LEADING ARTICLE: A piece of our mind for the independent-minded

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The Britain of 20 years ago was a different country in a different world. The lead players in the nightly news bulletins were British Leyland bosses and trade union barons. Inflation seemed unconquerable. The world was still fearful and frozen by the grip of the Cold War. Britain's independent nuclear deterrent mattered and was urgently argued about. There was an overwhelming sense that we had lost our way as a country - that our cosy statist consensus had failed, had drained the nation of its instinct for enterprise and achievement. Everyone felt it, even James Callaghan, who was to be its victim. And then Margaret Thatcher swept on to the scene - more a tsunami than a sea change - rolling forward with her simple but immensely powerful idea: to restore a spirit of individual ambition and national self-belief by initiating an animated, sometimes terrible, but utterly necessary transformation in our national life - a transformation in the way Britain thought about itself.

The Independent was launched in 1986 at the crest of her wave. You could call us a rebel child of that time - a creature born of Thatcherite changes, yet also born to challenge her already intimidating and often authoritarian orthodoxies. The paper embodied the spirit of diversity, of competitiveness, of individuality and liberty in one of those markets where the old British disease - restrictive working practices - most needed to be swept away.

The founding fathers of this newspaper felt strongly that it should not presume to tell its readers how to vote. We still feel that way. We think it would be a piece of cheek; that you, our readers, would regard it as journalistic impertinence. Instead, we want to set out the issues which would, if this newspaper were a living, breathing voter, influence the way it would be thinking as it set out for the polling station tomorrow.

At our founding we embraced a passion for the new economic liberalism, but tempered by intelligent social concern. We urgently sought the breaking up of concentrations of power and the reconstitution of our political system, which we believed must naturally and properly follow the Thatcher revolution. That reconstitution always had to be internationalist, and therefore pro-European, because it looked forward to breaking down state power by democratising our lives.

What did that all add up to? It meant that either the old command socialism of the Labour Party had to be driven into oblivion, or that British politics had to be re-aligned (remember that sorry old phrase?) in favour of David Owen-style social democracy. Well, the SDP collapsed, somewhat miserably. The question now is: does New Labour in fact represent the re-alignment we always wanted - is this, finally, the manifestation of a new politics The Independent has dreamed of?

The issues of this last, Majorite phase of the Tory revolution have not been trade unionism, or the Cold War. The Berlin wall was torn down. The tiger economies have grown. Deregulation and technology have produced a new world. And in it, for these past few years, the Conservatives have had a chance to convince Britain that they could carry out the other side of the revolution - to carry change into the social and the democratic arenas, and into the constitutional and international arenas. They have failed. Tomorrow, it is time to move on.

Firstly (along, probably, with most of the population) we feel the Tories are debilitated, aimless, retro, knackered, and a little corrupted by too long in power. If the polls prove wrong and the party is re-elected it will be unable to form an effective government - above all because of Europe. And our imaginary voter is a proud but not slavish pro-European. In most seats up for election tomorrow that very simply rules out the Conservative candidate. Exceptions could be made for people like Kenneth Clarke, Quentin Davies, Ian Taylor, Sir Edward Heath (even Edwina Currie!), solely because this next parliament desperately needs Conservatives who have the courage to vote in the House of Commons to keep Britain's options open on Europe's future. For the rest, it is clear that too many Conservatives are not just opposed to the single currency, they are opposed to Europe.

And then there is the other, for us, great change that should be born out of this election: the renascence of democracy. This election should be the last fought on the present antique and unfair voting system. This reform matters not only for its own merits: it matters because it is the only way to entrench a new, progressive, devolutionist political settlement. On this test, a further five years of Conservative government would be lamentable. On this test, we want to see as many Liberal Democrat MPs elected as possible. Paddy Ashdown's party believes in a fairer voting system, reform of the House of Lords, a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly. In many places, that would be the best anti-Tory vote. The Lib Dems are, in addition, honest about tax, and that pleases us, even if, of the main party manifestos, theirs is the least coherent.

In most parts of the country, therefore, the real question tomorrow is the degree of enthusiasm this imaginary Independent voter might feel for voting Labour. Tony Blair is tilted against electoral reform. He is cautious about Lords reform. There will be a referendum on the first and the abolition of the rights of hereditary peers in the second. And a Blair government will deliver devolution. Heading tentatively in the right direction, yes - but a bit too tentative for our imaginary voter to be overwhelmed with eagerness. Europe? Same story, really. Mr Blair says he wants to be fighting for Britain in Europe, not out of it, but the tone has been too sceptical of late.

But there is also, crucially, the new social agenda, which is also a new economic and cultural agenda. Here Labour stands on the strongest platform it has built for a generation - perhaps the best it has put before the people since 1945. It is modest, believable and, for a political programme, reasonably consistent. There are things we take issue with, and will battle about if they win. Holes are visible in education policy (too much faith in local authorities); in health; and in culture, where the party can sound old-fashioned and philistine. But the Conservatives are worse.

On the issues that really matter, a Blair government offers hope - hope in varying degrees, but hope at least. Some hope for a new democracy. Considerable hope for a more compassionate community. Hope, too, for a more positively European future. If there is any basis for optimism, it is that Tony Blair is a decent man, a man with ambition, and commitment, and youth, and energy, and drive, who has grown to political maturity in that 20-year era that has now drawn to its close. Although this is more a matter of faith than of rational conviction, we believe that he is capable of embodying the sense of individual creativity, collective aspiration and social justice which should be at the heart of our national sense of self. We think that the kind of Britain he wants for his children is very close to the one most Britons want, and that we would want. We cannot know whether he will succeed. But it is time for the new era to begin. Tony Blair provides the best prospect for its success.

If The Independent had a vote, therefore, it could be used to ensure strong Liberal Democrat representation, or to preserve courageous pro- European one nation Tories, or, indeed, to provide succour to a few Scottish Nationalists to remove incumbent Tories. But in most constituencies it would be cast for New Labour, for Tony Blair and his talented leadership team. It would be cast with a degree of optimism that is not entirely justified by the evidence.