Blair's Britain: only the beginning

The Tories have all but given up. But if Labour wins, will it transform the country or just oversee it for a while?
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The Independent Online
Like any sensible observer with a shred of historical sense, I have been cautious about this; over-cautious; even timid. And still, the polls may be very wrong. And still, John Major is a formidable campaigner. And Conservative Central Office is still a rich and well-oiled machine. But - Basta! On 2 May, barring the biggest upset in our democratic history, we will have a new government. Bit by bit, soundbite by soundbite, Blair's Britain is beginning.

But what kind of Britain will it be? That too depends, at least partly, on election day. A sharp narrowing of Labour's lead is possible - even, on past parallels, likely. Whether Tony Blair wins by a landslide or a short head will affect the duration and radicalism of his tenure of Downing Street.

Is he in for 10 months or 10 years? Will he transform the country or merely oversee it? Big questions; yet despite them, the Conservatives seem to have all but given up.

I don't mean that their enjoyment of power has weakened, or that they won't storm around the country warning of the terrible perils of the Blair Terror. Indeed, if anything, their enjoyment of the small comforts of office will increase and their rhetoric will get more hysterical as the day of reckoning nears.

Yet, deep down, most have given up, including almost all of the Cabinet. Real parties, fighting serious campaigns to hold or win power, don't indulge in the idiot bickering of today's Tories. In real parties, senior figures turn on the enemy, not on one another. In real parties, the elder statesmen are supportive through hard times, not poisonous and gleeful about their colleagues' daily troubles. In real parties, there is a sense of common purpose which swamps the inevitable personal squabbles that are part of daily political life - people back the leader, they don't gossip about who'll replace him.

And in all these senses, the Conservatives are ceasing to be a real fighting party. They have the offices, cars, salaries and titles of power, but they are losing authority. When a minister explains the latest government proposal, it now requires the willing suspension of disbelief before we consider the implications. When an Opposition spokesman, such as Jack Straw, makes an announcement, we think, at some barely-conscious level, ``Ah, so that's what is going to happen.''

This political collapse of stout party is particularly odd since the Tories have won almost all of the big political arguments of recent years. On taxation, public spending, privatisation, the market economy, less liberal attitudes to law and crime, parent power in education, and even the undesirability of European political union, they confront opponents who basically agree with them.

Indeed, in many areas, New Labour's pitch is not really that the Tories have been intellectually wrong - rather, that they have failed to deliver properly, and that Labour will now deliver a similar agenda much better. (Think of traditional education, or law and order, or monetary orthodoxy.) If the Conservatives are handing the country over, then they have thrown in a growing economy and a whole boxful of new, now barely-challenged nostrums too.

Yet Tony Blair's huge achievement is to have made it possible for the Middle English to vote Labour in large numbers for the first time in a generation. The glib, coffee-bar dismissal of Blairism is that it doesn't give voters enough choice. But if choice means the real prospect of an electable alternative, and not simply the opportunity to heckle a permanent Tory government, then without Blair and the other Labour reformers, Britain would have no choice at all.

And Britain does. Despite the convergence on many social and economic policies, we now have a choice between different visions of a British future: different ideas about democracy, about our place in the world. Even, to put it pompously, our national destiny.

The Tories have become dazzled by the philosophical challenge of European Union - a proposition they cannot ignore and cannot accept. Their great purpose now is to defend one kind and level of power - parliamentary sovereignty, located at Westminster - against all comers. They are the Defence of the Realm Party. This most traditional of political causes goes with a vision of an unregulated, vibrant economy, from which political control is absent at a local, regional or European level.

The Tories' problem is that only some of them think this way, and most of the country seems to regard it as a romantic, somewhat abstract crusade. The realm, in the sense of the Westminster elite, may feel in need of defence against other power centres. But the nation doesn't agree. Neither the practical objections to Brussels meddling nor the rising doubt about the future of Continental welfare-capitalism has yet persuaded voters that the EU is a mortal danger to this country. For decades, Conservatives have benefited from the phlegmatic refusal of the English (in particular) to get excited by political ideas. Now they are being penalised by it.

Blair, by contrast, offers an idea of Britain which seems pragmatic and - if we brush aside the rhetoric of New Labour, New Everything - unromantic. ``Reform this. Do that better. Sweep aside old nonsenses. Use resources more efficiently.'' Talk to any senior New Labourite and you find they regard the EU as something to be used and exploited, not argued about.

The dangers for a Labour or Lib-Lab government should hardly need spelling out. Pragmatic administrations are easily blown off course. In office, you may not need a detailed, year-by-year blueprint, but you certainly need a strong sense of direction. Meanwhile, the longer-term outlook for the public finances is not nearly as sunny as it seems today; and the history of the century suggests that the Tories will be back, revitalised and reunited, within a few years of defeat in the polls, however comprehensive.

If Blair wins a strong working majority in May, then we will soon see how seriously he takes this. Will he reshape the country's politics, so that Tory nationalism is marginalised and the failures of the party in power today are translated into longer-term defeat? Doing that will mean empowering local and regional politics, introducing a Bill of Rights, finally dealing with the Lords and - above all - changing the voting system: all the things traditionalists advise him to shun.

Already the more intellectual Conservative journalists, such as Matthew Parris in The Times and Charles Moore in The Daily Telegraph, are worriedly warning Blair against tinkering with the Constitution. The subliminal message seems to be: let us Tories deal with national destiny while you take a quick turn at the wheel. Moore even accuses Labour of being high- handed and ruthlessly ``Cromwellian''. Coming from a champion of Lady Thatcher, after 18 years of quango-stuffing and centralising, and addressed to a party still in Opposition, this is a bit rich.

But as Tories, Parris and Moore are posing the right questions. Their worry is eloquent and justified: if Blair does ``tinker'' - and today's expected launch of the joint Labour-Lib Dem constitutional progamme implies he will - then the Conservatives' failure to recover this spring will cost them much more than one general election. It may cost them their century-old leasehold on this country.