In search of that big idea: Bill or Tony: which one will history remember?

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David Broder, the columnist on The Washington Post, made an interesting comparison yesterday between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. He told Radio 4's Today programme that Blair had, in practice, more political power than Clinton, and might go down in the history books as more important - just as Margaret Thatcher would seem more important than Ronald Reagan.

It might seem a little startling to have a top US columnist suggest that Thatcher was more important than Reagan: the latter did after all "win" the Cold War. But if you try and tie down the personal element of the achievement and the influence projected beyond the country's national borders I think the judgement is pretty fair. The US victory over the Soviet Union was not so much a personal achievement of the President, but the cumulative effect of US economic and technical might competing against an economic system that was already falling apart. Margaret Thatcher, working out of a much weaker power-base - the demoralised strike-ridden Britain of 1979 - established a set of ideas which continue to sweep the world.

Not only was Britain the first developed country to promote the notion that governments should seek to become smaller rather than larger, the practical application of that notion became Britain's biggest post-war intellectual export. Last year, China announced the privatisation of its state industries: more than 100 million people on the other side of the world are now having the nature of their employment changed as a result of an idea developed here under Margaret Thatcher.

Now apply the same benchmark to Clinton and Blair: are they developing and promoting ideas that could conceivably sweep the world?

I don't see much that can be attributed directly to Bill Clinton. If you look at the big issues that need to be tackled in the US and see where the new ideas are coming from, they are all bottom-up. Things like the Wisconsin programme to transfer people from welfare to work or the attack on crime in New York are now attracting enormous attention elsewhere in the world (including the UK), but these have nothing to do with the President. If you were looking for a US figure whose ideas might come to have world resonance I guess you might turn to Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; but the reality is that US influence in the world is much more a general result of economic success than a result of presidential intellect.

And Tony Blair? Well, we don't know, do we? It is quite easy to sketch how the role of government is likely to change over the next generation, how the UK happens to be in the right position to be a potential leader in that process of change, and how Tony Blair has the authority to push it through. But will he?

The quest of Tony Blair is often presented as finding some middle way between the effective but brutal version of market capitalism in America and the faltering welfare state model of Europe. I think actually the challenge to developed-country government is more subtle and more interesting. It is how to redefine the proper role of government in a way that will both foster a more efficient economy and protect, encourage and empower the weakest citizens.

The continental European model has been to get the government to provide the service: to run an extensive (and in many ways excellent) social welfare system as well as building nuclear power stations, high-speed rail links and pouring money into banks like Credit Lyonnais. We here have been feeling our way towards a different model, one which makes the distinction between the state's responsibility to ensure adequate services and the actual provision of those services. The weapons have been privatisation and regulation: do less and regulate more.

Unsurprisingly we have made a lot of mistakes. Many services that remain largely in public hands (health and education) are not fully satisfying the customers; some services that have been passed to the private sector (eg Virgin's west coast railway line) have yet to do so. Our regulators have had to learn as they go along, and some of them have performed better than others.

What we cannot yet know is whether the Blair government (or governments if he gets back) will just refine and improve this mix of private and public provision, a "let's see what seems to work and give it a push" approach. That is what seems to be happening now: a bit more private sector initiative here, a bit more regulation there; a bit of public-sector spending on the Millennium Dome, a bit of public-sector dosh for the Channel link, a bit of private money for the tube.

There is nothing wrong with that. Indeed it may be the best way of learning how governments will have to behave over the next generation: do not have too many grand ideas; just try not to make a mess of things. But it is not going to be a Big Idea we will export to the world. We may export lots of small ideas, as does the US at the moment; but Tony Blair will reap no more credit than Bill Clinton.

There is, however, the outline of a Big Idea floating around, bits of which you can discern both from Tony Blair's speeches and from some government actions. It is that governments will redefine the frontier between what is proper for the public sector and what is proper for the private sector by changing people's perception of their own responsibilities. In other words the state will do less not by abdicating its responsibilities, but by changing people's behaviour so that it does not need to do so much.

Thus single mothers will not need to rely so much on other taxpayers to support them because they will be able to support themselves. People will not need to use the NHS so much because they are smoking less, exercising and eating healthier foods. We will get richer because we will learn to behave better. This is a concept of government which is really breathtakingly bold, a Big Idea that really would change the entire way in which governments operate in developed countries in the next century. In fact it is really the only way out of the bind in which governments find themselves, caught between higher expectations and smaller resources to fulfil those expectations. And if the message is to "behave better", Mr Blair has a significant advantage over the man in the Oval Office.