Bliss, dawn and all that, but nothing very radical yet

Alan Watkins on politics
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The Independent Online
It was on 16 March 1996 that I finally became convinced that the Conservatives were going to lose the election. I can be precise about the date because it was the Saturday on which Mrs Virginia Bottomley was booed at Twickenham. She had come to open the rugby museum there and stayed to watch England play Ireland. Her presence was proudly announced shortly before kick-off but greeted with howls of derision from the crowd, even though the home team had enjoyed the longest period of success in their history while Mr John Major had been prime minister. If that most Conservative of audiences were ungrateful to him and his new Environment Secretary, what were normal people feeling? That was what I thought.

But no one, least of all Mr Tony Blair, expected the electorate to exact such a terrible and comprehensive revenge. People still cannot believe it has happened. As Wordsworth wrote of the French Revolution: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven!"

Not since 1945, certainly, had Westminster witnessed scenes such as last Wednesday's. All those pink or yellow shirts! All that hairspray! And that was just the men. Naturally everyone quoted what Sir Hartley Shawcross was supposed to have said on the earlier occasion: "We are the masters now." Alas, Sir Hartley did not say it but: "We are the masters at the moment, and not only at the moment, but for a very long time to come."

He did not say it immediately after the election in July 1945 either, but during the third reading of the Trade Disputes Bill in April 1946. Nor did he say it in any notably triumphalist manner. Rather he was pointing out that Labour happened to be the government and, with a majority of 146, would get their way.

Mr Blair's majority is 179. It will go down slightly if the Conservatives hold Uxbridge, which must be doubtful, and after the Commons chairmen have been appointed. Even so, it will be larger than Labour's in 1945 and 1966, or the Liberals' in 1906. The only bigger majority of this century was the National government's in 1931. Mr Blair turned Sir Hartley's quotation on its head. They were not the masters but the servants.

I have been looking at what has happened so far with perhaps a colder eye than has been cast on these stirring events by most leader writers and columnists. To use Hugh Kingsmill's word, "Dawnism" is in vogue. It is easy to see why. Most honest citizens are genuinely pleased to see the backs of the last government. Indeed, one of the surprising aspects of the past week has been the amount of space the newspapers have been prepared to devote to the comings and goings of assorted former ministers, Hagues, Howards, Lilleys and what-have-you, who will not be of much importance for, as Lord Shawcross might have put it, a very long time to come; though I shall inevitably have to get round to them in due course.

For the moment, I have been compiling a balance sheet. It may look different after the Queen's Speech on Wednesday. We shall have to see. But so far the Government's only even vaguely radical action thas been taken by Mr Robin Cook. He issued instructions that no more landmines, also sometimes referred to as anti-personnel mines, were to be made, used or exported. The Ministry of Defence is cross about this and the Foreign Office none too pleased either: both are usually good signs.

But Mr Chris Smith's first act as Heritage Secretary was to announce that the Elgin Marbles would not be returned to Greece. This is one of those many subjects on which I hold no strong opinion either way . The Elgin Marbles can stay, or they can go: I can, so to speak, take them or leave them. However, most people who are knowledgeable about history, the arts or both think they ought to stay here.

At the same time I cannot help noticing that those who place themselves on the left politically take the opposite view. In fact Mr Neil Kinnock, no doubt overwhelmed by the force or the charms - who can tell? - of Mr Smith's former Greek equivalent, the late Melina Mercouri, promised they should be returned to Athens. Inasmuch as there was a division between left and right, the Government has come down on the side of the right.

Then there is the appointment of Sir David Simon, formerly of BP, as minister for trade with Europe. This is one of several signs that Mr Blair and Mr Gordon Brown intend us to enter the single currency. To begin with there were stories that Mr Blair wanted to appoint Sir David minister for Europe (a post I predicted some weeks ago, one of my infrequent correct forecasts). But it appears that Mr Cook kicked up a fuss about not being consulted beforehand. Whether he would have accepted the proposed arrangement if he had been consulted is doubtful.

At all events, Mr Doug Henderson was appointed instead. Like Mr Cook, he is a Scotsman; unlike him, he is a former railway clerk, engineering apprentice and union organiser. He is the second most important appointment in the Government. The first is Mr Frank Field, who has already said he wants to supplement the state pension through compulsory private provision through insurance companies.

It is hard to see why the Cabinet is so reluctant to introduce a Freedom of Information Bill. Or, rather, it is easy: Mr Peter Mandelson, the adminstration's Pooh-Bah (who, it will be remembered, had got a little list), has taken alarm. Sir Douglas Corridor has been getting at him. The civil servants might be annoyed. He was quoted as saying last week that a Bill of this nature could not simply be taken off the shelf. But on the contrary: we had been informed a few months ago that this was precisely where such a measure safely reposed. The frontbencher who told us this was Mr Derek Foster. He has now resigned after three days because he says (there is no reason to doubt his word) that Mr Blair promised him a Cabinet position which he did not receive in return for giving up his post as Chief Whip to Mr Donald Dewar, now the Scottish Secretary.

The omission of the promised measure drastically to reform the House of Lords is less surprising but more serious. It is less surprising because it would have involved greater political trouble. It is more serious because, if it is not introduced in 1997-98 (a session lasting till November 1998), it is doubtful whether it ever will be.

But there can be no question about the Government's most important action. It is Mr Brown's handing over to the Bank of England of the Treasury's power to fix the rate of interest. It has split the Conservatives, with Mr Kenneth Clarke and Mr Michael Howard opposing the change, and Mr Norman Lamont supporting it. In his memoirs Lord Lawson took Mr Lamont's side. "My own view," he wrote, "has always been that the Bank of England must either be properly subordinate to the Treasury, as the Banque de France has traditionally been to the French Finance Ministry, or independent but accountable, like the Bundesbank or the US Federal Reserve." This is the other sign that Mr Blair and Mr Brown intend to enter the single currency. And in New Labour Montagu Norman lives again!

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