, questions of national destiny. But they are only the start. The Tories promise dramatic changes to the Welfare State and pensions, as well as law and order; their domestic programme requires close and detailed scrutiny. Labour has sketched out ambitious- seeming plans for education, employment, youth crime and much else: but "sketched" and "seeming" are the appropriate words. Those goods need a little more scrutiny before the nation buys them.

So there are great issues to be argued over, even if many other issues have been elbowed off the national agenda. Despite everything, our votes remain precious. They should depend on careful thought, narrowed eyes and clear, hard information. That is what we will be bringing you in The Independent during the next few weeks - not, I hope, at tedious or sprawling length, but in proper detail and with a due sense of the election's importance and possible consequences.

Our views, as a pro-reform, liberal and open-minded newspaper, biased in favour of enlightenment, have been hammered out by arguing journalists and heckling readers during 10 years. Other papers will be ordered what to say and do, as their proprietors dither between their political convictions and their thirst to be on the winning side. But this paper has full freedom to speak, and no such pressure. This is a great privilege, particularly at election time. We will use it seriously and with relish.

Andrew Marr