Leading article : A triumph of decent middle-class radicalism

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair's last big speech to his party before the general election was more like two. It was the nearest he has come to Middle Englandism and innate conservativism. But it was also the most Labourite speech he has made since becoming leader. This may make it sound like a terrible muddle. But if it was a muddle, it was a very clever muddle indeed.

Let us look first at his conservatism. Last year, Blair sounded positively Kennedy-esque about the future, hailing Britain as ``the young country''. This year, there was instead a strongly nostalgic passage about the post- war, Fifties country of his youth, where families were stronger, crime was lower, and ``there was a national ethos and spirit that had won the war and stayed with us in peace".

He had a moving tale of his father's stroke and the way friends rallied round, and his mother battled through. For anyone who has been following politics at all, these passages must be reminiscent of John Major's evocation of a similarly tranquil childhood Britain - not quite the warm beer and old maids cycling to church, but not far off it - and of the struggling Brixton family whose sturdiness formed the Prime Minister.

The similarities only begin there. Blair talked admiringly of striving small businessmen and successful engineering companies in ways that one would have once characterised as the classic rhetoric of Tory conferences. He was stern about excessive red tape and bureaucracy. He talked of ``zero tolerance'' of failure in schools and produced a plan for summer (school)work camps for children failing to read which are several stages tougher than anything proposed by the Conservatives - there will be a few families worrying about whether or not to book the annual holiday if Labour wins.

His caution on the European single currency echoes Major almost word for word. His strong assertion of the importance of the single market to British prosperity is, similarly, a theme from Major speeches. His savaging of drug-takers and hooligans was fiercer than the Prime Minister's normal language on the subject. His promise of a new service contract for consumers of state services sounded strangely like Major's Citizen's Charter. Oh yes, and Blair's most evocative soundbite, ``the decent society'', used the word most often associated with the Prime Minister. If the Tories can steal ``moral government'' from Labour, it seems, then Labour can take ``decency'' from Major.

That summing-up suggests an aggressively conservative speech, squarely aimed at middle-class England. It is no distortion. But there was another half of the speech which seemed to tilt the other way. In it, Blair defended union rights as human rights; derided the internal market in the National Health Service; staunchly defended the minimum wage and comprehensive education, and generally went out of his way to sound more sympathetic to gut Labour instincts than he has before.

The Labour Party is a sentimental party, and Blair has not been a generally sentimental or highly emotional speaker. But he was both yesterday, harking back to Jack Jones's service in the International Brigades and praising the loyalty of those party members who had stuck by Labour throughout the grim years. The audience loved it.

Something for everyone, then? Yes, but there is a political logic at work which may very well win Blair the election and keep him in power for many years. Those aspects of Majorism which Blair and his team are highlighting - decency, patriotism, conservative instincts about law and order, education and family life - are the most popular, least threatening parts of old Torydom. But they are also being overshadowed in the Conservative Party by its civil war and the rise of a harder, more aggressive new right, welfare-slashing agenda. It is as if, in some respects, Blair is tacitly acknowledging Major's decency because Major has already lost his party to wilder men - and is no longer really what the Tories are proposing for the early 2000s. New Major, no Tories? Is the idea that, as the Conservative moderates retreat, new Labour moves smoothly into their old reflexes, limousines and government offices?

No, not quite. If that were the plan, then we could stop discussing politics for the foreseeable future. But there remains a strong centre of radical policies proposed by New Labour and the Liberal Democrats which would change the country. Blair stuck by his political reform programme (though it is too timid), stuck by the minimum wage, and he stuck by clear promises on youth and long-term unemployment. There was a genuine centre-left programme hidden in there, too.

But will it occur? Will Blair's radical streak and his energetic enthusiasm for change, triumph over his equally striking conservatism and mild patriotic nostalgia? Take a very small but interesting example - Blair's pledge that, regarding the National Lottery, ``I want the people's money to go on the people's priorities". If he's serious about it, then that is very bad news for, say, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Yet, as we reported last week in our series on the New Establishment, its governors are one of the most powerful cabals in the nation. Will Blair trample them or will he be seduced?

We cannot know. He has not had the chance to show us. He has taken on and defeated old Labourism, but he hasn't yet taken on a strong, contemporary vested interest. So we are left to stick a finger in the wind and guess. Perhaps not for long: if his manifesto is as it was presented yesterday - radicalism rooted in the instincts of the middle-class majority - then it is, we suspect, a winning one. And Tony Blair? After years of cynicism about politics, it is impossible to quite believe his promises.

But to brush them aside with a sneer would be worse than impossible; it would be ... well, indecent.