Leading Article: Rather a small Big Idea

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The Independent Online
TWO thoughts kept nagging as John Smith rehashed parts of Labour's election manifesto in his big speech yesterday in Blackpool. One was that for all the one-more-heave impression he conveyed, he almost certainly faces another four years as opposition leader. The other was that if those policies were as good as he clearly thought they still were, why did his party lose on 9 April? Mr Smith offered no explanation. Instead, rather cheekily, he suggested that the Conservative victory was a 'reluctant' vote, not a true endorsement: the electorate had decided to give John Major the benefit of the doubt. Yet if the British people, whom Mr Smith generously credited with sharing Labour's values, had voted reluctantly for the Tories, how much more doubtfully and reluctantly had they voted - or not voted - for Labour?

From such questions, and a good many others, Mr Smith shied. He was duty-bound as leader of the Opposition to heap ridicule on the Government for its failure to sustain its economic strategy or to address social problems associated with a recession aggravated by earlier Conservative policies. He did so with style, his customary wit and a degree of passion that may have surprised those who see him primarily as an intellectually brilliant and politically sure-footed Scottish barrister.

But he avoided the painful subject of Labour's constitutional reforms, referring to the trade unions 'with which we in our party are so proud to be linked' as if all was hunky-dory in that relationship. Ignoring the opportunity to brace the party for the rigours of continued modernisation, he seemed anxious to ruffle no feathers. As for the issue at the heart of the Government's difficulties - inflation - he did not mention the word once.

The 'big idea' of the speech seemed to be the new slogan: active government. Yet most people do not rate activity for its own sake very highly. Baroness Thatcher's governments were hyperactive. But in her third term especially, much of the action seemed to be inspired more by ideology than a real need for change. If Mr Major went into overdrive, Mr Smith's slogan would look silly. It already looks superficial, and potentially retrograde, since his definition of active government seemed to be confined to ways of intervening against the market. He conveyed no sense of wanting to use the market to fulfil the party's goals.

He was on sounder ground in mocking Mr Major for being in favour of the principle of subsidiarity (that responsibility should be devolved to the lowest level) for Brussels but not for Britain: Labour would give not only Scotland and Wales their own assemblies but also England's regions, he said. As an advocate of a Europe of the regions, Mr Smith's credentials are impeccable. He is the first Labour leader to have been consistent and passionate in his belief in European integration. His speech contained no concessions to the party's anti-EC or anti-Maastricht wings.

There has never been any doubt that Mr Smith would put himself across as a potential prime minister of widely acceptable views and formidable competence. Whether he would be able to inspire his party and the country by the quality of his leadership was less certain. For all the brilliance of his performance in the Commons on Thursday and the judiciousness of yesterday's confection, that question is no closer to being answered.