Blair has persuaded himself to be a reform hedgehog

Last night the Labour leader made his most convincing case yet for political change. And this one will be hard for the Tories to beat
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So finally it has happened. The great question of the reform of Britain has been thrown into the centre of politics. No one can be in any doubt of the magnitude of the changes to which Tony Blair has committed Labour. Nor of his own feelings. Up to now, the political reform agenda has been baggage inherited from his predecessor. Last night he used the John Smith Memorial Lecture to embrace the inheritance as his own.

Blair now says his plans for Scotland, Westminster, the Bill of Rights and local democracy touch "the vitals of the nation". He promises "a new politics which treats people as full citizens" and - in John Smith's words - "a fundamental shift in the balance of power between the citizen and the state". Well. These are words that cannot be eaten.

On that, at least, the Conservatives agree with him. Brian Mawhinney called the proposals "more far-reaching than anything ever suggested by a party in pursuit of power ... a programme of change so profound and, I believe, so threatening, that it must remain at the heart of serious political debate between now and the general election".

And it will. For what really happened yesterday was that the politicians finally seized the reform argument, which had been dominated before by academics, journalists, novelists and extraparliamentary campaigners. All those Charter 88 meetings, the speeches and newspaper articles, the seminars and the books, finally bore fruit, bitter for one side, nourishing for the other.

Party-politicising the issue may make the arguments cruder andinvolve compromises, but it will also make the question of reform come alive for millions of voters in a way it hasn't before. It will be a competition between Conservatives trying to scare people about change, and the left trying to make them feel disgusted at the thought of carrying on as before.

It can be compared to Isaiah Berlin's contest between the fox and the hedgehog. Labour is the hedgehog, which knows one big thing - that we need to reform our politics. The Conservatives are fox-like; they know many small things, worrying away at numerous inconsistencies and gaps in the Blairite programme - the West Lothian question, the missing detail of a British Bill of Rights, and so on.

Blair hasn't got all the answers. He will return to the implications for Westminster of a Scottish Parliament later in the year. His stated hostility to voting reform sits oddly with much of the rest of his rhetoric about pluralism. On the Lords, his Halfway House with its party appointees is unlikely to please anyone for long; though there are glimmerings of hope that Labour could move further towards electing some of the second chamber, at least, during a first administration.

But his speech was more coherent and passionate than any he has given on these matters before. It needs to be, for this will be a ferocious struggle, particularly if Conservatives fear that voting reform might actually follow under Labour. For several generations, Labour has been hostile to political reform and at least as centralist in its instincts as the Tories; that this is changing is indeed a big event in our politics.

In an intriguing passage, Blair himself suggested that we were entering a period when our politics would be more like that of the 19th century, when political reform was a central question, than the 20th, characterised by ideological clashes over the economy.

Does he see himself as a latter-day Gladstone, the "People's Tony", pounding out his denunciations of power misused? He is, at any rate, steadily hardening and clarifying his reformist language. It is as if he is convincing himself, line by line, issue by issue, of the real task facing him. The more he reflects on the case for radical change, the more laughable he finds the arguments against it. Here is someone finding his measure.

Dr Mawhinney's counterblast was equally aggressive, but it was notable for its traditional Tory mysticism about how political change happens. He praised the British constitution for reflecting "the wisdom of the ages" and "the values and attitudes of the British people".

This sounds good, but it begs the question of exactly how the inner wisdom of the Island Race has been translated into the removal of local authorities' powers or how it is distilled to distinguish between the Scottish Grand Committee and a Scottish Parliament.

In fact, change happens not organically or by some process of tribal osmosis but through political argument and struggle. Mawhinney praised the Tory record on reform, including giving women the vote in 1928 and extending the franchise in 1867. He referred approvingly to the settlement of the Lords' role in 1911. But none of these happened because wise Conservative elders stared into the middle distance and divined the "experience of generations".

Disraeli's 1867 measure was intended to ditch the Liberals against the background of mass protest by discontented middle-class and working-class Britons. Women got the vote because of the violence and courage of suffragettes, opposed to almost the last ditch by the Conservative party chairmen of the day. And the Lords settlement derived from a political crisis that had led Lloyd George, as Chancellor, to lampoon the peers as "five hundred men, ordinary men, chosen accidentally from among the ranks of the unemployed" who were frustrating the national will.

Yet 85 years later, the influence of bloodstock in the Lords is still being defended by Dr Mawhinney. He finds them the "conscience" of Parliament, with hereditary peers bringing "wisdom and knowledge which otherwise would be missing". Extraordinary: one wonders how often he has sat there listening to our fine old families. Walter Bagehot, generally thought of as a traditionalist, advised that the best cure for admiring the House of Lords is "to go and look at it". The same is true now.

In general, though, Conservatives are in favour of yesterday's radicalism almost as strongly as they are against today's. They will feel entirely happy fighting Labour on the constitution, trying to jemmy apart Opposition plans for regional assemblies or a reformed Lords. And in these attacks, they will be doing Britain a genuine national service, exposing weaknesses which Labour and its friends must then try to repair.

But I believe they will fail, because the big idea, the hedgehog idea, is too compelling to be avoided. In the week before the Scott report, and after so many years of embarrassments, minor scandals and incompetence, it will be just too hard to refute the case for change.

By presenting such a large, audacious political programme, Labour has offered the Conservatives plenty to criticise. But they are acting much more like a government-in-waiting than an Opposition, just as the Conservatives are in danger of giving the impression that they have suspended governance in order to oppose. The one is proposing legislation; the other is picking apart its clauses. Who stands for nothing now?

This is bad news for the Tories. It makes Labour interesting and a talking- point; it helps Blair to catch the nation's attention. If he flinches, then they will have him. But last night he sounded as if he meant it. And if he does, then it will surely happen.