Leading Article: An adventure is beginning, and the bulldog isn't wanted

Share
Related Topics
Time and again we have exhorted Tony Blair to conjure a vision of his kind of Britain. Why? You could say (indeed, some of his advisers would once have said) that it's all rhetoric, mere clouds of words. But words count. They can change our self-image, and, by so doing, can change the way we behave, the way we are. It matters that we change the way Britain sees itself, because a false and retrograde way of understanding ourselves has been inflicted on this country over the past two decades.

Thatcherism brought many achievements, but one of its most destructive legacies is that we were encouraged to view ourselves in a flag-wrapped orgy of repressive nationalism - of war-time housewives making do in the bad times, and saving stamps in the good times. That vision was elaborated by John Major into a faintly anaemic picture of warm beer, Sunday lunches and cricket on the green. In more authoritarian tones, Churchillian motifs and imperial bulldoggery were misappropriated to foster an out-of-date image of Britain, and we were all expected to subscribe to it. There was even (embarrassing to recall, really) a lot of guff about how we exported democracy - mother of parliaments, and all that. Anyone who believes that the rest of the world thinks they owe democracy to us should try finding an American who believes congressional and federal democracy originated here. As far as they are concerned we are a quaint mixture of aristocratic hauteur and Cotswold charm: democracy don't come into it.

So Mr Blair tried yesterday to articulate for the British people an alternative way of seeing themselves. It was his first sustained effort to do so, using his first party conference opportunity as Prime Minister to address voters directly and urge them to raise their sights, be ambitious about what Britain might be. But the aim of that ambition was very different from Margaret Thatcher's. Hers was haughty, even disdainful: essentially, it believed that we were a naturally superior race. You can't go around selling Britain abroad by conveying the idea that the rest of the world is beneath you. Instead, you must do what Tony Blair suggested yesterday: perform so well that others inevitably, unavoidably, look to you for their lead. So his idea is to turn to our other tradition - that of the adventurer nation, the risk-taking Britishness, the one that believes in fairness and tolerance, that does not look down on people, but does challenge them. Above all, he wants us to think of ourselves as inventive.

Nations, in this sense, can be compared with individuals. A country, like a person, can, in the psycho-jargon, suffer from low self-esteem. And it can also find ways of feeling good about itself. The point is, they have to be real reasons. It's no good telling ourselves that we are all kinds of fine and virtuous things when in fact we aren't. If, in Mr Blair's words, we want to be thought of abroad as "creative, compassionate, outward-looking ... tolerant, broad-minded", then we actually have to be those things.

The Prime Minister believes that on 1 May this year British people felt liberated to be those things again - that, in some strange way, they voted for him, and for New Labour, because that vote represented a desire on the British people's part to start their lives over again. But are we such decent upstanding folk?

It would be very easy to be cynical about this pitch, and very unwise. One reason for taking it seriously as a vein of political rhetoric is that Mr Blair clearly embodies those virtues himself, and the people of Britain credit him with that. But, more powerfully, people aspire to it; they actually want to be like their Prime Minister, just as they are happy for him to present himself as one of them. It is hard to recall a time when the degree of identification between the democratic leader and his electorate has been so intense as it is now.

Mr Blair fully appreciates the staggering opportunity that that relationship offers him. He can invite the British people to think of themselves as being all the good things that he chooses to emphasise - dutiful, family- loving yet yearning for reform. And he can also present those virtues, in his own person, to the world beyond. No modern business with international pretensions would think itself worth a bean unless it could present a confident, positive idea of itself abroad - and one that is consistent with reality. The Prime Minister articulated his ambition for a radically rethought Britain yesterday. It's a brave one, and he evidently means what he says - to try his best; but now he has to make it real.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism