Leading article: Little words, major truths

SOMETIMES the veil slips. It happened last week when a Yorkshire family insisted that the organs of one of their relatives could only be used for transplant in a white man or woman. It happened again when the commander of the British Army paratroops at the Bloody Sunday massacre revealed in a radio interview, 27 years after the event, that he took for granted that all Catholics in Northern Ireland were closet supporters of the IRA. And it happened - or so it seemed - for a third time when Tony Blair addressed a group of venture capitalists in the City of London and spoke, in an unscripted aside, about how he bore the scars of two years of battling with the recalcitrant public sector.

It is in such small incidents that we sometimes learn big truths about ourselves and our society. What was revealed here? Among the Sheffield family we glimpsed a racism more visceral and deep-rooted than liberal society usually cares to acknowledge. In the case of Colonel Derek Wilford, who commanded the contingent of British Paras at the 1972 incident in which 14 unarmed civil rights protesters died, we gained an insight into the ill-informed culture of Para paranoia which evidently coloured the attitude of some British soldiers in their dealings with the "alien" peoples of Ireland.

And in the case of the Prime Minister? It may be that we momentarily caught sight again of the Thatcherism which lies at the heart of much of his modernising vision for Labour. Or it may, more likely perhaps, be that we saw something of the technique which the Janus-faced Labour leader has employed since first elected to the head of his party. One of Tony Blair's least-likeable characteristics is the chameleon manner in which he contrives to take on the characteristics of his surroundings. He has a habit of telling a group of people whatever he thinks they want to hear - and then going to a group of a very different hue and doing the same thing for them.

In the City last week he was caught out. There was something distinctly unpleasant in the sneering tone he used to his audience of money men, with his clubbish aside about how he bore on his back the scars of the refusal by those in the public sector to accept change. His extemporisation was, his spin doctors last week privately acknowledged, a faux pas. Doctors, nurses, teachers and low-paid public workers were outraged. Few will be placated by the insistence of his backroom briefers that the Prime Minister was referring not to such groups but to truculent and intransigent civil servants when he spoke about people rooted to the concept that "if it has always been done this way, it must always be done this way". Small wonder that he has so spectacularly fallen out with John Prescott, his deputy, and bearer of the Old Labour standard, on the issue of Labour's attitude to the public sector.

The nation is increasingly entitled to ask where Tony Blair really stands. Is it with his pre-election hint, in the Observer, that socialism was safe in his hands? Or with the Bulldog Blair who writes in the Sun? Is it with the commuter's friend who demands a integrated transport policy? Or the controller of the public purse who refuses to fund it? Is it with the pre-occupation with the primacy of profit and economic efficiency of a man who wants to sell off the Post Office? Or with his much-vaunted sense of community which ought to see the value of preserving rural post offices as part of the vital fabric of a world in which there is such a thing as society?

This newspaper has in the past found much for which to commend Tony Blair - his tenacity in Ireland, Europe, his initiatives in fighting global warming, and his commitment to education and welfare reform. But there is much too in which his position smacks of cynical opportunism, such as the facile populism of last week's commitment to ban fox-hunting. Will the real Tony Blair please stand up? we might be tempted to demand. Yet we would not be so foolish to think that what would appear would be anything other than a projection of a politician who is all things to all focus groups. Which is not something that could ever be said about John Prescott.