Comment: 'Permanent revolution' is still a passing fad

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The Independent Online
GOD, LOVE and, possibly, the common cold are eternal. Governments are more temporal affairs, rising and falling with the vagaries of events, economics and, in the democracies, electoral whims. The inevitability of change is the abiding source of human hope. Bertolt Brecht's poem "In Praise of Doubt" is a shrewd warning not only to Hitler but to all rulers with designs on eternity:

Read history and see

The headlong flight of invincible armies.

Wherever you look

Impregnable strongholds collapse

And if the Armada was countless when it set sail

The returning ships

Could be counted.

Such stirring belief in historical dynamics is not shared by Philip Gould, Tony Blair's influential pollster. In his book The Unfinished Revolution, he proposes that a merger between Labour and the Liberal Democrats should establish "a progressive coalition which would be in power for most of the 21st century". Just most of it? Which bit does he intend to leave to chance, and why stop there?

I admire Mr Gould. He has worked long and hard in the chain-gang of Labour's hard slog back to government. Together with Peter Mandelson he undertook an unsparing analysis of the Kinnockite party's defects after the 1992 defeat. The view that middle-class support is the key to securing and sustaining a centre-left government was their heresy then. It has been proved right by the 1997 result.

So mindful are the Blairites of the sensibilities of respectable Britain that when Fitz the Bulldog was filmed as a robustly patriotic symbol for a party political broadcast, his private parts were deemed to be unfeasibly distracting and were thus air-brushed out of the final version. I will always be grateful to Mr Gould for this insight: it tells us a lot more about New Labour than any number of weighty treatises on the Third Way.

But having first caught its middle class, the Government is in danger of imagining that it, rather than Fitz, is the dog's bollocks. Hubris is the Government's besetting sin. It also has a tin-ear for unfortunate historical echoes. Eternalism and the accompanying view that all enemies should be crushed by the juggernaut of righteousness belong in the tradition of dictatorships, not democracies. But Hitler's 1,000-year Reich lasted 12 hideous years, and the "eternal fraternal bond" between the Soviet Union and the immiserated peoples of Eastern Europe crumbled after four decades, with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Democratic parties should avoid such presumption, not least because whatever the upheavals of modern politics, the net result tends to be one block of opinion broadly on the right and another on the left. The content of the two positions may change, and the intersections widen, but the attempt to create a coalition so wide that it satisfies just about everyone is doomed to dissatisfy and thus throw up opposition to itself.

Speaking fluent Trotsky for such a respectable figure on the centre- left, Mr Gould talks of encouraging "permanent revolution" which will enable New Labour to evade such mortality. But the business of government is draining, and that of running coalition governments favoured by the eternalists even more so. Familiarity of office breeds contempt for ideas from outside the approved circle of solutions. The beginning of Margaret Thatcher's end was heralded by her vow to go "on and on and on" - a declaration her colleagues and a large chunk of the country felt to be more of a threat than a promise.

But the ambition to rejoin the dots between Liberalism and the Labour Party, and to heal a century's rift between the main non-Conservative forces, has a powerful pull with Mr Blair. This hankering is not merely sentimental. It masks a fear of a Tory phoenix rising from the ashes. It may be Mr Gould's desire for the Conservatives to be shunted "to the irrelevant extremes of British politics", but a party which survived the Corn Laws split and restored itself to dominance has genetic robustness.

Predictions of a 21st century managed by the heirs of today's centre- left rests almost entirely on the success of Economic and Monetary Union. Neither Mr Gould, who is a supporter of EMU, nor I, who have strong doubts about its stability and political side-effects, can know what will happen to the project in five, ten, twenty, fifty years' time. Whether it succeeds or fails, it will result in a bonfire of the certainties and alter political landscapes across the continent.

He does not mention a threat from the left. But it would be odd if the rise of cognitive elites and an increasingly competitive global economy did not produce some backlash representing those that progress leaves behind. Britain in 2098 will not be just like today with faster cyber- links. Labour is not sure whether it can control the consequences of Scottish devolution a year's hence. Already, the English nationalists of the Tory party are beginning to raven.

The Gouldite thesis of an all-embracing coalition of right (but not too right) thinking people presumes that there are no nasty external shocks to our complacency. But even the most far-sighted of Gladstonians could not have foreseen the twists and turns of the 20th century. Bertrand Russell used to entertain students with the tale of the farmyard chicken who, observing that the hand of the farmer's wife brings it corn every day, greets the outstretched palm enthusiastically. One day, the hand rings its neck. So much, too, for theories of perma-government which assume that the future will be like the past.

All the campaign slogans ever invented boil down to a choice between "Don't throw it all away" and "Time for a change". Lord Jenkins' proposed change to the electoral system would make it harder to ditch governments. But voters are ingenious in finding ways to do so. Ask Chancellor Kohl.

I doubt whether Mr Gould's focus groups would warm to the prospect of New Labour founding a dynasty with aspirations to rival the Mings for longevity. Democracy, at both its most crude and most compelling, is about the power to change things. We need this option in order to make it worth our while voting, let alone participating more widely in the political process.

"Tomorrow belongs to me" is a siren song, but not a reassuring one. The Government will not be judged on whether it manages to stitch up decades of influence for its spiritual heirs, but on what it achieves in office here and now. The present is challenge enough. The future is another country.