Leading article: 2002, and Major prepares for a sixth Tory term...

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The Independent Online
The spring of '02 has been slow coming. Snow still covers much of Kent, the eastern counties and Scotland. But it is only really in the last of these that the looming general election excites much interest. Scotland, in the grip of some of the worst weather for a generation, is clearly on the edge of electing its first Nationalist majority; the SNP leader, his ``provisional cabinet'' swollen by former Labour politicians, has already drafted his Declaration of Independence. The King is greatly worried, and has caused a flurry by making what many consider an overtly political speech on the subject - but most of his subjects are English and unconcerned. The ``Scottish question'' has been endlessly debated and now bores most readers and viewers rigid.

For the Conservatives in England, the election is virtually a foregone conclusion. John Major's victory five years earlier destroyed Labour, and sent it into splinters, now standing as Socialist Labour, the New Democrats and Young Britain. But the leaders of the post-Labour parties - Livingstone, Cooper and Mandelson - have been unable to reach an election pact and will be lucky to scrape 150 seats between them. Despite the gloomy warnings of 1997, victory has kept the Tory tribe together and scattered its enemies.

The golden economic prospects held out by Mr Major at the last election never quite materialised - golden prospects rarely do - and the Irish problem is unresolved. But terrorism is no more of a problem than through the previous decade - unpleasant but containable. The Tories seem to have demonstrated that they can govern in perpetuity without alienating their core supporters. Admittedly, inflation and interest rates are both rising. But Mr Major says that this is a natural cause of the economic cycle - just like the lower inflation and interest rates of five years before.

European union, the great divisive issue of the previous decade, seems to have been resolved by the 1999 Antwerp Congress. Politically, Britain is now ``out'', though remaining as a member of the Continent's Economic Pact, a loose trading association. France, Germany and Italy are at the core of a new EU, which proclaims itself proudly and unashamedly to be ``Europe - a nation in the making''. Monetary Union is to begin in a year's time, following Germany's postponement, after a fierce Bundestag debate; but for Britain, that is well off the agenda.

Korean, Japanese and, increasingly, Russian and Chinese investors are deeply worried about what is known as ``the English conundrum'': whether the economic benefits of locating in a deregulated, low-interference economy are outweighed by the political threats of being outside the EU. Since Britain left it, the Union has become distinctly more protectionist in tone, as higher unemployment and xenophobia from politicians persuades voters to blame Asia and America for their woes. French and German ministers have warned Samsung and Nissan about their ``unfriendly'' policies, and the new Toyota Glib one-door saloon is to be built outside Madrid. There have been some serious defence industry blows. But few factories have been moved, and for as long as the conundrum is unresolved, Prime Minister Major is unlikely to receive much of the blame.

Unemployment, which fell as low as 4 per cent, is now rising again; this, too, the Government explains as cyclical. Low wages and insecurity, as well as the increasingly harsh anti-slacker rhetoric of ministers and commentators, have produced a steadily more aggressive underclass. Violent crime has continued to rise. Prisons are being built at an accelerating rate. There have been riots for the past two summers in London and most of the larger cities. Because of this, the mood of the country is less liberal, less tolerant, than before. Lord Tebbit has formed a pro-hanging pressure group which has attracted the support of five million signatories.

Middle-class voters are more concerned about the rising insurance costs of a private health system which has outstripped the NHS in many parts of the country. But schools, outside the control of local authorities, are generally less of a national talking point than they were in 1997. Paradoxically, given the anti-European Union stance of the Government, British schooling is rather more like the French system: more centralised, uniform and traditional in style than before.

Following the Prime Minister's personal agenda, much more is being spent on sport and on military training. This gives Britain a slow but encouraging rise in its world ranking in team sports, but has also produced a rather more practical and ruthless class of teenage burglar.

Local government has subsided. With most services either centralised or privatised, voting and support for the town hall has fallen even below its low level in the Nineties. Central government now runs not only schools and colleges, but takes most transport, planning, urban regeneration and housing decisions of any significance.

To co-ordinate all this activity, the Environment Secretary, Neil Hamilton, announced the creation of powerful county and city bosses, reporting directly to ministers, in 2000. To begin with, these were simply called local commissioners. After intervention from the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Portillo, the Government took the bold step of reviving the political significance of the lord lieutenants; all counties and boroughs now have one.

As voters prepare for the election of 2002, therefore, they are better off than they were. The bleakest warnings of Labour's last leader have not been fulfilled. But people are uneasy about the future and unhappy about many aspects of contemporary Britain. Middle England is glad to be outside one union, the European one, and can tolerate the dissolution of the other union, the one with Scotland. The result, however, seems to be a country which, far from being more at ease with itself, is less resolved about its place in the world than it was five years earlier. This time, however, there seems little alternative ...

Is this a realistic sketch of Britain under another five years of Mr Major? Party propagandists on both sides will say no - that it is too apocalyptic, or not nearly apocalyptic enough. To us, scanning the main themes of the Chequers summit and other recent policy speeches, it seems a plausible one, which highlights the dangers and the opportunities of five more Tory years. We shall see. Or, much likelier, we won't.