Why do we have a Labour Prime Minister who uses 'liberal' as a term of abuse?

He spots where the next attack on the left is going to come from and pre-empts it by making it himself

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In the gaps between defending an unnecessary, unpopular, and possibly illegal war, Tony Blair found time this week to announce "the end of the 1960s". At least he deserves marks for consistency. All that talk about the peace and love of the Sixties sounds so over in the Blair/Bush era of global war.

In the gaps between defending an unnecessary, unpopular, and possibly illegal war, Tony Blair found time this week to announce "the end of the 1960s". At least he deserves marks for consistency. All that talk about the peace and love of the Sixties sounds so over in the Blair/Bush era of global war.

The small print had some grudging recognition of the gains of the Sixties, but there was no disguising the headline intent with which the PM had crafted his speech. Blair had come not to praise the Sixties, but to bury them. Specifically, he was performing the last rites on something he called the Sixties' "liberal, social consensus".

It is revealing that Britain now has a prime minister who uses "liberal" as a term of abuse, in the way that a North American politician would use it - as a smear. We did not pick this fight, but those of us who treasure the freedoms of a liberal society had better stand up now and be counted before a preference for liberal values is banished to the closet.

Yes, the Sixties was a decade of advance for liberal causes and, to paraphrase our Prime Minister's other speech this week, that should be a reason to rejoice. It was a decade that saw an end to the blackmail of gays which forced millions to deny their sexuality, and to the backstreet abortions which killed two thousand women each year. It provided freedom from failed marriages to all classes, not just those rich enough to afford an expensive lawyer, or thick-skinned enough to put up with the judgmentalism of the previous divorce laws. And it freed literature from repressive censorship .

The defining feature of the Sixties was liberation. This is often confused, including by the Prime Minister, with the eruption of alternative lifestyles that accompanied the arrival of youth culture. But the reality is that all the big advances in social legislation were pioneered by older politicians who, themselves, had been part of the wartime generation but had entered left of centre politics because they wanted to change a repressive, unjust, authoritarian society.

Chief among them was Roy Jenkins, who invented the term "permissive society" and was the patron of the raft of private members' bills that gave it legal effect. We used to be told he was one of the inspirations of our Prime Minister, but it took moral courage for Roy Jenkins to challenge the prejudices of his time. There is no-one in today's Downing Street brave enough to advance a social opinion more progressive than a Daily Mail editorial.

This brings us to the other odd feature about Tony Blair's formulation of the "liberal, social consensus". There was no consensus in the Sixties. The Wilson governments of the Sixties, and even more of the Seventies, would gape in envy at the pulverising majorities which Tony Blair has enjoyed. All the key advances on divorce, homosexuality and abortion were hotly contested and fiercely fought.

Nor can those of us who lived through the decade recognise the Prime Minister's description of the Sixties as spawning a society "without a sense of responsibility to, or for, others". On the contrary, the Sixties witnessed a runaway success of campaigning organisations such as Shelter and the Child Poverty Action Group, fuelled by the social commitment of the era. It was a sense of responsibility to others that lifted the blight of selection in secondary schools and produced record levels of social housing for the homeless - both policies which are the flat reverse of New Labour.

Marked for accuracy, the Prime Minister's monograph on social history merits a gamma double minus. Why, then, did he say it? Let's get real and recognise that his speech did not have its origins in a thoughtful analysis of the Sixties, but owed everything to a shrewd calculation of today's right-wing press. It was crafted to appeal to all those reactionary columnists who did not get any fun in the Sixties, and have been determined ever since to get their own back on those who enjoyed it. No 10 must have been well pleased with the leader in The Sun the next day, with its repeated chorus line: "We could not agree with him more".

This is the heart of Labour's conundrum over its leader. Tony Blair's dominant political style is concessionary. He spots where the next attack on the left is going to come from and pre-empts it by making it himself. This is also the crux of the dilemma of the Tory party. They cannot find any vacant territory to colonise with a right-wing agenda because Tony Blair always beats them to it. The renewed angst in the Tory party that Michael Howard is proving as much of a failure as William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith simply reflects the awkward truth that Labour has got the best Conservative leader of our age.

As a short-run electoral tactic, the Blair style has been a success. You cannot argue with two landslide victories and a tenure in office without precedent in Labour's history. But as a means of shifting the political values of society, it is hopeless. Despite record majorities in Parliament and a record period in government, Tony Blair has not changed the parameters of political debate established by Mrs Thatcher, but has trained Labour to live with them.

He may, though, have now arrived at the point in his career where the tactic no longer works even in electoral terms. Tony Blair is absolutely right to argue that, to win, Labour needs a coalition of its traditional supporters and the new, aspirational, Daily Mail reading classes. His mistake is that he still hones every message to appeal to the new right-of-centre wing of the coalition. He never says anything that is calculated to appeal to the prejudices of the core Labour voters, although that is the wing of the coalition that is currently crumbling.

Part of the problem is that Blair does not share any of their prejudices, as he repeatedly makes plain. He sees nothing wrong with increasing inequality of income. He supports more commercial contracting within the NHS. He favours policies in state education that widen selectivity. He resists working people getting the same employment rights as the rest of Europe.

And now we know he does not approve of the Sixties. As someone who was the prime advocate in the Seventies of extending to Scotland the same reforms on divorce and homosexuality, I strongly resent the notion that I was party to a consensus that somehow paved the way for binge-drinking 30 years later. If there is a political explanation for social breakdown, we are more likely to find it in the Eighties' apotheosis of individual materialism under a prime minister who declared there was no such thing as society.

It is a remarkable commentary on Tony Blair's political perspective that, instinctively, he prefers to blame our present social problems on a period of Old Labour rule rather than expose the excesses of Thatcherism.

There is now less than a year to the next general election. If Tony Blair really wants it to be his third triumph, it is time he reached out to those who support progressive politics and stopped trying to make common cause with its enemies.

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