Civilisers, the bunch of them

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The Independent Online
CALLING everyone who has despaired of British politics: it is worth paying attention again. The spirit of our age is blinking and stretching. From right to left, politicians and thinkers are agreeing on the new agenda. A time of drift and intellectual sluggishness in the backwash of the Thatcherite convulsion seems finally to be ending. The wind freshens.

This new agenda is not startling, but it is relevant to our times. It is the agreement that we need a richer civic culture and a kinder, more neighbourly society if we are to live decently as a nation within the fast-maturing global economy. The free market works, and the new Labour Party knows it. But the unadorned neo- liberal market is a cruel god that devours his worshippers; and thinking Tories know that, too.

So there is a consensus about some aims. The left talks of a return to community values, of duty and responsibility. Political reformers of the Charter 88 type proclaim the need for a stronger sense of citizenship, and worry about the decline of civil society. So do Liberal Democrats and many Tories, some now speaking of 'civic Conservatism'. Each may draw different policy conclusions, but they are all addressing the same agenda. This political bunching is a remarkable and underrated event.

It has been generally assumed that this 'river of ideas running through British society', as Gordon Brown called it at the weekend, is carrying a government of the centre-left back to power. When Tony Blair defines his project as 'to rebuild Britain as a strong and cohesive society in which there are mutual rights and responsibilities, as well as opportunities and obligations', he seems merely sensible. When he attacks the selfish society, everybody knows whom he blames.

Unthinking Tories have reacted to the sound of this bell tolling with something like panic. They have attacked Mr Blair as being merely 'telegenic'. What does telegenic really mean? If it means lacking a face like a farm animal's bottom and failing to speak like a Soviet trade unionist, then I think we can assume the man will survive his disabilities. Then they attack him for lacking 'beef', by which they mean specific, and preferably unpopular, policies.

The policies will come. But actually what Labour needs now is a clear agenda. The big ideas are the simple ones. And without a vision, spun in words, a party has no way of judging its own policy ideas, or of deciding later whether they have worked. Mr Blair seems determined not to be pushed off into the thicket of tax details until he has had a chance to sell his road- map to the country. And there is no indication that people are unwilling to hear him.

If the Conservatives continue to attack Labour like this, then they are doomed. The irony is that they have no need to do so, for the agenda of social duties and mutual responsibilities can have a strongly Conservative flavour. If you emphasise the danger of an over-mighty state, wax lyrical about small platoons, and call for more neighbourliness, then you are speaking with the authentic voice of Old Toryism.

Indeed, the trailblazing speech for civic-mindedness came from Douglas Hurd in 1988, when he called at Tamworth for active citizenship and warned his party that 'the fruits of economic success could turn sour unless we can bring back a greater sense of social cohesion to our country'. The high noon of 'bourgeois triumphalism' was a bad time for such sound advice. But Tories have since become more receptive.

David Willetts, once a leading ideologue of Thatcherism, now the MP for Havant, has just published his case for 'civic Conservatism'. He states: 'Our deepest fear about the direction our country is taking is that somehow we are becoming worse people - more self- centred, more aggressive, hostile to excellence and achievement, less civil, less willing to give time and effort to any cause greater than ourselves. We see faces in the street or at the wheel of a car with the coarse brutality of a soldier or a peasant in the background of a painting by Brueghel.'

That nightmarish vision of the atomised society depicts exactly the loss of social virtue for which the left holds people like him responsible. But Mr Willetts argues that you can have a richly civic culture with strong markets. Indeed, the two go together, and an over-mighty state is lethal to both. He chastises neo-liberals, but from a Tory perspective.

Yet the pamphlet is also a fascinating study in the way the political agenda is bunching. Here is an ex-Thatcherite attacking the 'over-arching power of a Sovereign Parliament' for degrading Britain's local and civic life. Here is an MP working for the Tory chairman, bravely indicting his party's interfering and bureaucratic record in power, singling out the Food Safety Act, the Charities Act and the Children Act for criticism, and having a go at citizen's charters for good measure. A shrewd career move this ain't.

Yet if the Conservative administration wants to save itself, it should follow this clear, if unforgiving, analysis. If the Tories are to compete with Labour, they have no alternative but to address the dark side of the Thatcher inheritance. Simply abusing Mr Blair as glib when he does so is a recipe for a Tory Opposition, when many repentant pamphlets can be written and wailed over at leisure.

Opposition politicians should also read the Willetts paper. (Interestingly, Mr Blair already has.) The hard question it poses for the left is whether Labour is ready to be tolerant of pluralism - on training, for instance, and education - or whether the prospect of one last go at the old centralist way will prove irresistible. This is a serious challenge for Mr Blair's generation, since governments are much less powerful than in the world of Wilson. Pluralism is a recognition of reality as well as good politics.

But I am more optimistic now than for many years. There are huge differences in policy between the parties, which their propaganda will seek to amplify. But they are focusing on the same, real, dilemmas. The centralised state rose, then fell. The neo-liberal experiment that helped to kill it left us unhappy too - Willetts quotes Arnold Toynbee's description of 'gold-seeking animals, stripped of every human affection, forever digging, weaving, spinning, watching with keen undeceived eyes each others' movements . . . all alert, crafty, mobile'.

Now we have a chance of a politics that has learnt some lessons. Some argue that because old options like devaluation, nationalisation and protectionism are off the political agenda, there is no longer 'choice'. In fact what is happening is that our political culture is growing just a little wiser. We are, in spite of everything, inching forward again.

(Photograph omitted)