Election `97: Through the door he can begin to create a freer land

Nothing now stands in Blair's way, and his plans to modernise the political structure are almost recklessly bold
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Indy Politics
"Everything will change now!" said the boy in the check shirt. He gave me a Labour leaflet as I came out of the door. It was polling- day morning: hot sunlight, people floating along the street smiling to themselves. He smiled too.

For a moment, dark thoughts welled up. "Everything must be destroyed, so that everything can be made anew," said Rabaud de St-Etienne in the morning of the French Revolution (he was soon guillotined). Or the Prince in Lampedusa's The Leopard: "Everything must change, so that everything can remain the same". But then I felt the sun on my own cheeks, the irresistible hope of this day. Everything will not change because of Labour's victory - but many things may.

The first weeks of this long campaign were bleak. The people were unresponsive and blank; the organisers of virtual electioneering by photo-call and sound-bite ruled supreme; Tony Blair's nervous shadowing of Tory policies ("Thatcherism with a human face") repelled independent spirits. Gore Vidal's wisecrack about modern American politics seemed to fit Britain: "We have only one party, with two right wings". But then, in the last 10 days of the race, it all came alive.

The squabbles about taxation - incomprehensible to most people - faded into the background. On reforms of education and the health service, New Labour became convincing; these were not revolutionary changes, but the party seemed to mean what it said. On Europe, slewing about in the fashionable tide of Europhobia and resorting to some horrible roast-beef rhetoric, Labour contrived not to be swept away. Constitutional change was the one area where Tory and Labour policies were irreconcilably different. But here too Labour's plans survived, as John Major's effort to rouse Middle England against Scottish devolution and Lords reform fell flat.

Suddenly, in the final week the people began to emerge from their reticence. They welcomed Tony Blair like a young Kennedy come again. Then they used tactical voting with unexpected, almost horrifying skill to annihilate his enemies for him. Like a cleansing tide of cold ocean water, hundreds of unknown young men and women swept into Parliament and washed the seamy, familiar old faces away.

This Labour triumph of 1997 bursts open a door which is normally kept safely locked - the door to a British transformation. It has fallen open three times this century. In 1906, the Liberal triumph turned the state into the engine of social justice, reinvented taxation as the means of redistributing wealth and finally smashed the political power of the aristocracy. In 1945, the Labour landslide created the Welfare State and a "social- democratic consensus" which lasted for 34 years. Mrs Thatcher's governments after 1979, it seems to me, destroyed as much as they innovated; she plunged through the wrong door and found herself in a junk room of old ideologies rather than in a new garden. But the lock now yielding to Mr Blair is the real thing: the third opening of the door in a hundred years. The question is whether he will go through it.

Beyond the third door, it is the British state which waits to be transformed. Not the economy or society, this time, but the way we are governed, the very spirit of democracy, the notion of where power comes from and what gives anyone the right to rule others. We live in a hopelessly obsolete structure, that ancient "Ukania" whose guiding principles of state go back to the late 17th century. This structure has been tinkered with over the generations. But now its dysfunction is becoming unbearable, stunting the liberties of those who live here and damaging all efforts to find a new place for Britain in Europe and the world. The crisis of democracy, slow to develop, has arrived at last.

It's a quarter-century since Sir David Steel (as he then wasn't) put his finger on the problem. "They say we have the best democratic institutions in the world, but our economic failure means that they don't work properly. The truth is the opposite. If our economy doesn't work, it is because our political institutions are completely out of date." For many years, this perception was confined to Liberals and a few clever Marxists. "A bunch of wankers" was how Neil Kinnock described Charter 88, the pressure group for constitutional reform. But later he signed the charter himself. The idea that the constitution was a socialist issue slowly made headway on the left in the 1990s, until New Labour took it up and wrote it into the 1997 election platform.

Measure by measure, Blair's plans to modernise our political structure are pragmatic. But set against Britain's entrenched complacency, they are almost recklessly bold. Parliaments for Scotland and Wales, the expulsion of hereditary peers from the Lords, a Freedom of Information Act, a return of powers to local government, a reform of the House of Commons, the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights as a British statute, a referendum on changing to a proportional voting system

I am old enough to remember the 1945 election (when, incidentally, it was victorious Labour supporters who sang "Land of Hope And Glory" in the streets). Last month I found a notebook which brought it all back: a list of families in a quarry village near my private school, some marked with a "C" or an "L". The Tory candidate wanted to know who in those tied cottages would dare to vote against him. So our headmaster sent us out to spy, to ask each family whether they preferred a Conservative taxi or a Liberal taxi to take them to the polling-station. One quarryman's wife, looking down from her scrubbed doorstep, told me that I should be ashamed of myself. Did we take ordinary folk for fools? All the years later, that still stings.

The village school was separated from ours by a high stone wall. If Labour won, our headmaster told us, that wall would be torn down and the rough village boys would pour through to punch our noses and take over our classrooms. That was what socialism meant. We waited in terror. But the wall did not come down and - so they tell me - it is still there, half a century on.

Tony Blair is not into knocking walls down. But will he, at least, stride through that open door? With this huge majority, backed by the big Liberal influx, he can do what he wants to the constitution. Assuming that he wins the devolution referenda later this year, he can overwhelm obstruction in the Commons and set up parliaments in Scotland and Wales. Nothing survives to hinder his other plans for a new democracy - Lords reform, the statute on human rights, the Freedom of Information Act and the rest - and if desperate resistance threatens to bog down the passage of these bills, sheer Lib-Lab numbers will assure him the power to curtail debate by the guillotine.

Pessimists think that great majorities sap energy. Immune to defeat, a government might see no reason for a hectic rush of law-making. But the past suggests the pessimists are wrong. The two other landslides in this century were exploited to the full, with one historic reform statute tumbling through Parliament after another. Tony Blair and his team, now transfigured with joy and awe at the mandate they won on Thursday, want to be remembered as the architects of a "New Britain". They mean to waste no time.

And there is another point. This is Labour's greatest chance, but in one paradoxical sense its last. Tony Blair is committed to "studying" a proportional voting system, to replace "first past the post". He has the parliamentary strength, if he chooses, to make this tremendous change. But if he does so, there will never be a landslide majority again. Under PR, he would be spending this weekend with Paddy Ashdown negotiating terms for a Lib-Lab coalition government. To put it another way, he needs this landslide majority to make future landslides impossible.

Labour won an absolute majority of 179 seats - but on only 45 per cent of the vote. In 1945, it won a majority of 146 on almost 48 per cent, but in 1951 Labour won a higher percentage of votes - more than the Tories - and yet lost the election. A grown-up people entering the 21st century cannot be asked to put up with such absurd deformations of the popular will.

What happened in Scotland on Thursday, for example, is an outrage to democracy. Most Scots are delirious with pride over this "Tory-free Scotland". It's understandable, given that they have been governed for 18 years by a party they did not elect, applying policies they hated. But it cannot be right that 17 per cent of the electorate have been stripped of all representation. The grand irony is this: the Scottish Tories have frantically opposed a Scottish parliament, and yet that parliament - to be elected under a proportional system - is now their only chance of getting a voice in the British democratic process.

If Tony Blair does go through this door of opportunity, he will find Europe at the end of the garden. The two previous transformations both sought to bring Britain into line with the outside world. The 1906 reforms adopted aspects of Germany's new social insurance system, while the post- 1945 Welfare State paid attention to sanitised accounts of "modern socialism" in the Soviet Union. This 1997 moment is deeply influenced by Europe, by the "rights culture" and consensus politics and decentralised government of the states which make up the European Union. Modernity, like the vision of social "cohesion " and "stake-holding" so dear to Blairism, is to be imported from across the Channel.

Here the new Government must move carefully. New Labour is determined that Britain must stop being the ball-and-chain round Europe's ankle, shifting from obstruction to wary but positive partnership. The Blair team sees a common currency as premature rather than intrinsically evil. But Britain is still shuddering in the anti-European nightmare of defensive nationalism pumped up by the Tories, and it will take time to soothe.

Two questions remain open. One, which everyone asks, is whether Tony Blair in office will be more radical in his policies than Tony Blair courting the marginal Tory vote. The answer is almost certainly yes. The second question is whether he fully understands what forces he will release with his modest improvements to Britain's antiquated power structure.

I suspect that he does not. There are venerable houses which collapse when you try to replace the door-frames or install central heating. Blair and his successors will end up either in a pile of rubble or in a quite new house unrecognisable to its old tenants. Transforming British democracy has risks. It has to be tried, but where it will end is anybody's guess. All that is certain is that what Tony Blair now does will be irreversible.