Why does Blair persist in acting as if Britain is a conservative country?

They put right-wing policies in your face. The progressive polices come later, quieter, in a slow shuffle
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The Independent Online

The Queen's Speech yesterday did not sound like the programme for a progressive government just six months away from a general election. The entire Blunkett check-list was there: Fewer jury trials? Check. Identity cards? Check. Howling civil liberties groups, dismayed backbenchers, a frightened electorate? Check, check, check.

The Queen's Speech yesterday did not sound like the programme for a progressive government just six months away from a general election. The entire Blunkett check-list was there: Fewer jury trials? Check. Identity cards? Check. Howling civil liberties groups, dismayed backbenchers, a frightened electorate? Check, check, check.

Sure, there's some important measures in this heaving legislative bag. Allowing wire-tap evidence to be used in courts is a regrettable but sensible measure against any violent fundamentalist groups operating here. The extension of antisocial behaviour orders - so that councils can issue on-the-spot fines to people trashing our public spaces - will improve the quality of life for many of Britain's poorest people.

But in the space marked "Things that will upset right-wingers", there is nothing. This is a programme that any pragmatic centre-right government could be proud of. This is sad, because - contrary to the growing public mood - we are not governed by right-wing bastards. The Labour front bench is crammed with the alumni of civil liberties groups, anti-apartheid demonstrations and CND rallies. They are still angry about the right things: bigotry, poverty, lack of opportunity. They are mostly decent people.

So what went wrong? Is the siren chant of the Socialist Workers Party - "Shame on you/ Shame on you for turning blue" - true after all? Have they simply sold out? I put this to one of the more leftie supporters of the Government, and she said: this week, we made sure we will keep power at the next election. Wait for next week to see what we're keeping it for. The Pre-Budget Report will contain the Brownite carrot - universal childcare, more redistribution of wealth to poor kids - to go with the Blunkett stick. Grind your teeth through the Blunkettry and keep your focus on the big picture: seriously eroding child poverty, reviving public services, one of the most extensive gay rights programmes in the world.

There's some truth in this, but it's a prickly reminder of this government's modus operandi. They always put their right-wing policies up front and in your face. Their progressive policies come later, quieter, in a slow shuffle. The Government's agenda is carefully presented so that the only flash of red the public ever sees from this Cabinet is Tony Blair's blush when he is reminded about rising taxes to pay for the decent things his government is doing.

There is a simple reason for this. The Government believes Britain is still, in its bone marrow, a conservative country. They think Middle England wants to hear about endless "crackdowns", but nothing about child poverty. They believe there is a political market for ID cards but not the massive decline in homelessness. Progress must be silent and stealthy when it happens at all. Peter Hain, the Leader of the House of Commons, stated this openly when he explained: "The brilliance of Blairism is to introduce radical change without frightening the horses." If you deviate from this tightly controlled path - if the right-wing horses rear up - you are heading straight for an exit marked "1992".

At first, it sounds like a reasonable fear. Why pick unnecessary fights? If my skint sister gets an extra £50 a week in tax credit, if my hard-up gran gets an extra £50 a week in means-tested pension credit, if I get the right to a civil partnership, isn't it churlish to ask that the Government delivering all this to find some conservatives and rub their faces in it? But it's not just the desire for an exciting (and honest) political debate that makes me want the Government to sell these policies harder and push them further.

Last week, Bill Clinton unveiled his presidential library. It was an elegiac reminder of just how barren his legacy is. (There should have been violin players and old women selling flowers for the dead). Clinton pioneered the tactic used by New Labour: talk right, but sometimes act left. He adopted the language of the Reaganites and used it constantly. He damned "welfare moms" and "dead-beat dads", pledging to "end welfare as we know it." He declared "the era of big government is over", implying, Ronnie-style, that the US had been groaning for decades under an over-taxed "socialist" economy.

In exchange for these hideous moral compromises (and many more), he quietly gave more money to students for college education. He protected affirmative action and abortion rights. He nudged through small measures of redistribution, like tax credits for poor parents.

But now, four years on, we know how the Clinton-Blair approach plays out. In the short term, it can be effective. Extra cash is getting through to poor people in Britain right now, just as it (sometimes) got through under Clinton. But in the long term, these achievements dissolve into air.

Even though they are both virtuoso political communicators, Clinton and Blair have made very little effort to convince the public that their progressive policies are necessary. They focus instead on reassuring (and reinforcing) the middle. This means they build no constituency of support for progress - so any silent nudges to the left are easily, swiftly abolished when conservatives come back to power. Clinton's tax credits have been cut and his college funding slashed. Just four years on, his mark on US policy has been erased.

This is the tough lesson of Clintonism. If you meekly refuse to sell your few left-wing policies, the right will bank your concessions to them and liquidate anything progressive you leave behind. Being ashamed of your decent policies - and posing merely as more competent right-wingers - will win elections in the short term, but it undermines centre-left policies in the long term.

Yesterday's Queen's Speech - with its technocratic, no-progressives-here-guv tone - suggests Blair has not absorbed this. It is only through clear, philosophical fights that governments make sure their policies become part of the "common sense" of a country. The parts of the Thatcher legacy that have been absorbed into Britain's cross-party consensus - private ownership of all major industries, for example - only became accepted after pitched political battles.

Where are the similar crusades in which Blair drags the country towards the left? There's the minimum wage, now accepted by all parties and a major achievement. But a future Tory government could abolish tax credits and dismantle programmes like SureStart, and most of the country wouldn't blink; they still haven't heard the arguments. Blair has reinforced much Thatcherite "common sense" and manufactured far too little of his own.

It all comes back to the gnawing New Labour fear that Britain is truly, madly, deeply Tory. This keeps them from arguing too hard or pushing too far. It is also a factual mistake. Remember: at every single general election where Margaret Thatcher was leader of the Tory party, 56 per cent of the public voted for parties committed to higher taxation and higher spending. It was a divided left and an undemocratic electoral system that handed Britain to the Conservatives, not some underlying right-wing essence.

If the Government doesn't finally figure this out, relax, and begin to pick some fights with the right, New Labour will leave nothing but a Clintonite footprint in the sand.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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