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 In more authoritarian tones, Churchillian motifs and imperial bulldoggery were misappropriated to foster an out-of-date image of Britain, and we were all expected to subscribe to it.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.