18 years of Tory rule? Sorry, I missed it

Half the population has no memory of a Labour Britain. Rupert Cornwell, however, never experienced the upheavals of the Conservative era. Now he's back in a land that has been transformed since he left in 1978
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Barring the very end of the endgame, I missed it all: every queenly "we" from the Lady herself, every purse-lipped retreat by her successor, the greed of the Roaring Eighties and the sourness of the Nineties, privatisation and the vanquishing of the unions, the dysfunctions of the Royal Family and the collapse of English cricket - in short the lot. Everything, all 18 years of Tory rule. Labour it was when I left for Italy in October 1978, having been a political correspondent for the Financial Times. Now, four consecutive foreign postings and one newspaper later, I am back. And Labour it will surely be again when the cock crows at dawn today.

Half the population, it is said, have no memory of a Labour Britain. Having been abroad throughout the Heath years too, I have no memory of a Conservative one. Apart from their official visits to countries where I lived, Margaret Thatcher and John Major are the Prime Ministers who never were. My abiding image of the Commons is a scowling James Callaghan stalking the committee corridor followed by a posse of nervous retainers. As far as I am concerned, he is being succeeded by the sweet-smiling but evidently super-disciplined Tony Blair. There is, alas, one problem: in between, Britain and British politics have been transformed. The returning time traveller seeks to regain his bearings, yearning for the familiar. It ain't easy.

Old Labour, New Labour - Old Britain, New Britain. This is a richer place, but also rougher, tougher, coarser and unkinder. The reserve and pseudo- genteelness that still flourished in the late Seventies have gone. For proof, just look at my business, where even the "quality press" has turned into brassy propaganda sheets, and articles about sex adorn every other page. Who said the British are prudish? Divisions of class are giving way to no less stark divisions of wealth. Clearly, however, there is no desire for a return to pre-Thatcher: rather for a nudge back towards the centre and a more caring capitalism, where somebody remembers the poor, the infirm and the less gifted.

The quest for pre-Thatcher political faces is equally arduous. I found three on the BBC TV panel assembled by Robin Day each morning. But they were not active politicians but listed national monuments: Norman Tebbit, the semi-housetrained polecat turned benign saloon-bar sage; an ever jowlier Roy Hattersley for Labour's corner, and sage Roy Jenkins for the Liberal Democrats - flirting with self-parody but retaining enough authority to make one wonder what might have been, had he succeeded Harold Wilson in 1976.

Others I remember from the late Seventies are very much in business. A then eager beaver from Tory Central Office research department called Michael Portillo now needs no introduction. Nor does William Hague, star- turn for the Thatcher-jugend at the Tory conference of 1977, who I discover on my return has been installed by the bookies as co-favourite with Portillo to become the next party leader. But their hands will not be on the levers of power in the new parliament. As for today's party leaders, they weren't even MPs when I last prowled Westminster. John Major was still a rising executive at the Standard Chartered Bank, Tony Blair was in London law chambers as a labour lawyer, while Paddy Ashdown was working for Westland helicopters in Yeovil. Of the Blairite high command, only Robin Cook was an MP, remembered by me as an ornery left-wing opponent of devolution. Now he is poised to star in a Labour government that may genuinely devolve. But that is the tiniest of the adjustments to be made.

In the Seventies Britain I left, Cabinet meetings mattered less for the governance of the country than those infamous beer and sandwich sessions at Downing Street when we hung on every utterance of Messrs Murray, Jones and Scanlon. Some say the unions are plotting an early test of Blair, but to my shame I cannot even name today's general secretary of the TUC. Back then, the miners and the dockers were the mightiest constituencies in the land, the latter overweening enough to demand the Dock Labour Regulation Bill, which gave them a cargo-handling monopoly within five miles of a dockyard. Thanks to the defection of two moderate Labour MPs, the bill would be defeated, forcing the minority Callaghan government into the Lib-Lab pact. Looking back, what is amazing is not that the measure failed, but that it was ever put forward at all.

And where oh where is the National Executive Committee? Back then each meeting of the NEC was a bloodbath, a monthly ritual of left-wing rebellion only quashed by a threat by Callaghan to resign. Today Blair apparently controls all but two seats on the executive. As for the miners, the number of pits still open, I am told, has dropped from many hundreds to 29. In both Parliament and the country, the hard left is vanquished. These days, if anyone practices "entryism", it is not the militant Trotskyites who used to stage constituency committee ambushes on over-moderate sitting MPs, but the Blairites bent on eradicating the last of what Mikhail Gorbachev called "old thinking". At Westminster the once fearsome Tribune group has become a flock of lambs, and in the process rendered the now disbanded Manifesto group superfluous.

Or take Europe. At Westminster the issue has always generated civil war, but the combatants are reversed. In those days Labour's pro- and anti- marketeers feuded over issues like proportional voting for the Strasbourg parliament, and most of them saw Europe as citadel of the claret-sipping boss class, and Roy Jenkins as the ultimate betrayer of socialism and national sovereignty. Their successors have long concluded that Brussels is a more dependable protector of a British working man's rights than home-grown Conservatives preaching unfettered market economics.

But this transformation - and every other by-product of the Thatcher revolution - I only observed from afar. Already in Rome when she was elected, I followed the Falklands conflict from a deeply ambivalent Italy. By the time she routed the miners in 1984/85, I had moved on to Bonn. From Moscow I watched the stunning Kremlin coup in London which overthrew her. By the time John Major won election in his own right, I was in Washington, safely removed from sterling's humiliating ejection from the ERM in September 1992, and the fin de regime air which settled upon the Conservatives thereafter. I have only seen the final death throes of Tory government - not so much the thrashing of a mighty tail as the few faint twitches of an already despatched corpse.

But for one returning from the US, New Labour is old news. The similarities of Blair vs Major 1997 and Clinton vs Dole 1996 are overwhelming - the shift of the entire political spectrum in both countries to the right, the fixation on the leaders to the exclusion of all else, the shameless stealing of an opponents' best issues, the deliberate lack of specifics, and the retreat into thunderous banality whenever awkward detail presses. Certainly, Blair appears to function on a higher plane of personal morality than the irredeemably tacky Clinton. But who are the greater scoundrels: American presidential candidates with their mantra of "The Greatest Nation on Earth" or their counterparts here, promising to be "British patriots" who will take no nonsense from the continentals (Blair, Major, Ashdown, passim)? I even heard one of them talk about "restoring the British Dream". Next time around, it will be every speech ending with "God Bless the United Kingdom".

Already, though, and undeniably, the Almighty is looking more kindly on his British subjects than two decades ago. My two years as a lobby correspondent for the Financial Times must have been the nadir of of post- war Britain, symbolised by Denis Healey's U-turn on the road to London airport and the subsequent stand-by loan from the International Monetary Fund, which came close to splitting the cabinet. Labour then was as detested as the Conservatives now: my very first assignment was Labour's stunning by-election defeat in its citadel of Workington - a punishment all too familiar of late to Major's Conservatives.

But the most fitting emblem of the age was the Thorpe affair, a Krakatoa of a scandal featuring a dead dog, a murder plot , and the disgrace of the leader of England's oldest political party. Above all, though, it was a metaphor for the state of the country, of humbug exposed, reputations destroyed and illusions stripped away. Compared to Thorpe, the sleaze eruptions of the Major years, it seems to me, reflect more an ever-growing media obsession with sex and money than any abrupt collapse of political morality.

Musing last month on the state of pre-electoral Britain, Die Zeit lamented the passing of old imperial graces and likened contemporary Britain to a "Switzerland in the North Sea": selfish, smug and stubborn. But that is surely preferable to being an offshore version of the Ottoman Empire, circa 1900, which Britain was passably imitating when I left after Callaghan funked an early election in October 1978.

Two decades and four lost elections later, both the Labour Party he leads and the country Blair inherits are utterly different. His England is far more efficient, businesslike and productive than the one I remember - though I still can't believe we have turned from sick man of Europe into the leader of the new capitalism. Unarguably, the place is simultaneously both more American and more European: the former visible not only in the political process but in the language, the fabric of daily life and culture - for worse and for better. If British television increasingly resembles the vapid American networks, what miracle has overtaken our telephone system? Services such as directory enquiries used to be a refined form of water torture. Now they yield nothing to their American equivalents.

As for Europe, who can stop its encroachment? Certainly, and deliciously, not Thatcher's children desperate to defend their island fortress. Our politicians may mock the Continent, but when Battersea is full of French and Italian restaurants and they sing "La Marseillaise" at Old Trafford, you realise the limits of little England. In this interdependent world national rivalries may be played out on the sports field, but not so fiercely as to prevent Eric Cantona becoming an honorary Englishman. That would never have happened in Callaghan's day.

At which point a thought impinges. Maybe Britain, ever pulled in opposite directions across the Channel and the Atlantic, is for once getting the best of both worlds. Thus does London become what Newsweek and the like extol as the coolest city on the planet, a distinction whose main effect, to my silent fury, is to add a few more thousand pounds to the cost of the house I must buy. And truly there is a bit of a fizz in the air, so different from Callaghan's resigned and sullen land, waiting for its chance to throw the rascals out. They did, and this week sees the passing of a Tory era. For me though, it is the belated funeral of a vanished Labour England.