A clear message from the margins

Outspoken ideological outriders offer some uncomfortable truths for their muffled party leaders
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Isn't it curious that whenever anyone in politics says anything striking we are immediately assured that they don't matter, or didn't mean it, or in really grave cases, were ''speaking in a personal capacity''? Whether it be Clare Short on soft drugs or Chris Patten and Norman Lamont on the role of the state, the sharpest voices are coming from offside, and the leaders of the two big parties are jumping in alarm whenever they're heard.

Partly this is because we have reached the pre-electoral stage of the cycle, when politicians who are preparing to face the country are therefore closed to debate or intellectual challenge. (Odd, but that's the way we do things here.) And it isn't helped by the fact that both are taking anything out of the ordinary and describing it as the hidden agenda of their opponents.

Consider the past couple of days. On Sunday, Clare Short spoke about drugs in a thoughtful way. Whether you agreed with her or not, she was being serious and making a serious point - sounding rather like one of those Liberal Democrats the Labour Party leadership so cheerily abused. But in our prudish political culture, mainstream politicians are only allowed to say one thing about soft drugs. She said the other thing. So the Tory party bounced up and down, yelling ''tee-hee'' and suggesting that the real face of Labour had been exposed - when in fact its thinking on this subject is just as dully conservative as their own.

Then, yesterday morning, Labour attacked the Conservative Party as a bunch of extremist anti-European nutters who want to close down the welfare state. It suggested that the speeches of ex-MPs and fringe MPs were a genuine reflection of the thinking in Downing Street. And, however badly misconceived the Tories' new macho-rightist rhetoric may be, they're not. John Major is a trimmer; he isn't an anti-European.

More importantly, whether one agrees with Chris Patten on taxation, or with the anti-European Tories, or with many other critics of orthodoxy, it is plain that they have a serious case to put to the country. Like Clare Short, they are to be congratulated on their courage and plain-speaking. Like Clare Short, they are good for politics. People are not turned off so much by the outspokenness of anti-Europeans or Labour liberals, but by the mind-numbing qualities of a political agenda limited to a few over- rehearsed and implausible lines dictated by party officials and PR gurus.

Let us take, for instance, the current state of the economic argument where, verbally at least, a gap is opening up again between the main parties. Labour wants years of higher spending on education, training and the infrastructure. Tony Blair wants a culture of ''investment'', a cohesive, self-confident, well-educated society led by the state. The Conservatives, by contrast, want a culture of ''enterprise'', by which they mean lower taxes, greater mobility of labour and a smaller public sector, in order to attract capital and grow the private sector.

Labour is selling security; the Tories are selling the vigorous virtue of insecurity. As they once did with Japan and Germany, both now use and abuse Asia's ''tiger'' economy statistics to justify their alternative visions. For the Tories, these are young, anti-statist countries. For Labour, they are shrewdly dirigiste and focused states.

There is a long history of using misty visions of Abroad as propaganda for our local quarrels. But at least we have a clear alternative presented by the mainstream party leaderships, an important quarrel about our economic destiny which both Tony Blair and John Major would like us to judge them by. Don't we?

Well, no. The problem is that it is, thus far, a dishonest argument, because neither Labour nor the Conservatives have the faintest idea about how to get from here to there. They have rhetorical conviction but not the political courage to match it.

For Labour, the dilemma is how to obtain the years of investment and social building without taxing the country even more heavily than the Conservatives in the interim - how to get to virtuous high investment without going through malign, unpopular high spending first. Until Labour comes up with clearer explanations it is sensible to regard this, with some scepticism, as the economic equivalent of the search for the North- west Passage.

The Conservatives' dilemma is equal and opposite. They have yet to think of a route from the high-spending state to a state which takes much less, but which doesn't take them via the electorally dangerous territory of real cuts which hurt real voters. And this is the case even with some of those speaking boldly from the wings.

Chris Patten argued last week that we must get the share of spending dramatically down but without ''a slash and burn approach'' or hurting the poor. Yet the one inescapably involves the other; the most politically vulnerable portion of public spending isn't what the state does directly (for example, defence, law and order), but what it churns, what it takes from citizens and then gives back to them, and their neighbours, in the form of grants, welfare and so on.

By the broadest definition, on Treasury figures, this accounts for nearly 50 per cent of the state sector. It is the state as agent of redistribution which is most at risk from the fashionable anti-statist agenda: all Tories, academics and MPs, right and left, should acknowledge this. East or West, there is no such beast on earth as a One Nation neo-liberal.

Tory ministers have made progress in cutting longer-term commitments, notably on pensions. Harsher welfare rules have come; more are coming. Yet until the Conservatives propose areas of welfare from which the state should withdraw, or follow Norman Lamont in suggesting NHS charges, our scepticism about their anti-statist rhetoric should match our scepticism about Labour's investment society.

Now - to lean across this printed pulpit and drop an octave - what would a more honest pre-electoral argument between the parties on this central question sound like? It would certainly involve concrete Conservative proposals for state withdrawal, for real cuts, in order to turn this old lion into a young dragon. We cannot become the ''enterprise centre for Europe'' by putting a few more civil servants on short-term contracts. And, on the other side, such a debate would require Labour to come clean on why it wouldn't be cutting any taxes for a decade, and why some taxes might rise, in order to build a more secure, more prosperous Britain in the 2010s.

We have fragments of this conversation about the hard choices ahead, but they aren't coming from the party leaderships. The tough stuff is coming, almost exclusively, from people on the fringe - from the Liberal Democrats, who are used as an unpaid think-tank by the other parties, and derided for their pains - or from retiring or marginalised backbenchers, columnists, historians and governors of overseas possessions. From everyone, in fact, except the people who hold power, or are likely to hold it.

There is, as so often, a split in the body politic between the serious leaders, whose messages are muffled and whose actions are likely to be far more cautious than their messages; and the ideological outriders who are blurting out the uncomfortable truths. The outriders are not negligible, because they nudge the leaders and thus the ship of state. A good rule of thumb for this pre-election period is to make a point of listening with special attention to everyone the Great Ones assure us is marginal or ''speaking in a personal capacity''.