Leading Article: Truly conservative, clear and refreshing

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Our task today, and over the next two days, is to praise - to extract from the principal contenders' statements of policy and intent the best case there is for supporting them in the election. There is no need to pretend election manifestos are texts worthy of scholarly exegesis; you do not need to be a political Derrida to deconstruct them. What they do offer is material to be able to say what difference your vote would make, be it left, right or centre.

Yesterday John Major presented himself as Stanley Macmillan. He came very close to saying "you've never had it so good" and then almost put himself forward as a latter-day Baldwin, asking for a doctor's mandate: the patient is already healthy and the physician's task is to keep her in fine fettle. His is truly a conservative manifesto.

Conservative Britain is, no question, a comfortable place. It is a better- off place, compared with five years ago. Britain has more mobile phones, more televisions (and more channels), supermarkets, restaurants (and celebrity chefs). The UK's big numbers look good; and, even with the effects of the economic cycle stripped out, some of them - such as rate of job creation - look even better relative to our big European neighbours. It would be economically illiterate to ascribe all this to the macro-economic ministrations of Norman Lamont, or even Kenneth Clarke, but it would be politically puritanical to deny them any credit at all.

Beneath yesterday's Tory talk about haves and have-nots lies a nugget of truth about modern British political economy: the only way in which the poor are going to get richer is by the expansion of employment. As for the Tories' conduct of the public finances, British books look handsome when viewed in the mirror of Maastricht. If you weigh public expectations of government spending, present and future, and public preparedness to pay taxes, you discover that the United Kingdom has effected a balance which politicians from Bonn to Rome say they want, but are finding very difficult to achieve.

Now the Major government has moved on, opening British eyes to the costs of ageing. Proposals are in the manifesto to reshape pensions and care of the infirm old. Conservative Britain is better prepared for the 21st century. That is a big phrase; whether a government can prepare society for its future is debatable. But a fair case can be made that the Major government has pushed British people into a pattern of realistic expectation - about employment prospects, the need to save for their dotage, about the extent to which they can legitimately expect a successor generation to provide for them out of its income. In time they may need to be equally realistic about what a public health service can do for them, given its future claim on public budgets; for the time being the Conservatives are content to let that public illusion alone.

To call the Conservatives the post-modern party might sound a double- edged compliment. Yesterday's manifesto actually strives for a Britain that is economically alert, able to roll with the punches of globalisation, but one where older social virtues are cherished. It is a hard trick to pull off. The manifesto proposals to use the tax system to endow women who stay at home is an effort in this direction, potentially expanding and equalising the choices open to families.

That is an emotive word, choice. It would be hard to gainsay the manifesto's sense that the Zeitgeist still broadly runs in favour of expanding individual opportunity to choose among providers, public and private.

Yet the manifesto also exhibits just how conservative the Conservatives have become since the heady Thatcherite days. Not to privatise the Royal Mail; not to make any grand promises about the rest of the state - this is to share the public's sense that wholesale stripping of state functions has probably gone far enough. The manifesto, probably accurately, reflects the way in which the public still wants to apply commercial analogies to the management of public services, including schooling and social housing.

The Independent has been specially interested in two subjects to which, to its credit, the Tory manifesto devotes considerable space - the British constitution, and Britain's place in Europe. No one can say the Tory position on these crux questions is anything but forthright. Mr Major flies his colours openly as the unionist party. Committees, separate manifestos for Scotland and Wales, flattery of difference north and west - these, the manifesto says, conduce to the British ideal of diversity within union. Separate legislatures in Cardiff and Edinburgh would open a gateway to conflict and, possibly, the break-up of an entity that works. Mr Major presents himself as the true inheritor of the Victorian opponents of electoral change. Scottish devolution is a leap in the dark.

As for Europe, Tory Europe is an alliance of trading partners, able to enforce measures against the restraint of trade but impotent against the sovereign powers of the UK Parliament. That this commits the Conservatives to further grinding opposition to the stated intentions of all other members of the European Union is a straightforward deduction readers of the manifesto are left to make. Its language on a single currency is fudged but a perspicacious reader will have little doubt that no Major led government would join up now, later, or indeed ever.

Let us welcome that clarity, even though we do not support it. The Tory manifesto makes a refreshing read, for these two reasons. First, it helps dispel fashionable cant about there being no difference between the parties: there is, and they are enumerated here. Second it offers a straightforward picture of what Britain in 2002 would look like, if the Conservatives have their way. It would look pretty much like Britain in 1997. And, in many ways, that is a better Britain than it was in 1979.