Out of touch, out of tune, and out of power

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The Independent Online
THE CONSTIPATION of British politics seems to have settled into a syndrome: the Conservatives have survived the worst year in a decade, only to discover that it doesn't make any difference. Their survival is secure and it is the Opposition that is faced with a fate worse than death - opposition.

Labour reassures itself with opinion polls that show another surge ahead of the Tories, but it fails to realise that percentage points do not a government make and so neglects the business of opposition. Indeed, it so dislikes opposition, is so constrained and calmed by it, that what ought to be a labour of love - resistance, investigation, challenge and above all the creation of a historic conversation with the people - is only an enervating labour of Sisyphus. It has forgotten the lesson of Thatcherism itself, whose triumph emerged out of the trenches of opposition, out of something quite new in post- war Britain: the drama of dissent on the right and an audacious argument with society.

The Opposition now treats the people as if they were Victorian children, wayward, truculent creatures, occasionally amusing, usually demanding. Over the past few years it has rearranged its relationship with them according to a new maxim: the people are to be seen and not heard.

This is not to say that Britain is a dull place, simply that politics has ebbed to the shores of Parliament. It presides, like a capricious patriarch prescribing virtue to an increasingly diverse, secular and self-determining society. The recent all-party command to the people to exercise more moral responsibility assumes that the nation adheres to an ancient and self-evident lore of law- abiding respectability, which it plainly does not.

This resort to morality exposes the poverty of a political system that is disengaged from society. The Opposition's isolation from the revolution in public and private manners - and therefore political priorities - that is changing the emotional landscape of Britain produced only paralysis when it was presented with a challenge which sprang from the very heart of the Establishment. The Establishment has been rattled by the most unlikely protagonists of all - by the Royal Family's disaffected daughters-in-law and by the movement for the ordination of women.

Our future king was exposed as a conservative chauvinist whose regal treatment of his wife defined his marriage, yet also destroyed it. He was undone by his failure to behave like a modern man. Despite Britain's recent regard for its royals, the reform of relations between men and women infused our expectations of one of the most powerful men in the land. Her Majesty's Opposition snivelled about the private misfortunes of the Windsors and thus missed the point about the revolution in the public etiquette of love, sex and marriage.

The Church of England, unlike the House of Commons, conducted a spectacularly intelligent debate about women's ordination, and then did the right thing. Yet we have ministers of this realm who are still proud of their dissent - and they're still in a job. And we have an opposition that was memorably mute during this great challenge.

These two themes exemplified the degradation of politics: they engaged the conversation of every sentient adult. Popular imagination connected with what was perceived as the tyranny of tradition. The fissures in the Royal Family and the Church of England were resonant of the crisis that is created when power is challenged.

The Establishment was here exposed to the same visceral changes taking place across society. Parliamentary opposition, however, had become so estranged from popular culture that it either abstained from the debate or fell for a defence of privacy that amounted to the restoration of tradition.

It is in civil society, rather than in the affairs of state, that Britain's social dynamism is displayed. It is there that people improvise survival, as self-help or small business, or crime; it is there that cultural movements are changing the manners of everyday life; it is there that institutions are being modernised, albeit through professional, not political, discourse.

But far from trusting itself as the political courier of those cultural revolutions, the Opposition takes its cue from the party in power, rather than from the people. Politics ought to dramatise the relationship between the individual and society. Politics should enable people to envisage their own agency as social beings. In fact, what we hear is the Opposition's regression to the ancient rhetoric that circulates between the parties rather than among the people.

The Opposition's modernisers may look longingly at Clinton's triumph in the United States, but it appears to be embarrassed by his mantra, 'Let change be our friend.' Civil society is the dynamic space in Britain, but the Opposition has not sought to penetrate the place where people live.

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