LEADING ARTICLE: Blair and Clarke: are they by chance related?

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No politician shifts a society single-handed, by sheer force of personality. The trick is to spot the trend, sense the mood of a society, capture it, mould it, describe it, and then claim the credit for it.

That is what Margaret Thatcher did in the Eighties. In an era that saw the world opening up to global competition, her advocacy of free markets, privatisation and lower taxation were of the moment and defined that moment. As a result, "Thatcherism" gained hegemony in the country and eventually succeeded in converting her political opponents in the process. It spread throughout the Anglo-Saxon world, Europe, Asia and the post-Communist states. This was an extraordinarily successful exercise in divining and appropriating the Zeitgeist.

But what next? The struggle to differentiate Britain's main political parties - creating blue or red water between them - demonstrates the lack of a fresh Big Idea. We are halfway through the Nineties, with no new map to plot our course.

This week Tony Blair and (making a comeback) Margaret Thatcher set about changing all that. They offered themselves as cartographers of the decade. The Labour leader went to Singapore and sent back a message that a "stakeholder society" was the way forward for Britain. Meanwhile, Baroness Thatcher returned to the legacy of her guru, Keith Joseph, and set out her two key ideas for the Nineties: shrinking the state and creating an anti-European Little England.

These ideas are desperately vague. It is hard to know what a stakeholder society means: Mr Blair, perhaps deliberately, has done little to resolve the confusion. It is just as difficult to know how Lady Thatcher would achieve her ends, which have until now been beyond British politicians. In power, she herself committed Britain to its present involvement with Europe and failed to reduce the level of national income spent by the state.

Yet vagueness is not necessarily fatal to new ideas. When Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979, she did not have a grand plan; she had a basic set of principles that chimed with popular opinion and were to underpin the specific policies of the following decade. The vital question is: do any of these ideas, or aspects of them, strike a chord today? In 10 years time, will they, like Eighties Thatcherism, be big enough to label an era?

Mr Blair's stakeholder society, for all its haziness, certainly resonates. Commentators have been intrigued by the word. The notion of everyone having a stake in society makes sense. It seems to describe an inclusive country, in which everyone has roots and a say over what happens. We need these notions at a time when competition and globalisation are tearing apart the glue that holds society together.

Jobs for life and the traditional welfare state are both under threat. They are increasingly seen as expensive luxuries at a time when flexible workforces and low taxation, financing a minimal state, are said to be the key to maintaining competitiveness. As a result, social cohesion - vital for stability and economic productivity - is in danger as crime rises and an underclass of the disadvantaged and disaffected develops. Britain, along with other countries, needs a way of building a humane society in a global era.

But there is plenty of suspicion that the stakeholder idea is no more than a repackaging of failed Labour policies. It invokes the idea of empowering groups or individuals who have claim to be included in decision-making. But if Mr Blair merely intends to reinvigorate the power of trade unions and other institutions that ran the corporate state of the Seventies, then he has made a big mistake. Indeed, even if this was not intention, Mr Blair may have made a political error in resurrecting Labour's old ghosts.

He has also, by implication, associated himself with a body of literature about stakeholding in companies that says businesses should be run not only in the interests of shareholders, but of customers, employees, consumers and suppliers. This may sound wonderful in theory, but over-regulation could suffocate business and enterprise in much the same way as Labour's last failed exercise in economic micro-management - nationalisation.

In short, stakeholding may have nothing to do with the trends of the time, which are towards deregulation, free markets, individualism and increased competitiveness. But there is one version that might catch on, namely the notion that everyone should have their own individual stake in the welfare state. That could mean compulsory saving for state-overseen pensions schemes, vouchers for education and perhaps even new ways of establishing rights to treatment in the NHS.

If this is what Mr Blair means, then he may be on to a Big Idea, albeit a controversial one, that could prove politically impossible to implement. It would convert the welfare state into a system that was socially inclusive, but did not necessarily guarantee equality and which paid out more on the basis of lifetime contribution than need. It would represent a marriage of choice with collectivism, of self-reliance with state support, while giving people a greater sense of owning their entitlements. And it would permit a shift away from conventional taxation, to claims by the state being earmarked for specific purposes.

If this is the direction in which Mr Blair is moving, there are good grounds for believing that his ideas will have a wider resonance. Indeed he will find plenty of fellow travellers on the Tory left. Much of what Mr Blair has to say about social inclusion and economic pragmatism echoes the language used by Kenneth Clarke. "The pace of change has created fears and uncertainties among men and women in every walk of life. A strong welfare state has an important role in reducing these fears." So said the Chancellor in his Mais Lecture 18 months ago.

In short, the chief British political divide may not be between Labour and the Tories, but between the Blair/Clarke philosophy - Blarkism - and Margaret Thatcher (and her acolytes), who this week made her bid to be the architect of the next decade, just as she was of the last.

Who will win? We cannot be sure. But the ideas that will triumph and eventually engulf all parties will be those that best ensure our survival in today's global, competitive market.