Think before you vote: do you want Britain to be more like Texas, or more like Sweden?

The Tories will continue to hack away at the state; Labour will continue to enlarge public spending

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There is a secret in this general election campaign. Buried deep below the senseless soundbites and the frozen shoulders, there is something so shocking that our leaders will strive, bribe and spin for it to be kept from you. There are - whisper it - real philosophical differences between Labour and the Conservatives.

There is a secret in this general election campaign. Buried deep below the senseless soundbites and the frozen shoulders, there is something so shocking that our leaders will strive, bribe and spin for it to be kept from you. There are - whisper it - real philosophical differences between Labour and the Conservatives.

I know - take a seat. Sip some water. Breathe. So far, the party leaders have restricted themselves to humming the old Irving Berlin number, "Anything you can do, I can do better." We all know this tune by now. Michael Howard will pop up once every few days - usually in a northern market town - and say "No you can't!" Blair will appear in a primary school and say, "Yes I can!" Repeat one thousand times and call it democracy.

Differences? What differences? Both main party leaders are - because of our daft electoral system - focused on a few constituencies in the heart of Middle England. Blair and Howard know what those voters are worried about - so they are both stressing the stale, narrow script these people want to hear, even if it causes all of us to lapse into a tedium-induced coma. Everything is reduced to a technical issue, a question of administration and efficiency, not belief. Anything bigger, wider, or smarter is ruled out.

But sometimes, out of sheer boredom or a rare and irresistible surge of honesty, the real differences break through. Last weekend, John Redwood, the shadow deregulation minister, let it slip on live TV that his party's proposed £4bn cuts in public investment will be "just the down payment. That's just for the first budget. It will be more over the lifetime of the parliament." A difference! A difference! A deviation from the script! I felt like a man dying of thirst who spots a stream of water running along the desert floor.

And this trickle leads - if you follow it carefully - to an oasis, a place beyond Middle England where the real differences between the parties become clear. Although there are far too many similarities for my liking - on law and order and foreign policy in particular - Labour and the Tories do have a different visions of Britain, and John Redwood is a surprisingly good guide to them.

Redwood is interesting because he genuinely believes in the importance of political ideas. He refused to meet lobbyists when he was a Cabinet minister because he has "a democratic hatred of oligarchies", and he spent his time out of office writing books about political philosophy rather than growing fat on BAE's blood-soaked arms money like that supposed Tory "liberal" Michael Portillo.

Ten years ago, Redwood was considered to be - as John Major put it - "on the Broadmoor wing of the party", Now, Redwood represents the Conservative mainstream. Indeed, under Hague, IDS and now Howard, the Party has marched so far to the right that Redwood might even be a centrist by current Conservative standards. The BNP, after all, last month accused the Tories of "stealing our territory", and the BNP's favourite columnist, Richard Littlejohn, brags that the Tories have now adopted "the kind of programme I've been advocating in this column for years".

So what kind of Tory party grows in the shadow of a Redwood? There is one over-riding principle: the desire for a radically smaller state, and much more private provision of basic services. "I hate taxes," Redwood says openly, and his books are saturated by the belief that the public sector is inherently inefficient and wasteful. For example, in his latest, Singing the Blues, he explains how he loathes using public transport. He believes the only problem with rail privatisation is that it didn't go far enough - and for good measure, he wants to privatise our roads too.

This anti-state animus runs right through the Shadow Cabinet. Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, believes that the Tories should aim in the long term to bring the proportion of GDP spent by the state down to 35 per cent - a drastic cut. This would require a massive change in the way we pay for basic services like health and education.

The long-term effect of this on the health service, for example, is clear. "In practice," Redwood writes, "people are moving away from the idea that all their health needs should be supplied free at the point of use by the state."

He clearly sees this as a good thing - even though it's not actually true. Just 6 per cent of Brits have private health insurance, and the number is declining as NHS waiting lists are slashed by the massive new levels of investment. But nonetheless, the Tory approach is - for the first time since the 1950s - no longer about managing publicly run schools and hospitals. It is now about gradually transferring them away from the public sector towards individual provision.

We can see this Redwoodism in the most drastic policy the Tories have proposed for the next parliament. They want to use public money to help the rich leave the NHS for the private sector. If you are wealthy enough to find £2,000 for a hip operation, the Tories will use public money to cover the other £2,000. For the first time in 50 years, ability to pay will be a factor in the public provision of healthcare - and this is, almost certainly, only another "down payment", with more to come.

This is a chunky difference between the parties. So why are we breathing nothing but recycled, stagnant political air? Neither Labour nor Tory want to talk about the wider philosophical differences lying behind this policy clash - so every debate seems to be taking place in an uninspiring technocratic vacuum.

Why the silence? Each side has its own reasons. The Tories will continue to hack away at the British state, handing more and more to the private sector. That means cuts and it means there will be losers - so the party doesn't want to talk about it. The Labour Party, by contrast, will continue to slowly build up the state and enlarge public spending. But that requires them to continue ratcheting up taxes, so you won't hear it discussed over the next few months - or ever.

This omerta code is smothering our political debate. Again, Redwood is a useful guide to the real choice hidden beyond the political ketamine. He says British people can have a US model of government, with a small state, low taxes, individual responsibility for health and (although he doesn't mention this) high levels of inequality and poverty. This is the model now espoused more or less openly by the Tories. Or we can choose the alternative: we can have a European model of higher equality, higher taxes and more collective provision. Labour has been nudging us towards this (with agonising slowness) for the past seven years, even though its leaders are loath to say it in public.

So that's the choice Britain has to make in 2005. Do we want to slowly become more like Texas or more like Sweden? Do we want to be a country with a shrivelled, cheap public sector, or a portly, expensive one? I totally disagree with Redwood about the answer - but, unlike most of us in this interminable election campaign, at least he's asking the right question.

johann@johannhari.com

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