Labour in power will change Britain. Blair should tell that to the voters

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The Independent Online
When I was a boy, an elderly Forestry Commission gamekeeper set himself the task of improving my mind. We trudged together up and down the hills of Mid-Argyll, while he lectured me about common errors in the use of Gaelic pronouns, taught me to distinguish the flavours of water from different springs and analysed the mentality of foxes.

From him I drew the idea that perhaps Greek myths had the best approach to education. A child should leave home and be apprenticed to a centaur, tidying the cave and keeping the kettle singing while the centaur cleaned his hooves and discoursed on world history, the best way to string a bow or the art of placating dragons.

My teacher took a close interest in politics. This was in a district where a crofter of an older generation had ordered for himself a copy of the Treaty of Versailles, read it through from preamble to annexes, and pronounced that it would surely fail because the name of God was nowhere to be found in it. In the same spirit, my own centaur explained to me one day that a general election was a solemn thing. "At such a time," he said, "a man should go alone into the hills and look into his own heart until he knows how he should cast his vote."

For many such people, the coming of universal suffrage was a monument which they could still clearly see behind them in collective memory. It had the scale of an emancipation, something won after long struggle. This led to an almost absurd reverence for the democratic process, a belief that politics was a fateful struggle between liberty and slavery, between the children of light and the children of darkness. I remember the historian James Hunter writing about an ancestor - another Argyll man - who said that if he could vote for William Gladstone, he would be proud to travel every yard to the polling-booth on his knees.

There is no way back to such times. Party-political democracy is taken for granted now, as it should be, and the days when a party felt that it must promise social or moral revolution to impress the electorate are far behind us. And yet the blandness and lack of choice in politics now - like the fear of principle which Clare Short lamented last week in new Labour - is becoming frightening. Gore Vidal said a few years ago about American politics that "we have only one political party with two right wings". Britain, like most of western Europe, is now drifting the American way.

The columnist William Pfaff complained in the International Herald Tribune last week about this blocking of "the electorate's chance to choose difference". President Clinton had adopted the welfare policies of the Republicans, while new Labour in Britain offered strategies for the economy that were much the same as those of the Tories.

Pfaff's explanation is that the whole atmosphere around politics has changed for the worse. "Political attacks have become so vicious and unscrupulous that it is dangerous to allow the other side any room to exploit any issue." Both Britain and America, he says, are heading for elections "in which rival parties are scrambling to occupy the same ground. They are not doing so for positive reasons, because middle-ground policies are necessarily the most popular ones, but because they seem the safe ones."

And yet the voters are being misled - especially in Britain. The real difference between Labour and Tory is far greater than Tony Blair's leadership likes to emphasise; if Labour wins the next elections, Blair's programme of institutional reform will change the country out of recognition - and for the better. But Blair and his advisers (Clare Short's "men who live in the dark") do not go on about all that. They prefer to offer the public the market economy much as it has been developed by the Tories but managed with more skill and compassion by Labour. They prefer to play safe.

When Pfaff talks about "vicious and unscrupulous attacks" that force parties to conceal their differences, he is mostly talking about the media. There has never been a time when newspapers and broadcasters appeared to wield so much power, or when politicians performed such athletic feats of cringing to them. Any wretch who lets slip a hint of original thought provokes bellows of horror about splits and treachery, and endures paparazzi in the garden. Any Labour figure with an idea is bullied by radio interviewers to confess that he or she will raise taxes.

And yet it is all a vast, iridescent bubble of nonsense. The media, broadly speaking, have no real ideas of their own and little interest in policies for their own sakes. What they want is blood and medals.

They want the blood of politicians forced to resign, or of parties forced to reveal that their members do not all hold the same opinions. They want the medals of short-term self-importance: "as the Secretary of State admitted to us on this programme last night..." It is a dire political landscape that they are creating, in which unity for unity's sake is the only virtue and political careers degenerate into a pitiless competition to conform, with every stumble magnified into a fatal, disqualifying collapse.

One of the most repulsive consequences is the assumption, now being thrust on parties by the media, that a leader who loses an election must automatically be beheaded. If Tony Blair fails to win this election, it would surely be suicidal madness for the Labour Party to replace him. Leaders as tough and gifted as that appear once in a generation, and there is nobody who could take his place. And yet this silly newspaper bloodlust is gradually imposing "the King must die" as a rule of British politics.

Why, then, do the parties and their advisers pay so much attention to journalists? The answer is painfully simple. Faced with a small teddy that squeaks and a large one that doesn't, an infant will choose the squeaker. It is easy to get a reaction from journalists with a lunch here, a leak there, a very private meeting arranged with some grandee. Out comes a column or an article, and everyone has the happy illusion that something has been achieved. Busy spin-doctors can give their bosses a daily account of how the cause is being advanced. But the big teddy that really counts, the silent mass of public opinion which will keep its secret until election night, is much less rewarding to play with.

Every year the electors of Britain grow better educated and less gullible. That is the true political process. They may not have much respect for politicians or high hopes about what governments can achieve. They will not go into the wilderness and commune with their souls about how to vote. But they are aware of their own intelligence, and resent those who insult it.

Labour has never been a socialist party, and never will be. It has never guided its followers with the blinding light of a new heaven and a new earth, as Gladstonian Liberals and Communists once did. But it does offer modernisation through reform and greater social justice, seeing - correctly - that an archaic state system coupled with gross and growing inequality is dragging Britain down to failure.

The voters know what is at stake. Not just Clare Short but Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and, no doubt, Peter Mandelson know that a Labour government would not bring a trimmed Toryism but - if it keeps its nerve - a programme of historic change.

It is time that they all said so. The signs are that this election will be a desperate struggle, a close-run thing. The season for playing safe has gone on too long, because the voters are growing impatient - and powder does not keep dry for ever.