Adrian Hamilton: Britain and Germany share a political impasse

Two dogs vie to lead the pack, and every word is analysed to see who'll give way first
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The Independent Online

That could well be said of the speeches of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in Brighton this week. What they say is obviously terribly exciting and important to the two protagonists and a small coterie of political columnists. But does it mean very much to the rest of us? And should it?

Of course there's the theatre of succession. In a doleful way Britain is now rather like Germany. We have two dogs vying for who should lead the pack. Day by day their words are carefully analysed to see who will give way first - Schröder or Merkel, Blair or Brown. Except, of course, Germans have a deadline of next month while we, poor Brits, could be stuck with the Brown-Blair show until Heaven, or rather Blair, knows when.

What adds insult to injury in this theatre of the absurd, however, is the language with which it is dressed. It's worse than the days of the Soviet Union, where words were only important for the code they carried about the power play behind them.

Hearing Gordon Brown's speech with its reiteration of "renewal" and "values" was like listening to one of those speeches by East European communist leaders about the new Five Year Plan, or Mao calling for a "Great Leap Forward". Even more depressing were Blair's crafted phrases about "progressive politics" and "radical reform."

Now one knows that these are terribly important indicators of Tony Blair's intentions to stay on. The political reporters and the headline writers keep telling us it's so. But what do they actually mean to the man in the street or the Old Street omnibus?

"Every time, I've ever introduced a reform in government," said Mr Blair in an oft-quoted passage, "I wish in retrospect I had gone further." That may mean a great deal in terms of his relations and rows with his Chancellor. But it means precious little to the public about a government that has always been extremely cautious about major changes, mostly because of the Prime Minister's reluctance to take risks and his instinctive understanding of the conservative nature of the British electorate.

To mention a pensions policy and the possibility of investing in new nuclear power facilities, as he did, as proof of his challenging determination, is just stating the obvious. Any government, of whatever hue, would have to be considering these, as they would road pricing and emissions targets. There's nothing radical about that. Just the normal conduct of government business.

Choice in public services means very little to the ordinary patient of the National Health Service. It is never likely to be much more than a minor factor at the margins of government plans, any more than city academies are likely to do very much for the average parent looking at local schools.

It's all there in the passage of Blair's speech in which he declares: "Government is not a state of office but a state of mind." As a soundbite, it it portentous. As a statement, it is just nonsense. Governments are not elected for the higher realms of spiritual contemplation. The electorate judges them by the way they make decisions in office.

If the Labour government has enjoyed three successive wins it is not because of Blair's "radical agenda" or "reforming zeal". It's because his government is thought to have managed the country's affairs reasonably well. Better, at any rate, than the Opposition looks as if it could.

Of the two genuinely radical decisions made by this government, the first - to grant the Bank of England its independence - was made right at the beginning by the Chancellor, and is considered to have been highly successful. The second, the decision to invade Iraq alongside the Americans, was made by the Prime Minister and is now largely regarded as a disastrous mistake. For the rest, the eight years of Labour rule could be largely seen as a continuum with policies of the past from Margaret Thatcher onwards, with differences largely those of tone.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. In the hard calculations of power politics, so long as the Government doesn't put a foot too wrong and the Opposition remains intent on shooting itself in the foot, elbow, and every other part of its anatomy, it doesn't make too much difference who heads Labour or whether Tony Blair goes tomorrow or in 2009.

It is not exactly the message the Prime Minister was putting across in Brighton, of course, for those at any rate who believe that his words mean anything more than a further salvo in his eternal conflict with his Chancellor.