Leading Article: How will Blair deliver his decent society?

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The Independent Online
The Labour leader Tony Blair made a significant speech yesterday, one that map-makers of late 20th-century Britain ought to mark. It is not just a paragraph in the tale of Labour's bid to return to power; it is also a further turn in his personal evolution. It is remarkable that he goes on revising even the nostrums of new Labour, yesterday making "new" Labour sound a lot like the "old" conservatism. In planting Labour's flag on some strange shores this was a brilliant example of taking the fire to the enemy's camp. Its timing and nuances make of Mr Blair an adept student of Labour's last great - and greatly flawed - master tactician, Harold Wilson.

The speech was directed squarely at its target. Before he made it we could read the contents on the front page of the Daily Mail. The words in that editorial space are like a DHL delivery straight to the heart of conservative England - the kind of people who probably do not care much that the Labour leader was educated at Fettes but do, like Pavlov's dogs, start slavering when the bell is rung for decency, family values, streets safe for children to play in, duty and responsibility. Boy, did Mr Blair ring those bells yesterday. But did he also have to apostrophise Sir David English, former editor of the arch-Tory Mail, as "extremely distinguished"? Such obeisance before a newspaper which has since 1924 made the extermination of the Labour Party one of its raisons d'etre is an act of historical chutzpah, to say the least. It is also dishonest. The kind of society envisioned by Tony Blair - a "decent" society - would not have house room for the values espoused daily by the Mail, its proprietor or its stablemates.

That payment of Danegeld aside, the speech represented Tony Blair's personal resolution of a new problem for modern political leaders. The problem is how to address the "moral" agenda - the realm of ought and should - without appearing to be a hypocrite. Since Gladstone denounced the Turk in the era of high liberalism British voters have entertained a healthy scepticism for politicians claiming God, Right or (in Mrs Thatcher's case) the Spirit of History was on their side. Tony Blair has tried to avoid the holier-than-thou problem by steering clear of sex. What people do in their bedrooms has nothing to do with morality as he wants to define it. His concern is the rules of right conduct outside the home, in society. This sounds like commendable, Millite liberalism. Politicians should talk about the public space. The trouble is, his own distinction breaks down over the relationship of parents and children. Is it a public matter, and what right does he have to announce the secret of good parenting? He runs the risk of hypocrisy, and not just if Euan, Nicky and Kathryn start behaving badly (which in Mr Blair's terms would be no one but their parents' fault).

In essence this speech was about new Labour's bid to have capitalism and all its works without its "cultural contradictions". Like most other efforts of the sort, which nowadays come thick and fast from the right as much as the centre left, it strives to produce rules for social life when economic life appears less rule-bounded than ever. The question is whether governments can impose these rules.

But what if the rules have to be re-invented? Does government really know how to make us behave like better civic people? As a blueprint for legislation, this kind of speechifying is, as the Americans say, flaky. Mr Blair would like parents to spend more time with their children. Quite right. Does that mean he is in favour of maximum 48-hour weeks, or new laws to force employers to recognise the domestic circumstances of their staff? "Employers need to think..." he says. But do they need to be coerced? And which parent is going to do the good domestic work? Mr Blair cites the sociologist-cum-moralist Chelly Halsey; he should read him more closely and see that Professor Halsey sees the salvation of the family in either some reduction in the role of women at work, or reduced family income as one or both parents spend more time at home.

As for Mr Blair's repeated mention of a new "civic society", his back- room boys and girls need to do more homework. For many, the civic society is the voluntary group concerned about preserving the half-timbering in the old village. Presumably Labour's focus groups had difficulties with the older formulation "civil society". Either way, it is unclear whether what he means is a society in which there is more or less government and politics. No mention, for example, of local councils, where Labour is so strong at the moment.

But it is easy to carp at politicians when they venture into the grander reaches of social morality and civic propriety. For all the lack of solutions, Tony Blair seems - not for the first time - to be striving to articulate common concerns, deeply felt at all levels of society. His theme is a social populism based on the politics of St Matthew's gospel. But good conduct we can leave to philosophers and priests. What we expect from politicians is some thoughts about how to create the conditions for their brand of goodness. John Major has marked out his own ground, equating lower taxation and the morality of self-help. Tony Blair may lament the lack of decency in that programme. He has yet to tell us, however, how he would use the power of premiership to encourage the kind of decency that he, in all sincerity, represents.