Thursday 28 August 1997
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.
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