This is an audacious move: history is not fertile ground for Labour. The party has a history of failed ideas and misconceived policies that has sent every recent leader searching for a new beginning. Neil Kinnock and John Smith spent most of their time running for office against Labour's history; that was their main political opponent. Mr Blair is more radical. A vital part of his plan to revolutionise the party is to revolutionise its sense of history. As he says in his article on the preceding page, written in response to our series this week on the politics of new Labour: "The fundamental struggle between diametrically opposed ideologies [of left and right] was an aberration of 20th-century politics."
Consider the implications of that statement. Most of 20th-century working- class, socialist politics, including the birth of the Labour Party out of the bowels of the trade unions, to challenge the agglomeration of power in the hands of the capitalist ruling class, can be written off. Forget it; it was an aberration. Mr Blair urges us to think again by casting our minds back to a past in which it was possible to be both radical and conservative, compassionate but a capitalist. The template for modern politics was written in the Victorian era.
Of course, we have been here before, when a great leap into the past was the basis for an ambitious modernising programme for Britain. Enter, jeered by the left, politely clapped by Mr Blair, the original and greatest exponent of Victorian Values - Mrs Thatcher. She was even more comfortable expounding upon the big themes of politics: the nature of society, the role of the state, the justifiable limits on individual choice, the future of the nation. As a result, she shaped the political agenda for more than a decade. What does this comparison of Mr Blair and Mrs Thatcher tell us?
Like Mrs Thatcher, the Labour leader is able to turn an economic story into a moral one. He has a powerful view of the individual, who, through striving and working, learning and developing, is able to shape his world. This is not the the passive beneficiary of state support or the powerless victim of rampant capitalism that featured in so much left thinking of the past. Yet it is a more rounded individualism than the narrow, atomised, sovereign consumer that Thatcherism championed in the Eighties.
As Mr Blair puts it in his article: "I believe the individual will do best in a decent and strong society." It is the lack of clarity about what that phrase might mean which troubles so many people. It is clear that Mr Blair has rejected an analysis of a society structured by such old-fashioned socialist notions as class. It is far less clear what he has put in its place. This matters because, to put it crudely, we no longer know who the enemy is. In the past it was fairly clear: the ruling class, the exploiters, the money men, the rich whose pips would squeak. So too Mrs Thatcher had her enemies: the trade unions at first, the Europeans at the end. But the enemy is the missing player in Mr Blair's vision of society; too often he appears not to have any. As a result, nobody can be sure who is going to be asked to sacrifice what for the sake of new Labour's New Britain.
We know that Mr Blair is a meritocrat who believes in open, fair competition, which suggests he might attack vested interests, for instance in the male- dominated professions. He expects people to earn their rights by discharging their responsibilities: so the young unemployed quite rightly will be asked to work for their benefits. He believes in the family, which suggests he is against whatever undermines it. He believes in punishing burglars and muggers - they are certainly the enemy. But does he believe in asking the broad swathe of the modern middle classes to pay more for the sake of the less fortunate? We cannot be sure.
Of course, Mr Blair would reply that this search for his enemies misses the point. His is a new non-antagonistic politics, which goes beyond left and right to be simultaneously conservative yet radical, a politics which wants to restore the social fabric of middle England while radically overhauling the constitution that governs it. That explains why he does not need a single Big Idea, for that would be too megalomaniac for a society which is ever more diverse and plural.
Perhaps. But it is here that the comparison with Thatcherism becomes less flattering. New Labour rarely sets the pulse racing. It is completely devoid of Thatcherism's populist sense of excitement. Mrs Thatcher conveyed her message in clear, simple, direct terms, deploying a language borrowed from the supermarket and the living room. Mr Blair struggles with phrases like One-Nation-Stakeholderism, a language borrowed from political seminars. What Mrs Thatcher had was a story to tell us, a tale of who had brought the nation to its knees and how we had to get back on our feet again. Mr Blair does not yet have such a story to tell. He still has time, perhaps several years, to develop one. He will be helped if the intellectual tide turns in his direction. But until he can face choosing his enemies, it is unlikely to be inspiring stuff.
So our assessment of Mr Blair, thus far, is that he is a brilliant leader of the Opposition. He plays the old politics as well as any. But an approach so thickly clad in conservatism cannot yet amount to a new politics. Mr Blair needs to learn when to shed his disciplined caution and allow his instincts and his imagination freer reign. Still, he is likely to be an effective prime minister who could make some significant reforms particularly to the welfare state and our electoral system. He will probably make the country a better place to live, though not by a great margin for, as he recognises, the powers of the state are limited. Given the deep mess the Tory party is in, we may count it as a blessing that we have another party capable of governing. Any more will be a welcome bonus.Reuse content