A ritual message nobody needs to remember

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The Independent Online
DOES a country need a voice? Is it essential for national morale to have a political leader who speaks for a wide swathe of his or her people, vividly and clearly? The thought is provoked by the new year messages and interviews of the leading British politicians, notably the Prime Minister's. These were so vivid that 99 per cent of readers have probably forgotten every word of them already.

The ritual of these messages is a peculiarly outdated one. It depends on a vestigial belief that they can reach ahead and pledge us riches or poverty, peace or conflict - almost as if Western societies were run by shamans with magic powers. But if, in 1992, the politicians were blown about by the markets and by conflicts beyond their borders - if their magic proved mere bluster - why should we think the winter visions worth listening to? Most people, I would guess, don't.

John Major offered good times in 1993. Most economists are more equivocal. Higher unemployment is a certainty and higher taxes are a serious possiblity in at least one of this year's two budgets. Even so, the happy-days message was eagerly jumped on by editors who sensed their readers were keen for seasonal cheer.

If you keep saying recovery is coming, then eventually you will be right. (Though you might not get quite as much applause as you would have done had you been right first, second, or even third time.) But what kind of recovery? A spending boom, to swell the balance of payments deficit? Or a steady retrenchment, moving away from the house-price casino and under-

investment of the Eighties?

This is the central domestic question for the next few years, but it was fudged by Mr Major. He gave the impression of a man not yet quite ready to take full responsibility for the future after the disasters of the recent past. Fair enough: the recovery he was talking up will hardly be something he can claim special credit for. Black Wednesday was a failure of policy, not an act of will. And a glance at the modest numbers in the 'reflationary' Autumn Statement shows that its effect on recovery cannot be serious - an ant trying to kick-start a Harley-Davidson.

Politicians simply look less effectual than they used to be. One could argue that their loss of power, in a less ideologically divided and more commercially open world, is a good thing. If they are becoming mere technocrats, whose views on the money supply or the right public-private mix for road contracts are of interest, but who are no longer the chosen voices of some general will, then fine. Mr Major fits this new model for politicians exceedingly well. He would like to speak for the little people. But he is not much good at this because he is no longer a little person. He is a relatively well-off and experienced Whitehall insider who has spent most of his political life surrounded by civil servants, and he sounds it.

He seems fated to speak for the bureaucracy. In his new year message and interviews he was patient, earnest, only occasionally waspish, and too clever to concede any serious point to his interrogators. Even his frequent refusals to answer were carried off with charm. Charm, though, is not enough, even in this small country, at this less-than-heroic time. The vision thing does matter, as the originator of that phrase discovered, for there is more to politics than quiet management.

Democratic politics floats on a sea of words, and politicians who lack the eloquence to move people are limited in what they can do. Unless they can persuade us to think about our lives afresh and/or support change, they can only run things much as before. Nor is it a sufficient answer to say that social leadership will be taken by others, by writers or television performers, environmentalists, priests or business executives. Only politicians have the opportunity and task of reconciling conflicting objectives and offering leadership across the whole field of public affairs.

It seems that Mr Major recognises all this. He has summoned a group of supporters to Chequers this week to help him refine and project his vision. Sir Norman Fowler, cardiganed and decent, and the high-minded Sarah Hogg from the Downing Street policy unit, may seem curious choices as the creators of a new populism. They are not exactly dry ice and laser people. But there are precious few members of Mr Major's praetorian guard left. It is often said that the loss of Chris Patten to Hong Kong (and now Tristan Garel- Jones to private life) has robbed Mr Major of heavyweight intellectuals. But both men were always better at projecting a sense of excitement, in vivid language, than formulating detailed policies. They will be missed for their metaphors as much as their philosophy.

Had Mr Major been confident of his ability to sway and captivate a wider audience, his new year message would have been different. He would have been sterner about the difference between the kind of spending boom the tabloid papers thought he was promising and the starker era of investment and retrenchment that Britain needs. He might have been straightforward about the possibility of higher taxes. He might have been less inclined to hark back to the Eighties, which contain as many warnings as golden memories, and more inclined to analyse the structural weaknesses in Britain that still need to be addressed. He might have been less evasive and rather less nice. And his message would have been worth remembering this year.

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