Leading article: Death of ideology is greatly exaggerated

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Not even the most numb-kneed Tory party sycophant would call John Major an original thinker. Wily tactician, maybe, but not a Tory leader you would put in the same category as Arthur Balfour or Lord Salisbury. Paddy Ashdown, likewise, is not someone who comes across as a conceptualiser. When we wrote, not critically, that the Liberal Democrats were a party with many ideas rather than an ideology, Conrad (Lord) Russell took us to task, claiming lineal descent from John Stuart Mill. If so, the party has descended through various rustic branch-lines: its family resemblance to its famous predecessor is less marked than Lord Russell's to his. Mr Ashdown does not spend much time debating the essence of democratic liberalism or liberal democracy for that matter.

The Labour leader is another matter. Tony Blair is no continental intellectual. We do not breed party leaders with the theoretical clout of, say, the former German social democrat leader Helmut Schmidt or the academic weight of the French socialist Lionel Jospin. Yet before the demands of electioneering took him over, Mr Blair could be spied at seminars convened by the Institute of Public Policy Research and similar think- tanks. Then, the occasional "ism" could be heard tripping off his tongue even if, somewhat too often, it emerged as the vague "communitarianism". But the campaign has in large measure seen the Labour leader staying safely away from big ideas and keeping his bat straight.

Until, that is, the past couple of days. Suddenly Tony Blair seems to have been cut loose. He has taken to the stage without a script, doing something extraordinary, in the terms in which this campaign has been conducted till now, which is thinking aloud. What his audiences have been hearing is a kind of public meditation - Prince Hal-like - on the duties of leadership and his rendezvous with history. Taken at face value (too much should not be read into what is said during these hectic days), his recent remarks suggest Mr Blair has yet more surprises in store for his party, including perhaps its intellectual demise.

The gist of Mr Blair's political thought was captured yesterday in his prediction that "this election will be the last fought on ideology". By "ideology" he meant the old way of dividing right and left on how large a role they accord the state. On one side stood individualists, on the other collectivists; on one capitalists, on the other socialists.

That such division is anachronistic is an old suggestion. At the end of the 1950s Daniel Bell used the phrase to signal the onset of an era in which everyone accepted the existence of the welfare state. Other writers took up the theme, claiming that modern politics was essentially a technocratic affair in which all the public had to do was decide which party would manage the system best. Tony Blair seems attracted by this idea. Appraise my suitability - he implies - on the basis of my party management skills. Perhaps he has been reading Francis Fukuyama, American author of the cloudy The End of History. Fukuyama argued that at the end of the Cold War, a liberal-democratic model of politics now rules mankind, conflicts within which are essentially trivial. There remain practical problems, to be sure, in economic and social life but these are dully second-order ones, which need to be approached pragmatically. Fukuyama's book was a strange mixture of triumphalism and gloom. It was heavily influenced by Nietzsche (this newspaper is against Nietzsche) but was, in its turn, heavily influential on a rising generation which believes that all is management, nothing is ideology. Support what works; that's it. This, in essence, is what President Clinton was saying in his State of the Union address earlier this year.

No one sensible is against practical solutions or good management. But it is a dangerous leap to think that, therefore, politics in the old sense is dead. However it is labelled, and wherever it is conducted, from ancient Athens to contemporary Seoul, politics exists because society involves conflict. There is conflict for power, resources and freedom. There is conflict between groups and individuals, some of whom will win and some lose. Politics is a grown-up art because politics recognises this and doesn't shy from it: only in the schmaltzy dreamland of dictators and king-emperors is there no conflict, a harmonious and happily managed people. So long as there are limited resources and complex social organisation, with power centralised and rules imposed, there will be politics.

And the real problem for modern politicians is this: without ideology, without an intellectual template, how do you know which groups should win and which, at least relatively, lose? How do you make sense of a chaos of small managerial dilemmas? Without a compass, how do you know where you are going? Tory nationalists have an ideology, which defends traditional centres of national power against globalisation. They may be wrong-headed but they will be able to know when they are winning. The same went for the old left. But what is the core political focus for the new centre-left, whether it be American Democrats or British New Labour?

We think the key idea is, or ought to be, radicalism, meaning a determination to break down excessive centres of power (which could be in European bureaucracies, trade unions, multinational corporations, media empires or pension funds) in favour of the small guy. Radical politics would recognise that in the global market there is a natural tendency for power to cluster around fewer and fewer players; and that the proper role for politicians is to stand against that, to constantly shake up and break up in order to protect social diversity and mobility. It may seem an abstract thought. In government, it wouldn't be. We are all for management: but every management needs a guiding purpose.