We have had too much of focus groups, consensus politics and not frightening the horses in recent years. One of Lady Thatcher's most baleful legacies has been an entrenched fear, among centrist and leftish politicians alike, of saying anything that might create dissent or alarm voters. Since New Labour came to power, the Government has worked hard to create an inclusive politics which would keep on board the rusting Iron Lady herself, Rupert Murdoch's newspapers and anyone to the right of Ken Livingstone. We have had to endure endless nonsense about "the Third Way", even about Labour eventually combining with the Lib Dems to create a coalition whose clammy embrace would be about as refreshing as someone else's used bath towel.
Until last week, the Government had shown itself hostile only to easy targets, such as Saddam Hussein and some of our European partners. Jack Straw, whose decision not to intervene in the extradition process has caused such thrilling uproar, hardly distinguished himself earlier this year when he acceded to a demand from the Sun to denounce the child-killer Mary Bell. Lady Thatcher revealed her admiration for Mr Blair, which is apparently reciprocated, and former Tory ministers such as Michael Heseltine, David Mellor and Chris Patten were given jobs by the new administration.
Even the far left was mesmerised by the supposed re-alignment of politics, talking grandly about the redundancy of old terms like left and right. Matters were not helped by the feeble performance of Her Majesty's Opposition, which provided few challenges to a coltishly nervous government.
It says something about the attachment of all three major parties to this determined avoidance of proper political debate that it took the arrival in Britain of someone as rebarbative as General Pinochet to break it apart. But it has finally happened and lots of us feel better for it - even, I suspect, on the right, which has something to get its teeth into for the first time in ages, although its response so far suggests that the old gnashers are a bit stiff from lack of use. Lady Thatcher, for instance, complained last week about a failure of political leadership when the beauty of Mr Straw's decision is that a government minister has finally - perhaps to his own astonishment - done something bold and unequivocal.
I am not impressed by the argument that Mr Straw's decision was "quasi- legal" and not political. Does anyone seriously think that his predecessor, the revolting Michael Howard, would have arrived at an identical decision? But it has fallen to Barbara Amiel in the Daily Telegraph to expose the sclerosis currently afflicting right-wing commentators. In a joyous rant, Ms Amiel complains that other people have committed "similar and/or more severe crimes as those with which General Pinochet is charged, and we do nothing about them" - an argument for letting go the burglar who has been caught red-handed in your living-room because other miscreants have not been apprehended.
In a series of magnificent non-sequiturs, she suggests that in the spring of 1973 President Salvador Allende was plotting to overthrow the Chilean government - himself and his own ministers, as it happens - by means of a coup, so that General Pinochet's imposition of a brutal dictatorship in September actually came as a relief to the left. With me so far? Let us savour together another of Ms Amiel's sentences: "The Pinochet regime may well have developed into a regime un- necessarily harsher than the democratic Left anticipated." There speaks a woman who has never had electrodes attached to her pudenda, judiciously leaving open the question of whether Pinochet's regime was over-zealous when it murdered more than 3,000 people.
There could scarcely be more convincing proof that a lengthy period of consensus - of not having your ideas challenged, which is a more accurate description of what has happened to the right in Britain - is bad for the brain. General Pinochet can hardly have imagined, when he decided to pop over to London, see an old friend and dabble in a bit of arms dealing, that his holiday plans would play a dramatic role in revitalising political life here. But the result is so splendid that I'm almost tempted to wish the old brute a happy Christmas.Reuse content