Blair will not yet leave his mark on history

Labour must be less cautious if it is to become one of the great reforming administrations, says Ben Pimlott

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Yesterday the Blairs arrived at Balmoral for an annual weekend of socialising with the Monarch and her husband, tramping the moors, watching the Braemar Games, and attending Sunday morning service at Crathie Church. The two days are officially "informal". However, at the core of the social schedule is one piece of business: an hour's tete-a-tete, still quaintly called an "audience", when what Walter Bagehot called the "efficient" and "dignified" parts of the Constitution meet alone. Doubtless the premier will give the Queen her Government's mid-term report and future prospectus. What might he have said?

Possibly: "So far, so good." After 28 months in office Blair has served longer than two post-war predecessors (Anthony Eden and Alec Douglas- Home), hasn't long to go to equal a third (Callaghan), and has so far escaped anything like the degree of criticism directed at any of them. He has shown a sureness of touch. The late Lord Stockton famously remarked that "events, dear boy" were the biggest obstacle to good government: Blair could reply that events are the building blocks of political reputation. Of course, he has also been lucky: the Balkan nightmare came close to turning into another Suez, if not another Vietnam. But he has been good at creating his own luck.

Will it hold? No left-of-centre government ever seemed more secure. However, the next election is still two years off, and (to quote another premier), in politics the unexpected usually happens. There are certainly some icebergs lurking in the North Atlantic.

First among obvious dangers is, paradoxically, the thriving economy. People have come to take a strong economic position as much for granted as they used to take a weak one. Hence the political fallout from even a moderate upset will be commensurately greater. There is also a danger that, when a downturn occurs, the gap between rich and poor may grow still wider.

Second, there is the risk that legislation and policy in progress may get unstuck. Euphoria over constitutional reform may be reduced, if empowered Celts start to bite Westminster hands, and if disempowered hereditary peers leave a tangle of unresolved issues behind them.

Third, the Ulster "peace process" offers diminishing promise, despite Dr Mowlam's impressive efforts. There are no points here for the Tories. Most people acknowledge the energy and sincerity of the Government, and dismiss the stirring of Mr Hague, whose interjections on this issue (as on others) make him resemble one of the more transparently self-seeking characters in the cartoon series South Park. However, it will be depressing to morale if New Labour magic turns out to be little more effective than previous remedies.

Fourth, a number of issues crying out for attention will cause heartache, to the extent that they are neglected. The public will not take kindly to another winter of lectures from Mr Prescott about public transport without evidence of efforts to alleviate public frustration. The GM food debate will heighten in ferocity, and farmers will get angrier about urban indifference to their plight - especially if Blair yields to the anti- hunting lobby and wastes legislative time banning an innocuous pastime.

Fifth, Labour's most serious difficulty of all could be the Euro - a jagged and treacherous object designed to rip apart the solidest political hull. Euro issues have split parties and killed governments in Britain for a third of a century, and they aren't about to stop now. At present New Labour basks in the happy knowledge that the Tories have boxed themselves in on the currency. However, it is a gamble either way, and - whatever the long-term prognosis - the clock ticks for Labour.

For all these reasons, Labour supporters who imagine an easy ride are guilty of wishful thinking. However, that is not the end of the matter. So far, we have considered the position in the Government's own terms - equating "success" with short-term impact on opinion. There remains another dimension.

If you say that British politics has become boring, it has become fashionable to quote the ancient Chinese curse about living in interesting times. Who wants to go back to the exciting strikes of the 1970s, or the thought- provoking unemployment of the 1980s? However, boringness can be stood on its head. The present eerily becalmed state of British politics - stable economy, strange melting-away of the class war, lack of major domestic differences between parties - does not provide an excuse for don't-upset- the-apple-cart politics. On the contrary, it offers an exceptional chance to make really big changes.

To be fair, the chance has not been ignored. Celtic devolution, the House of Lords, even the minimum wage, are much more than symbolic reforms. Meanwhile, Downing Street has been a factory of imaginative schemes - to such an extent that insiders grumble about "initiative overload". Nor is the end in sight. The Chancellor's early prudence has made substantial increases in public spending over the next two years, possibly of a redistributive kind, a virtual certainty.

However, achievement must be placed in the context of opportunity. After 18 years, Blair's remarkable triumph seemed potentially to place 1997 alongside 1906, 1945 and 1964 (not to mention 1979), as one of the great political watersheds. So far - despite valuable advances - the last election can scarcely be seen as the most radical turning-point, and could even rank as the least.

A few weeks ago the Prime Minister visited Huddersfield in Yorkshire to unveil a bronze effigy of the late Lord Wilson of Rievaulx. What, the small band of spectators wondered, could Mr Blair have to say about his not-universally-admired predecessor? They need not have worried. The premier delivered a eulogy that achieved the feat of praising Wilsonian philosophy while extolling the values of New Labour, without a hint of a gap between them.

No hint of a gap, but no concession either: Blair has never claimed Wilson as a hero. However, the Wilson Government, for all its faults, changed British society irrevocably - providing scope for legislation on homosexuality, divorce, race relations and sex equality. It also found the cash to widen access to post-school education.

Labour in the Sixties pressed ahead, despite constraints and furious criticism. Labour in the Nineties presses ahead more cautiously, facing few obstacles apart from a habit of mind derived from the public relations clawback during the period of opposition.

Is it the calm before the storm? All governments fall apart eventually. Sooner or later old battle-lines will be rediscovered, new ones invented. The shift of atmosphere will not be immediate, but it will happen. Then the party's balance-sheet will come under close scrutiny - not least by Labour's bedrock working-class voters.

In the meantime, Labour's successful Cabinet confronts an extraordinary opportunity, perhaps even greater than two years ago, to reconstitute education, rebuild the NHS and reduce inequality. A confident start, a fair economic wind, an undivided society, a loyal party, money available to be invested in the services that need it: together these give the Prime Minister and his colleagues the chance to establish reputations as members of the most transforming administration of the century. Perhaps the moorland air will invigorate the Prime Minister. His admirers will be keeping fingers crossed.

Ben Pimlott, historian and political biographer, is Warden of Goldsmiths' College.

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