Don't just sit there, change something

Major, Blair and Ashdown are tough. They can kick sand in faces. But can they show real leadership?
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The Independent Online
In the autumn come acts of leadership. Party leaders stride back from France, brimming with energy and eager to end the long summer lull. Tony Blair tells the nation, through the good offices of Sir David Frost, that he is back, he is mean, he is where it's at. John Major tells the nation, through the medium of his biographer Bruce Anderson, that he is back, he is tough, he is relaxed, he is fizzing with ideas.

They want to kick sand in a few faces. Major can face the right without the threat of a leadership challenge; Blair has a familiar target in the trade union-led revolt on the minimum wage. The spin doctors, and the consultants of googly, will be using all their low arts. Tired military metaphors abound - battle plans and fight-backs and winter campaigns. All that stuff.

And this is the time of year when leaders ought to be at their best. They have been nourished by rare weeks of thinking-time, during which they have had the chance to plan and put some perspective back into their lives after the exhausting grind of daily Westminster politics. The autumn, with party conferences, and then an intense burst of politics through the Queen's Speech and the Budget, is the season of fresh starts.

The next general election is already coming slowly into focus, so this autumn matters particularly. There is going to be a great amount of splash and glitter as Major and Blair try to attract, then hold, our attention. Major will be zipping about the country - Scotland, Newcastle, Luton - in between dropping in for a quiet weekend with the Queen at Balmoral and presiding over a political cabinet at Chequers next week. Blair will be similarly hyperactive. Paddy Ashdown will, as usual, be fighting for a few minutes of patronising attention from the national media.

Yet there are more profound questions for all the leaders than can be dealt with by the satisfying thwack of a conference revolt defeated, or a few flaring headlines in October. The truth is that, thus far, no one has yet caught the voters' imagination with a programme, still less a crusade. No one, yet, has broken through the thick hide of cynical suspicion with which most of us regard the whole political year, conference season included.

The Conservatives promise a dramatic new pre-election agenda. Next week's Chequers meeting has been ominously flagged as the big day when cabinet ministers will reveal their ``new ideas'' for the election manifesto and the party conference.

Yet I say ominously, because sending out cabinet ministers to search for new ideas is generally an awful mistake. They come scampering back, wagging furiously, with cones hotlines and Green Papers on ID cards. This happens particularly at conference time. One has to pretend to be pleased and pat them hard. But, in general, one isn't.

Looking for things to do that no one has thought worthwhile or sensible to do before is known in political circles as being ``proactive'', an unconvincing, unnecessary word for an unconvincing, unnecessary activity. Good politics is generally reactive. It is about seeing big challenges, serious things going wrong, and doing something decisive and sensible about them. It's about direction.

This is the kind of politics that the Conservatives have lacked for the past few years. Because of it, clever wheezes on smaller matters have done absolutely nothing for the popularity of either the Prime Minister or the party at large.

Even on the big questions, passivity isn't always wrong. Saying no, or not yet, is also leadership. The only unequivocal cabinet-level success of recent months, Kenneth Clarke's refusal to raise interest rates despite Bank of England fussing, was an example of courageous and masterly ministerial inactivity.

But on most other big issues of war and peace, the record of the Major administration has been depressingly, not reassuringly, passive. The Nato and UN strategy in Bosnia has been led by Washington and Paris and runs counter to every instinct and warning from London. If the use of air power and artillery against the Bosnian Serb forces does push them back from Sarajevo and then into serious negotiations, Britain's earlier caution will look inglorious at best.

We follow on Europe, as on Bosnia. With a new determination to drive ahead towards the single European currency being reported from France and Germany, the British view is sliding into irrelevance. Central bank governors meet in Frankfurt today, followed by ministers who are trying to get an agreement by the end of the year on the switch to new notes and coin by 1999.

This may not be the Prime Minister's fault. He cannot voice support in principle, and argue about the details from within. Nor can he do the other decisive thing and declare that he'll have no part of it. Either course would split the party and precipitate a cabinet crisis. But the result is frozen immobility on one of the great questions of the day.

On domestic political reform, the Major administration is committed to opposing almost everything. On reform of the welfare state, the instinctive radicalism of Peter Lilley has run into the mud of daily life. Big welfare ideas, such as a minimum income, are now, it seems, unthinkable for the Conservatives this side of an election.

There is education. But then there is always education. Education is the big idea of the Conservatives, and of Labour, and of the Liberal Democrats. And they are all ``passionate'' about it. And after the turmoil of the past few years, the school system needs another shiny new idea from politicians like it needs another budget cut.

None of this means that the Tory party is doomed to defeat. Unlike the left, parties of the right can win elections by default. The great danger for the Government, though, is that their passivity on big politics will merely highlight the gimmickry of what's left, whether it be boot camps or crackdowns on single mothers. I guess that when nine people out of 10 hear that the Prime Minister is fizzing with new ideas they feel irritated and uneasy, rather than intrigued.

There is a parallel problem for Labour, however. Tony Blair has done an extraordinary job in establishing his own position and remaking his party. But the time when a Labour leader's victories over a Labour conference were received with national interest and enthusiasm is over. Things have moved on. In late 1995, there is a hunger to know what Labour is excited about doing in power - exactly what they plan on social security, health, employment, pensions, rights. Is the party going to make the big leap on political reform, or pause at the edge? What really riles Blair about the environment, and what is he going to do about it?

Leadership is about party management, of course. The eye-catching risks that Blair has taken, and the long doggedness of Major, are forms of courage that deserve applause. But as politics cranks up again for another year, it is not a bad time to remind ourselves that they are secondary. The highest form of political leadership, the gift that inspires, is persuading people that you are really going to change something. And as the party conference season looms, that basic, that primary kind of leadership is what we are still waiting to see.