LEADING ARTICLE:A tale of two Britains

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We are currently being offered two profoundly different visions of Britain in the next century. The first is for those who feel lucky. Under this dispensation, advocated by the New Right, we would have a deregulated, highly competitive economy with few state controls or supports. It would be another United States, only more so. Individuals would choose how best to provide for their education, training, old age and periods out of work. This would be a flexible, fast-moving society which enjoyed the low taxation that goes with the minimalist state.

The rewards of success would be great, but the price of failure would be high. The philosophy of Thatcherite individualism would bound on in great leaps. But we could expect the development of a growing underclass comprising people who had fallen off society's ladder or who had never even reached the bottom rung.

There is an alternative. Yesterday Lord Dahrendorf added another chapter to accounts of how Britain might look if shaped by those who do not feel so lucky. Commissioned by Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, Lord Dahrendorf has detailed choices with which centrists from Tony Blair to Kenneth Clarke might sympathise. The state would be more active. There would be big increases in spending on education, skilling the population to compete more effectively in global markets, and everyone would pay into a compulsory second pension. Each adult would be guaranteed a basic income.

Taxes would be higher than in the Thatcherite utopia. And the state, though retreating from certain roles currently undertaken, would be intrusive. Indeed it would be positively authoritarian, given that people would have to work for benefits and take out second pensions. But this would be an inclusive society built on collective security rather than fortune founded purely on individual endeavour.

So which type of society do we want? The first option is exciting but disturbing. Much of what it recommends is sensible given the international competition that Britain faces but it ignores many nasty consequences of untrammelled individualism. The losers in society would not be content to eke out their existences in quiet obscurity. There would probably be rising crime and violence that fortress homes, tough laws and more prisons could not disguise. The beneficiaries of a liberalised economy would, ironically, need coercive legislation to protect their privileges.

But the Dahrendorf school, though comforting, is authoritarian in its prescriptive attitudes. Why should a society that baulks at paying higher taxes be so ready to accept compulsory saving? What would persuade someone, living on a pittance, to pay into a pension scheme whose benefits lie so far in the future when the immediate concern is a good meal?

Instinctively, our moral selves lean towards a future more like the one envisaged by Lord Dahrendorf. We care that our fellow citizens should not be pauperised. Fear moves us towards collective security. Yet politicians and the state are losing authority. We do not trust their competence. They would have to precipitate a sea change in their behaviour and our attitudes before we could let them launch into fresh activism.