Big ideas are back again: The right stares into the abyss. Tony Blair, though vague, at least looks as if he is on the case

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THROUGH contagion, coincidence or inspiration, Tony Blair's sudden accession to the job of prime minister-designate has been accompanied by a serious national philosophy epidemic. Big ideas, having been an acute embarrassment to the British for at least 30 years, now litter the socio-political landscape. Citizenship versus individualism, rights versus duties, free markets versus institutional continuity, global culture versus the family, and other potent polarities, have taken over from reshuffles and interest rates as the primary content of political debate.

Suddenly John Major's government doesn't just look inept, it looks trivial, beside the point, and, equally suddenly, Blair has stopped being the Shadow Cabinet's Cliff Richard and become a dizzying cocktail of Aristotle, Jefferson and Sartre topped with the ice'n'slice of Confucius for the family values/

social cohesion market.

This is, to say the least, a rum do. Those of us in the big ideas business had become used to being the anoraks at the party, boring people to death with our favourite hobby of apocalyptic foreboding. The triumph of capitalism and the left's less than revolutionary drive for bourgeois respectability seemed to have signalled that there were no big things worth thinking about any more, just a lot of managerial gossip. But then John Smith dies and all these ideas are running around the place like rabbits flushed from a wood and the man Blair is 'bringing down meaning as snow from a low sky'.

The apparently sane, suitably jaded view of this is that it will all die down, Jimmy Knapp's tanks will park themselves on Tony Blair's lawn and it will be business as usual. Nothing has really changed, this is just another spasm in the long decline of post-war Britain. Maybe. But, while there is a bull market for big ideas, I see no reason not to cash in.

At the heart of all these debates are the twin issues of continuity and cohesion. It is now more or less an orthodoxy that we are in danger of losing both. Institutions are adrift and sinking, communities broken or besieged. In emblematic crimes like the murder of James Bulger we have begun to glimpse the possibility of a depraved social order no longer capable of producing fully human selves. Indeed, it was to Tony Blair's credit that he saw the political potency of such crimes and described them as 'hammer blows against the sleeping conscience of society'.

Meanwhile, real economic growth seems like an antiquated delusion, the middle classes are growing poorer and one billion Chinese are about to loot the jobs of our poorly educated, under-motivated workforce.

Confronted with this looming fragmentation we have tended to adopt one of two equally facile and ineffectual world-views - philosophies would be too grand a title. The first is Thatcherite economic neo-liberalism compromised by a weird Majorist package of managerialism and paper-thin back-to-basics moralism. The second is a vapid cultural post-modernism, a vision of the deracinated human 'minimal' self adrift among a mass of systems from which it chooses values, styles and ideas as it would clothes. Strip the first of the moralism and the two might be seen as one - a disengaged view of the world as a management problem dimly predicated on technological determinism and the unthinking presumption of economic growth.

The best of the rapidly expanding crowd now confronting this intellectual vacuum is John Gray of Jesus College, Oxford, whose paper The Undoing of Conservatism is published this week by the Social Market Foundation. Gray is an apostate, a man spectacularly and cogently disengaging himself from the hard free-market ideology of Eighties conservatism. He equates that ideology with the reductive economism and mindless faith in progress of Marxism and makes the point that should have been blindingly obvious even in the Eighties jamboree - that people are more than the sum of their shopping.

'Human beings,' he writes, 'more than they need the freedom of consumer choice, need a cultural and economic environment that offers tham an acceptable level of security and in which they feel at home.'

The reductionism of the free-market ideology was, in truth, violently anti-conservative in that it tended to destroy the cultural institutions that provided continuity. This destruction has, for Gray, gone too far for anything to be redeemed. True conservatism cannot be restored - least of all by the present government's fatuous sloganising. In Tony Blair, Gray can at least glimpse a degree of openness and awareness of the problems that suggest he could snap British politics out of its present intellectual torpor.

Many others, myself included, have attacked the free marketeers for their crass inability to see how one-dimensional their analysis was. In 1986 Roger Scruton, a supposed leader of New Right thought, - contemptuously dismissed (in his book Sexual Desire) the neo-conservative fantasy that culture and institutions were no more than the by-products of efficient markets.

'Spontaneous social order is an illusion,' he wrote, 'fed upon the fairy-tales of anthropologists and upon the fables of Adam Smith and Friedrich von Hayek. The 'invisible hand' which directs our collective well-being is not the spontaneous upshot of human co-operation, but the elaborate artefact of centuries of institution-building.'

And, though the building of those institutions takes centuries, their destruction can be accomplished in a decade. Look, says Scruton, at the way the sexual morality codified over generations was subverted overnight.

But although the particular inspiration of Scruton's attack and Gray's apostasy is the intellectual poverty of neo-conservatism, this style of thinking has a much wider target. For the free market was just another simple-minded rationalism employed to assault the British and their institutions in the post-war era. In addition, there was socialist planning, late Sixties academic radicalism, Heath's corporatism, Wilson's technophilia and half a dozen others all the way down to Shirley Williams's comprehensive schools and her mad attempts to get shopkeepers to agree to hold down prices.

All of these ideas, big and little, started from the proposition that there was 'something wrong' with Britain and it would have to be fixed. The solution was always a matter of applying technique or expertise. Fixing always involved destroying something - houses, grammar schools, town centres and, latterly, the BBC, the health service and the universities. Whatever caught the rationalist attention of the government of the day was immediately identified as the source of all our woes and singled out for some grievous bodily fixing. National self-loathing was politically realised as national self- wounding.

To describe the result of these paroxysms of self-mutilation as a crisis of identity is wildly to understate the case. According to Gray's own definition of real conservatism, a society that cannot provide a culture and its accompanying institutions cannot create a properly human self. Instead, in the contemporary context, there will only be a kind of blankness, a parody of freedom expressed as psychobabble and management-speak.

All of this may be seen as more apocalyptic musings from the party-pooping anorak. But I do not think so. Something is happening that feels like fragmentation. And Gray's apostasy has produced a hugely important document that should send shudders far beyond the narrow confines of the Conservative Party because, ultimately, the undoing of conservatism with a small 'c' casts doubt on the viability of our entire culture.

He acknowledges the potential for a very profound pessimism indeed: 'The question of what is to be the content of the common culture in a country such as Britain, when it is no longer animated by inherited transcendental faith or by any variety of the Enlightenment project, is a deep and difficult one that I cannot consider here.'

Bravely he is now trying to draw hope from the explosive and apparently intellectually fecund emergence of Tony Blair. But the sheer exoticism of the idea of a 'common culture' when applied to the ungraspable heterodoxy of modern Britain, as well as Gray's own pessimism about the fate of conservatism, suggest that this hope is a slender one. Nevertheless, he may be right to applaud that fact that Blair's rhetoric, though vague, at least offers the possibility that he is on the case.

Scruton, perhaps more plausibly for the pessimistically inclined, has withdrawn into a 'forlorn but dignified resistance to the tide of history'. The once resurgent right is staring into the abyss. Blair's task is to be a more effective conservative than any of them, a lot to ask from somebody who was, until so recently, Cliff Richard.