Leading Article: An impatience for change

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Britain is changing more quickly and more profoundly than it was possible to imagine at the beginning of this extraordinary time. There are three months left, but 1997 is already one of the truly memorable years in the half-century since the war, like 1956 and the Suez invasion, and the beginning of Thatcherism in 1979.

In Scotland, the people speak with a decisiveness, a self-confidence, which confounds those commentators who thought the Scots were not really interested in Home Rule. To secure a three-to-one majority in favour of a parliament, a two-to-one majority in favour of tax-varying powers, and a turnout almost equivalent to that of the general election, is a triumph for the devolutionists.

But Thursday's result is more than that. Tony Blair's most mysterious gift has proved to be the liberation of a popular will for a quite different Britain. The country has suddenly woken up to the fact that it is much less conservative than everyone - at home and abroad - thought. This was apparent in the 1 May landslide. It was apparent in the unfamiliar public reaction after Princess Diana's death, which was instinctively anticipated by the Prime Minister. This will surely be the catalyst for reform of the monarchy itself. And it is apparent in Scotland's decision that it is time, after 290 years, to take back its right to settle its domestic affairs. The Scottish result surely makes it likely that the more irresolute Welsh will vote for an assembly this week; next year London is certain to vote in a referendum in favour of a directly elected mayor who will be one of a handful of the most prominent politicians in the country.

It is a tribute to the Prime Minister's self-confidence as a politician that he is willing to share so much power, especially as this process leads the country into the unknown and could be fraught with grave dangers. The most extreme is the balkanisation of the United Kingdom. It is possible that Scotland's parliament will be strangled by an arid struggle between nationalists and unionists over the question of independence. It could be that England will fall victim to the chauvinism which is its fatal weakness. But if there are large dangers, there are far greater possibilities. If Britain's identity depended on its being a unitary state, or on the omnipotence of the Westminster parliament, or on the fossilised notion of a monarchy whose arcane and largely self-invented protocol is too grand to be a matter of public debate, then Britishness itself would be disappearing. But it does not, and one of the most invigorating consequences of constitutional change is the chance for Britain to reinvent itself.

We have more to celebrate than the theme-park attractions of Changing the Guard, the Crown Jewels, and the White Cliffs of Dover. The United Kingdom is culturally richer, more cosmopolitan, more liberal and more creative than it has been remotely fashionable for us to admit. There is more to this than theatre, rock music, or Britain's role as the "design workshop of the world". Or globally competitive industries like telecoms and pharmaceuticals, and the World Service of the BBC. Or the armed forces' enviable reputation for responding to a peacekeeping role. Our emerging identity derives quite as much from racial, religious, and linguistic diversity. Modern Britain is also Muslim, Hindu and Afro-Caribbean.

The way Britain now looks at itself is affected by its place in Europe. Young people in Britain, without being politically Europhile or Europhobe, are Europeans. They travel there. They share an intimate knowledge of Europe's football teams. More of them speak its languages, enjoy its food. As Britain prepares for its EU presidency, Blair has the opportunity to make us more relaxed about being European. This helps to confirm what we learned about ourselves in the general election. We want less of the bicycling spinsters and the warm beer. Much less.

Of course, we need to retain a tight control on our excitement. The picture we have talked about so far is incomplete. Britain cannot be at ease with itself without a settlement in Northern Ireland. David Trimble's reluctance to treat with the apologists of IRA terrorism is more understandable after the IRA's cynical attempt to force the Unionists out of talks by resiling from the Mitchell principles. Despite the grave provocation, however, Mr Trimble should sit at the table with Sinn Fein. The eventual prize - an agreed and democratic, power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland - is worth taking risks for.

Our picture has also shown no evidence of what is now known as social exclusion. (We used to call it poverty.) London is one of the most exciting cities in the world in which to work, live and play, but it is a nightmare to a single mother struggling to keep her teenage son out of the hands of crack dealers on the North Peckham estate. When Blair talks about the use of welfare to work, and about spreading educational opportunity to bring an underclass back into the social mainstream, it is churlish not to believe he means it. But this huge task is made so much greater by the government's single-minded determination to curb public spending. The success of these programmes should be just as important - indeed, rather more so - to our national pride as Britain's niche in the global market, or the success of our film industry. If this means throwing more taxpayer's money at them, then throw it.

One of Blair's great strengths and most attractive features is his optimism about possibilities. That optimism is not a sufficient guarantee of success, but it is a necessary component. It reflects an impatience for change which the British people seem to share, and that is the single quality which has made 1997 such a memorable year.