Blair might need more than a pleasant turn of phrase: Political Commentary

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EVELYN WAUGH famously complained that the Conservative Party had not turned the clock back a single second. Mr Tony Blair evidently intends to follow the same course as the Conservatives. For this he is much praised. Lord Jenkins writes that he is the most exciting Labour leader since Hugh Gaitskell: a remarkable tribute, coming as it does from the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, though its candour should surprise no one.

Conservative newspapers and politicians tend to recall Gaitskell's immediate successor, Harold Wilson. This is, I think, a more flattering comparison. Wilson was feared as Gaitskell never was. Gaitskell would have contrived some method of losing the 1964 election. Here I differ from Lord Jenkins, Lord Rodgers and others. (Has anyone, by the way, ever noticed how successful the now defunct Social Democrats have been in securing life peerages for most of their former members?) No matter. It is all very gratifying for Mr Blair, who can enjoy a happy holiday at Barnsbury-sur-Dordogne.

Comparisons have been made not only with Wilson but with J F Kennedy. Just over 30 years ago the comparison was between Kennedy and Wilson. Harold, a figure totally devoid of glamour who nevertheless managed briefly to make himself exciting politically, encouraged this parallel for all it was worth. The comparison betweeen Kennedy and Mr Blair is perhaps more valid. Though my mother always told me that it was rude to make personal remarks, my doubt about him concerns his hair. It does not look any too secure to me. I would not back it to see him through to 50. Kennedy had a good head of hair. So had every party leader who successfully contested an election since Churchill in 1951: Eden, Macmillan, Wilson, Heath, Major and, of course, Thatcher. This theory may be vulnerable, but I offer it up all the same.

Mr Blair also resembles Kennedy in certain tricks of phrase. Kennedy got them from his speech writers. They in turn picked them up from F D Roosevelt and from an American tradition of cracker- barrel aphorism filtered through Harvard. The style relies on brevity, repetition and inversion:

When the way is forward, to go forward is the only way.

The privileges of the few must become the opportunities of the many.

The right to freedom is the freedom to do right.

Actually I just made these up. Mr Blair is welcome to try them out if he likes, without charge. As you can see, the sentiments can be tautologous, meaningless or, sometimes, nonsensical, in the correct sense rather than: 'I don't agree.' Still it is pleasant to have a politician who tries to express himself with style, however unfortunate the results may sometimes be.

Mr Blair's reluctance to turn the clock back raises different considerations. There are numerous voters who would like nothing better than for the clock to be turned back. This does not mean that they agree with Mr John Prescott or Mr Michael Foot. Mr Foot, in theory a libertarian, looks back fondly to the years of the Second World War, when Britain was in practice a totalitarian state. Mr Prescott, a practical socialist, prefers the Age of Attlee after 1945, years of even greater privation than those of the war itself. The truth is that Britain became an agreeable country to live in during the so-called '13 wasted years' of Conservative government.

In those days, and until very recently, the water industry - though it was never called that - was in public ownership. Why not restore it to its former condition? There is a similar and, in some respects, even stronger case for renationalising the railways. The telephone service is certainly better than it used to be, but gas and electricity are arguable cases. There is no argument at all about the health service. It is a mess, as it was bound to be.

And yet, Mr Blair is cautious about what he is going to do. Like Mr John Major and the rest of the Cabinet, he walks in fear of the Tory tabloids. There is no need to be frightened of them. I have long been familiar with them - or the people who write them. Come out from behind that decanter, David] I know you. If one stands up to them (as Mr Major signally failed to do in the trousers-round-the- ankles events of 1993-4), they will retreat or go away completely.

The Daily Mail recently reheated some mince, first served up in this column, on Mr Blair's plans for the House of Lords. The story omitted that aspect of his scheme which allowed peers of first creation to retain their voting rights, while depriving other hereditary peers of theirs. No doubt this would have complicated the account. Anyway, it did not make much difference to the front page story, which was headlined: 'Blair Threat to Lords.'

It is not, I think, sufficiently realised that hereditary as well as life peers are entitled to draw the attendance allowance of pounds 106 a day, including car allowance. If the Duke of Omnium attends conscientiously for an average parliamentary year he will take home to Gatherum Castle something over pounds 20,000 of our money. It is the Mail that is backing the unpopular cause, not Mr Blair. Imagine what Lloyd George, say, would have made of it] Yet Mr Blair and his colleagues are apologetic when they are not being silent.

There are greater wrongs to be righted than payments to peers. The phrase 'the British state' is usually employed pejoratively by writers such as Mr Tom Nairn. It is used to connote secretiveness, centralisation, in particular, discrimination against the state's non-English constituent parts. In practice it displayed many admirable features, notably an independent judiciary, a respected monarchy, an uncorrupt legislature and a separate civil service. After 15 years of Conservative government, only the first feature is retained in its entirety. Even that is under financial threat at the margins. Far from strengthening the British state, Lady Thatcher did her best to destroy it, and largely succeeded. Mr Major is, as his speech last week demonstrated, determined to continue the process in his own bumbling way.

Government by appointment now flourishes as it has not since the middle of the 19th century. Local government was often incompetent and sometimes corrupt: but at least you could vote out the councillors. The civil service was usually obstructive and always dilatory: but at least it was under the control of a minister who was in theory responsible to Parliament. The rise of the Quangos means that no one is any longer responsible for anything. The privatisation of formerly public functions, whether performed by the civil service or by other authorities directly accountable to a minister, produces the same result.

Mr Blair's attitude to opted- out schools - that he will retain their status but democratise their control in so far unspecified ways - suggests that he will retain existing structures but render them more accountable to the public. Sometimes this may work. Often, I fear, it will not. And then there will be no other course than to turn back the clock.