Leading Article: Forget numbers - this is about our future

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The Independent Online
The best sporting metaphor is not a steeplechase, or a marathon. The election campaign is more like the Tour de France or the Milk Race. Electoral excitement for the next few days will give way during Easter week to a rest period; then, from about 3 April onwards, the contest proper. Too long a run, a largish segment of the electorate will cry: we have seen it, heard it, been there before.

Of course, we do "know" the leading candidates all too well, their grimaces and their tics. We have also, if we care to look, amassed a lot of pointers towards their policies. We might ask for more: the National Institute of Economic and Social Research are the dustiest bunch of number-crunchers going and their matching of the tax take, spending commitments and debt (worryingly high for this stage of the economic cycle) says that for the next government the choices are stark and unavoidable. Either the incoming Chancellor sticks with spending plans, in which case there will be hell to pay on the health, education, defence or law-and-order fronts. Or else - economists do have a way with words - the incoming Chancellor will have to resort to fiscal tightening. Gordon Brown has promised not to raise income taxes, so that implies scrimping revenue from National Insurance and cuts in tax allowances, or other financial prestidigitation.

On finance we are going to have to whistle for clarity, just as nobody is going to prescribe for the physical crisis (the word, for once, is advised) in prison capacity, especially not the Tories, since Michael Howard is partly responsible for it. There is, however, something political leaders not only should but could give us without committing themselves to specific policies or tax regimes. It is even the kind of thing that is communicable in the truncated forms of modern media. It is a picture of Britain, five, 10 years on - the figurative presentation to British people of their own future, a symbolic description of what Blair's Britain, Major's Mainland, Ashdown's Albion, would look and feel like.

For all the shortness of American attention spans, at the last presidential election voters in the United States were presented with distinguished pictures of their future. Bill Clinton gets criticised in this country for his "touchy-feely" style - but only by critics who misunderstand the nature of the presidency as a locus of popular hope. His use of a "bridge" figure chimed with popular cultural imagery (The Wizard of Oz) and the immense optimism which is one of the United States' most attractive qualities. Blurry it may have been, but President Clinton offered a vision of a country moving into the new century with most of its historical dreams intact.

"I have a dream". It is not just that modern British politicians are bad at preachy language. They may not actually have much of a picture of 21st-century Britain to present. Since the Liberal Democrats do not aspire to majority control, they can more easily be forgiven a certain gap in their rhetoric. Perhaps Paddy Ashdown came nearest to filling it at their last party conference with that peroration about his military service in defence of a liberal vision of Britain-in-Europe.

So far John Major has offered two tropes, one urban, one rural-nostalgic. Britain ought to be a place where a boy from a humble home can join a bank, cross the Thames and end up furnishing his country home from B&Q. There is a set of powerful metaphors there to do with motivation, (inherited?) ability, and public services (good schools and stimulating teaching). But his talk, as yesterday, about "revolution" would ring the more convincingly if it did not contradict the other Major figure, about cricket greens and policeman on bicycles, straight out of some chocolate-box rural idyll. For a large number of 21st-century Britons all our country will ever be is Emmerdale.

The Conservative Party will always do a roaring trade in Great British nostalgia. The trick is to combine it, as Mrs Thatcher did, with an appeal to cut-and-thrust economic modernisation. John Major's problem is Europe. As long as business keeps saying, however sotto voce, that Europe is our future, he cannot make use of the ready symbols of British-English nostalgic nationalism.

But Europe - we learn from yesterday's Sun - is not necessarily part of Labour's vision for Britain. As recently as a year ago, Labour was going Dutch, conjuring a Britain that could be like the Netherlands, combining economic success with social concern. In such a Britain "European" coinages such as social exclusion would be taken seriously, and Islington would care about conditions of life in Sedgefield, Co Durham, both because economic progress depended on both moving onwards and upwards, and because of historical community spirit. But as Euro-enthusiasm has waned, so Labour's picture of Britain under Blair has become obscured.

What place should we associate with Blair; what kind of Britain? This is not the same as asking for policies, or even for a model of how government can affect the shape and colourings of civil society. It is to ask for some flavour of what ought to happen next - under Labour what will it smell like. Will schoolchildren be uniformed and obedient or boisterously creative? Will their ambitions be questing and jagged, or smooth and safe and comforting ?

Some readers (and at times we must sympathise with them) are bound to feel that there is going to be quite enough of all this election business over the next few weeks. But it could be an opportunity for the nation to learn something useful about itself as we gaze in the mirror the parties hold up, and look there for a picture of what we might become.