Labour Conference: Confident leader challenges Britain

WELCOME TO government. Tony Blair quoted the New York Democrat Mario Cuomo's sobering remark that "we campaign in poetry but we govern in prose". Yet oddly, it was the least prosaic and most skilfully crafted of all the speeches he has made since becoming leader. The standing ovation in mid-speech for "our very own" Mo Mowlam's stewardship of Northern Ireland was a moment of pure theatre, the most emotion he has ever allowed his party to enjoy at a party conference. It was also his most supremely self- confident performance.

Who said this was a Prime Minister frightened of giving offence? He had tough messages for bad teachers, absent fathers, anti-social neighbours. He warned the party to brace itself for the short term unpopularity that will attend welfare reform. His ringing reaffirmation that that there is no alternative macro-economic policy was a brutal rebuff to the union leaders and party critics who think otherwise. His stark lesson on the power of international capitalism's "permanent revolution" was an answer to the intellectuals who say that globalism is dead. He was uncompromisingly dismissive of businessmen who blame their uncompetitiveness on an independent Bank of England rather than their own underperformance. He challenged the media's unhealthy interest in politicians' private lives. And he put the middle-class professionals in hospitals and schools on notice that they are about to undergo a painful period of change.

Chauvinism in all its forms was also in his sights. He is now fired up for the biggest political struggle of next year, the elections to the Scottish Parliament. He has always been a more ardent unionist than he was a devolutionist. But it looks as though he has now persuaded himself that home rule was indeed the only way of saving the Union, and his withering condemnation of little Scotlandism gave a hint of what Alex Salmond's SNP will be in for next spring. Beside this he made Commons reform sound - ominously for the Liberal Democrats - a distant, second order, issue. There was an element of playing to the gallery here. Deep opposition to electoral reform has still to be deflected in Blackpool this week. But it will make those around Ashdown distinctly nervous.

Deftly he coupled his attack on British balkanism with a resounding reaffirmation of his own Europeanism; at least as resounding as is possible while Britain stays out of EMU. Some of those around Blair are now hopeful that the SPD's victory in Bonn will finally let London realise its dream of breaking into the Franco-German axis. Whether that is over-optimistic, Blair was as unequivocal as he has been to a domestic audience about the benefits to Britain of a successful Euro.

But while many of his messages to the party were tough, the British left, in the widest sense, should be reassured by the way he has started to draw the ideological dividing lines. He denounced the notion that the Tories could have done what Labour has done, from union rights to the minimum wage, from the extra billions for health and education to a rise in overseas aid. He dispelled doubts that the Government is prepared to challenge the private motorist by allowing John Prescott his radical transport Bill. He drew a devastating contrast between the isolationism of the British right and the modernised internationalism of the centre left. The speech was an exposition of what the third way means in practice.

Tony Benn once said that Margaret Thatcher's great strength was to be a teacher-politician. It hasn't always been clear whether Tony Blair had the same gift, but after yesterday it looks as if he has.

Part of the lesson was that if the dividing line between centre left and right isn't one most of his party yet recognises, it still exists, and - whisper it softly - he is on the same side of it as the left is.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine