Summertime views

I must begin by making an admission that is part confession, part declaration of interest. I am too old and jaded to succumb to what Alan Watkins calls "dawnism" in politics. I was, in David Marquand's phrase, one of "Harold's children" - the generation of young meritocrats who really believed after 1964 that the state had fallen into the hands of men and women "with fire in their bellies and compassion in their hearts" (as Wilson himself described them), who would remake Britain in a new way that combined efficiency with social justice.

Within a mere three years, once Wilson's "white heat" technological revolution had cooled to cold, grey ash, we became the generation that never again would fall for the "promises and panaceas that gleamed like false teeth" in the party manifestos, as Victor Rothschild so brutally put it. Ever since, I have been inoculated against "dawnism". I did not succumb to it either in Mrs Thatcher's spring in May 1979 or during Mr Blair's in May 1997.

This helps explain, I think, why I and others of my political generation (even those of us who never abandoned our centre-left impulses in the Seventies, Eighties or early Nineties) cannot but recoil from the combination of political self-congratulation and credulous acceptance-at-face-value of what the inner core of New Labourites are trying to spin into an all- embracing, all-transforming new politics. Even those professional sceptics, the Whitehall permanent secretaries, were bowled over six days after the election when Tony Blair, in his shining hour, told them ethics, not ideology would drive his government and that Britain must now look to the future rather than to its great past. The civil servants puffed like pussycats in their Savile Row suits and more than one got faintly cross with me when I giggled at their descriptions of that Wednesday morning in the Cabinet office when the young victor came to call.

The press are no better, with one or two exceptions. It is always distressing to see serious, experienced people "hurtling to the aid of the victors", as a French diplomat so aptly remarked of Italy in 1915. For the reaction of the political and administrative classes and much of the media to Blair's first 100 days has gone far beyond relief at the Conservatives' departure, the excitement of the new and the desire to give Labour a chance and the benefit of the doubt. It is tinged, almost tainted, by fawning.

Parliament, too, is largely supine. Labour's internal opposition is cowed and marginal. The Conservatives continue to reel. The Liberal Democrats can't wait to get their feet under the table of the joint consultative Cabinet committee which will start to meet next month. The select committees have yet to swing into critical action. So to whom has fallen the necessary function of opposition, scrutiny and criticism?

To one or two political commentators, notably the hugely appreciated Peter Riddell, who has done more than anyone else to expose the downside of Blair's command-style of premiership and lack of proper consultation with his Cabinet. And to us - the academics and scholars who are immune to the lustre of shining hours and know a bit about history, politics and government. We too have been largely silent, partly because we have been pleasantly surprised with the Government's boldness in some areas (constitutional reform in general and devolution in particular). Partly, too, I suspect, because we know we are a group already written off by New Labour as, like old Labour, too wedded to past and failed ways. (New Labour's ability to parody its party's past equals that of Mrs Thatcher and the new Conservative government right after 1979.)

Now is our hour, however. We must remember the importance of the much missed Ernest Gellner's insight when he said that civil society rests on "the idea of institutional and ideological pluralism, which prevents the monopoly of power and truth", a society in which "it is not clear who is boss". We must be to Tony Blair what the monsignor is to the Pope - the one who walks behind him, flicking dust and intoning "sic transit gloria mundi", which in demotic English suitable to Blair's Britain might be translated as "watch it, matey, you too are mortal"n

Peter Hennessy is Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London and a member of no political party.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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 Media

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Social Media Account Writers

£12000 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This social media management pr...

Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor (Magazine Publishing) - Wimbledon - £23-26K

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor - Wimbledon...

Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publishing) - Wimbledon - £26-30K

£26000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publish...

Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent