Leading article: The year of the people

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The Independent Online
As is our wont at this time of year, we are in reflective mood, taking stock of the 12 months that have passed, and assessing their place in history. Two domestic events stand out: Labour's election triumph on 1 May and the death of the Princess of Wales on 31 August. As is clear from the results of our Man, Woman and Villain of the Year poll and of the personal memories of the death of the Princess, which we publish today, both have had a deep and abiding impact. If he fulfils his promise, Tony Blair's victory will mark this year down in British political history. In little more than six months he has reshaped the control of the economy; he is restlessly pushing through reforms of the welfare state and the education system; he is striving for peace in Northern Ireland; he is embarking on an overhaul of the electoral process, and now he has the House of Lords in his sights. By the time Mr Blair is through, possibly in 2007, historians may point to 1 May 1997 as a watershed, one of those dates that students in future generations will automatically consign to memory. The death of the Princess of Wales was probably not as historically significant, although it is too early to judge its effect on the monarchy. Her going will be remembered for the overwhelming sense of shock, followed by a public outpouring of grief, the scale of which had never before been experienced in this country.

Although these two events were entirely different, they were linked by a common strand. That is "People". This was the people's year. For the past nine months we have been assailed by the people's this and the people's that. Nothing seems to matter any more unless it carries the people's prefix. This phenomenon has been fostered by Mr Blair himself who is keen to be portrayed as the "people's prime minister". As he said so unforgettably on her death, Diana was the "people's Princess". But there is more to this mood than labels. It is about popular empowerment, and leaders who declare themselves willing to listen to the message from the masses. The fields of flowers outside Kensington and Buckingham Palaces and the snaking queues of mourners waiting to sign books of condolence are an enduring image of the year. Of greater significance, however, was the way in which the Royal Family was required to respond and give ground.

A different memory of 1997 was the drama in the Massachusetts court-room when Louise Woodward, an English nanny, was found guilty of the first- degree murder of an American baby. In this country where the televising of trials is still forbidden, the live coverage of the Woodward case became a gripping collective experience. It was in fact as it was billed: The People versus Louise Woodward; she was condemned by 12 people on the jury; but a much greater mass of people in America, in Elton, her home village in Cheshire, and throughout this country, protested. Shortly after, the verdict was overturned. As an example of "people power", the Woodward case could not be bettered. As a legal precedent it was troubling.

Mr Blair wants this to be an age of inclusive, consensual policy-making in which the bulk of the population has a place and a voice. Such an aim is to be applauded and could go a long way towards removing the political apathy that enfeebles British society. The omens are encouraging, but not convincing. For while Mr Blair is a worthy winner of the Man of the Year award and has notched up a string of achievements since gaining power, he has coupled his declared desire to reach out and involve everyone with a heavy, controlling hand. On occasions, presentation has dominated policy, putting gloss ahead of substance. That will not do. It is no use Peter Mandelson, the Minister Without Portfolio, waxing lyrical about the Millennium Dome, to be built at a cost of pounds 750m - enough money to cure hospital waiting lists at a stroke - without saying what it will contain. The Ecclestone affair was troubling because ministers were either unable or unwilling to provide a full explanation. On lone parents' benefits, there was a disquieting lack of candour which saw our newly elected representatives appear condescending and patronising. Mr Blair, his ministers and his battery of media advisers must appreciate that involving the people is one thing; maintaining their trust and support is quite another. If they learn that lesson, then 1997 will deservedly be remembered as a truly remarkable year.