Leading Article: Does he dare be different?

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WE MAY mock, and we shall. Tony Blair smiles too much and talks too glibly. The neat soundbite comes to his lips too easily and too frequently: 'a government of national renewal needs a national renewal of government'. The relentless scrutiny of the media will ensure that these and other weaknesses irritate us in the months and years to come. But we cannot judge political leaders on whether we feel comfortable with them in our living rooms - if that was all that counted, the country could elect Desmond Lynam by a landslide. The only important question is: can Mr Blair offer a different and a better government?

On better government, there should be little doubt. In last week's reshuffle, John Patten, who had so clumsily handled the latest stages in the introduction of a national curriculum and national testing to our schools, was rightly dismissed. Yet Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, remains in office, even though his handling of his departmental brief, notably the Criminal Justice Bill, has been almost as poor. He is the most highly placed representative of the party right; short of his being exposed as a bullion robber, it is impossible to imagine him being sacked. John Major is a weak prime minister, more preoccupied with the intricacies of party management than with the competence of his ministers. By contrast, Tony Blair's decisive victory last week and the involvement of a mass membership in the election ensure that, for the first time in many years, Labour has a strong leader.

There should not be much doubt, either, that Mr Blair can offer better government in the sense of cleaner government. The linkage of arms sales to aid in Malaysia; the agreement of MPs to accept money in return for putting down questions in the House of Commons; the secrecy surrounding donations to the Tory party; the ease with which former ministers and civil servants have picked up directorships in newly privatised companies - these are just some examples of how an entire government and party culture has been permeated by greed and sleaze, for which its leaders see no particular need to apologise.

But what of different government? Is Mr Blair merely offering a cleaner version of Toryism? The Economist, house journal of the free market right, clearly has high hopes of him. 'Traditionally,' it said in a leader last week, 'parties of left and right have fallen out over economics. That should not be the battleground next time. Both parties are agreed about the objectives: growth, lower unemployment, low inflation. Both broadly agree about the means: not (as Labour once thought) more state planning, nor (as some in the party still think) more state borrowing, but competition and the market.' The Economist helpfully explained how Mr Blair could become an acceptable prime minister: he should offer to cut pensions and child benefit, reduce income tax, widen VAT and 'improve' Tory reforms of education and the NHS.

It is doubtful that the new Labour leader, ambitious as he is, would think that a price worth paying. But the thought shows the dangers of leaving the policy sheet too blank. It is still impossible, across a wide range of issues, to know or even guess where Mr Blair stands. Should defence spending take a lower proportion of GDP? Should direct taxation be higher or lower? Should some of the Tory legislation on trade unions be repealed? Should the European Union be organised more democratically?

Above all, does Mr Blair wish to challenge the fascination that the free market has held for politicians and economists alike in the West for nearly 20 years? These have not, by historical standards, been notably successful years. True, the rival ideology, Communism, has collapsed; and, for many people, material prosperity has increased beyond their dreams. But in many Western societies these years have also been marked by rising unemployment, rising crime and violence, greater poverty, inequality and family breakdown. The greatest of Christian Socialists, R H Tawney, wrote more than 70 years ago that our modern obsession with economic issues would eventually appear as pitiable as the 17th-century obsession with religious issues appears today. 'Society,' he wrote, 'must regard economic interests as one element in life, not as the whole of life.' It must so organise its production 'that the instrumental character of economic activity is emphasised by its subordination to the social purpose for which it is carried on.' A leader who can turn that philosophy into practical politics is long overdue. Only if he can do so will Tony Blair offer something truly different to the British people.