Labour's unswerving commitment to do not very much

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THE CONSERVATIVES, Evelyn Waugh once famously complained, had not turned the clock back a single second. Though we cannot be sure, he would presumably have complained more strenuously still if he had lived through the 1980s and half the 1990s. Not only have they refused to turn the clock back. They have merrily laid waste institutions which were once thought to be as much part of our national life as ... well, as Buckingham Palace, though for how much longer that particular building and its inhabitants are going to fulfil their present functions, or, indeed, any functions whatever, is anybody's guess.

Our great public corporations, which once seemed as permanent as medieval cathedrals - testifying to an equally simple though less secure faith - have been destroyed, sold off to people who were supposed to own them in the first place. Or they are, like the BBC, in the process of destruction. Our impartial civil service is a ghost of its former self, its duties farmed out to a variety of fly-by-night characters who often appear to have spent their formative years in Ford Open Prison. Local government might just as well be conducted by regional gauleiters. At present we have effective (or, rather, ineffective) control from Whitehall and ever- increasing bills for the council tax. So one could go on.

There is a disposition to believe that these changes occurred in the 1980s under Lady Thatcher. According to this view, Mr John Major is simply living with the consequences of those years. He did not become a Cabinet minister until 1987. He is managing as best he can. True, he has moved to the right. But this has been principally over Europe. He has done it to preserve unity in his party: much as Harold Wilson did in the early 1970s, until he vanquished the Europhobes of his day by means of the 1975 referendum.

There is a tendency among humane and enlightened persons to be altogether too charitable towards the present prime minister: to see him as a decent sort of cove who has had to deal with Lady Thatcher's legacy. It will not wash. She shrank, for instance, from privatising the Post Office, even if it was for the somewhat babyish reason that she was reluctant to interfere with the Royal Mail. Admittedly we still have an unprivatised postal service. That is only because Mr Michael Heseltine could not see how to go about privatising it when he was at Trade.

Privatised prisons - a shocking abdication of the state's responsibilities towards criminals - are a feature of the 1990s. In the previous decade they were merely talked about. The privatisation of water could have been stopped. There was no need to proceed with it. There was certainly no need to go on with the privatisation of the railways. No one I have met wants it. It would be equally unpopular even if the process were going smoothly, without the administrative muddles now accompanying it like unpredictable dogs.

And does the Labour Party promise to renationalise the railways? Well, yes and no. Ms Clare Short is the Shadow Minister of Transport. But I do not remember her pronouncing on the matter. While some Labour speakers have uttered the dread word "renationalisation", the more senior have confined themselves to phrases on the lines of "measures of effective public control".

There are no plans to renationalise water. This is what made Mr Gordon Brown's attacks on Mr Cedric Brown so distasteful. It was the element of humbug. He was willing to wound but afraid to strike.

Likewise with his more general proposal for a "windfall tax" on the profits of all the privatised utilities. This was regarded as an excellent wheeze by numerous Conservatives, who said: "Gosh, what a good idea. I wish we'd thought of that." It was even predicted that Mr Kenneth Clarke would incorporate it in his recent Budget. Certainly politicians like to go for any available extra cash, even more so if it is from an unpopular source. Lord Howe, as Chancellor, did this with the banks. But it is financial lynch law nevertheless, and only goes to show how lacking in principle are our politicians - and, naturally, the Treasury.

Until the election, no one must be offended. That seems to be the general idea. As they try to follow this rule, Labour speakers sometimes deliberately adopt a lack of clarity about their intentions. More often, however, it is the product of sloppiness and opportunism. We all remember how the plan for regional assemblies in England came apart. It was first introduced as a supposedly countervailing argument to the "West Lothian argument": that, if Scottish MPs could vote on English matters at Westminster, it was wrong that English MPs could not vote on Scottish matters because they (or most of them) would be within the sole competence of the new Scottish Assembly at Edinburgh. This question has still not been satisfactorily resolved. But I do not want to tread any further here into the morass of Scottish and Welsh devolution: merely to point out that Labour came up with the accompanying device of English regional assemblies. Then, when it was discovered that no one wanted them, there was a back-tracking to the position that they would be set up only if there was sufficient public demand, whose method of assessment was left happily unresolved.

There is, however, a clear promise to assess public opinion on electoral reform. There is to be a referendum. Or perhaps there is not. Perhaps also we are to have a Bill of Rights. But then again some speakers, including Mr Tony Blair, talk merely about incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into our law, which is a different matter.

In one version of Lords reform, all hereditary peers are to lose their voting rights; in another, peers of first creation are to be spared this deprivation (which would safeguard the interests of Lords Whitelaw and Tonypandy and about half-a-dozen others). I suspect that a quotation from Aneurin Bevan will shortly be taken down off the shelf, dusted down and put on the Walworth Road mantelpiece; or it would be if the present leaders of the party knew who Bevan was. It goes: "The language of priorities is the religion of socialism." The words were spoken at the Blackpool Conference 1949, and provide a plausible justification for never doing anything at all.

High though my regard is for Mr Chris Smith, I am tempted to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate in Islington South and Finsbury at the election. I have done the same before, when I voted for Mr George Cunningham in 1983. He just failed to get in as a Social Democrat. I did this because the Labour Party was then mad and because Mr Cunningham was a great backbencher. I may vote for the Liberal Democrat next time because hers is the only party to make a firm promise to renationalise the railways. We shall see. Mr Smith's party is not mad any longer. On the contrary, it is all too depressingly sane and cautious for my tastes.

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