The British problem: how to get rid of a gang of narrow-minded fanatics

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AFTER the last war, Jewish survivors of the Final Solution were gathered into transit camps and questioned about where they wished to be resettled. According to the folklore of those camps, the following conversation took place:

Official: 'Where would you like to go?'

Jew: 'To Australia.'

Official: 'But that's so far away]'

Jew: 'From what?'

On the fringe of British politics, in those crevices where people actually discuss issues rather than personalities, there is a lot of Australian talk these days. Why bother to be practical, when the system itself is absurd? So we hear plans for two simultaneous currencies, for abolishing the Monarchy, for firing Scotland and Wales into Eurospace, for abolishing the private car, for scrapping Conservatism in favour of 'an English Berlusconi' (Simon Heffer, in the Spectator). They are far out, and far away. But from what?

This is the season when Christians are supposed to think about death and resurrection. But these thoughts, at least when preached or broadcast, can be relied upon to end in the usual hopeless confusion between resurrection and rebirth.

Resurrection means rising from the tomb much as one went into it - not always an attractive thought. Rebirth means a genuine second chance - turning into somebody or something entirely different and, as Revelations puts it, receiving a white stone with a new name writ thereon. People interested in resurrection feel reasonably satisfied with themselves, although they would naturally prefer to clamber out of the sarcophagus looking better than they went into it. Rebirth people, on the other hand, tend to recoil from their own minds and bodies as irretrievably corrupt. They would rather be reborn as rabbits than as themselves: see D H Lawrence's yearning for a man-less world that would be just grass, with a hare sitting up. For the true sinner, only a clean break will do. Such is the Reformation spirit.

All this theological pedantry has a point - a political one. We have spent nearly 15 years under the rule of one party. Few people now remember what it was like to have a Labour government. In the first years after 1979, there was anger that old stabilities were being knocked down. Then ensued a time of sheer incredulity; the Britain that seemed always to have been run within certain moral limits was vanishing so rapidly that its outlines were already blurred, its details already forgotten. At first, those who rejected Thatcherism were resurrectionists. They wanted to restore a land in which government existed to shield the weak against the strong, to provide employment and redress regional imbalances, to prime the pumps which would eventually gush forth new industries and better educated citizens. But then, as the years went by, control of the past also slipped into the hands of the regime.

This past has been partitioned into two. First, there is the zone of timeless 'heritage', an artificial landscape of deference. The other zone, that of recent political history, has also been skilfully designed. A vista of accumulating failure (the era of 'socialism' or 'consensus') leads up to a gigantic pyramid of stinking black garbage

bags. That is the 1979 Winter of Discontent, in which all the vices of the old system are alleged to have culminated.

It was and is a lie. That version is an anti-Disneyland, something which any serious historical investigation at once reduces to epoxy resin and plasterboard. (The Winter of Discontent itself was a routine piece of bother which was declared to have been a grand crisis long afterwards, by propaganda dressed up as hindsight.) The trouble is that it has come to be accepted - even by the regime's enemies. They go on grumbling and hating. But they no longer feel like resurrecting pre-Thatcher Britain. They, too, think that it ended in a heap of suppurating trash.

This is a pity. The Callaghan government, feeble because it lacked a parliamentary majority, at least had more creative ideas than John Major's. If Scottish and Welsh devolution had happened, constitutional reform would have flowed back southwards to Westminster itself. As a result, we would probably have been spared the 1990s 'anti-European' insurrection, in defence of the myth of parliamentary sovereignty. Still, that is for historians. Even if I can argue that the Labour governments of the 1970s did have something worth resurrecting, the fact is that most ideas-merchants no longer think so. They want something new. They want rebirth.

It is an ironic situation. The dissidents dream of a new Heaven and Earth, remote from actually existing Britain. But this comes just at the moment when Britain has become ripe for a perfectly conventional change; the replacement of one ruling party by another.

Here is a government pretty clearly dying of old age. It is seriously divided, weakly led, devoid of ideas, and increasingly poisoned by scandals. Here is a Labour government-in-waiting which is sound if not inspiring, public-spirited if not socialist, and growing steadily more united around a programme which understands 'Europe' as the key to reforming British institutions. And here, thirdly, is a public opinion whose expectations of government have changed surprisingly little over the last 15 years. People want better health and education, even if they have to pay more taxes for them; they want more jobs even if that means a slight increase in inflation; they want poverty reduced, because they think it leads to squalor and crime. All this is a context for sober change, but not for revolution or rebirth.

The wild ideas are often good ideas (though not the call for an English Berlusconi). I am convinced that the British state, with its mania for sovereignty and its trickle-down doctrine of power, is archaic and must be pulled down. But in this country, big change has to start in a small way: by achieving the utterly conventional feat of electing a new government. Then, I suspect, the forces released by closer European Union and the establishment of a Scottish parliament will begin to transform the British state system out of recognition.

The right mood to bring this about is not British self-rejection. It is simply anger. Under the Conservatives, beggars have returned to the streets and tuberculosis has returned to the poor. Britain has become a nuisance to Europe and an embarrassment to the United States. Lying - not imaginative fairy-tales, but tired, cynical, defensive lying about everything from unemployment statistics to arms sales - has become the language of administration.

Even some older Tories know in their hearts that the whistle should have gone years ago, that the only way to save their party from capture by a gang of narrow- minded, xenophobic fanatics is a period in opposition. But that is their problem. Ours is how to get rid of them. And that cannot be done in Australia or on the moon, but only here, with the democratic tools provided. They are blunted, but still sharp enough for voting rascals out.