There are no men in white coats behind Mr Blair

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The Independent Online
It is a remarkable thing, but in only one election has Labour both been expected to win and actually managed to pull it off. That was in 1964. I exclude the elections of 1966 and October 1974 as being subsidiary to, respectively, the unsurprising though narrow victory of 1964 and the even narrower but astonishing win in February 1974. Indeed, no one was more astonished on that occasion than Harold Wilson.

Labour did not expect to win in 1945 either. Hugh Gaitskell, however, thought he had won in 1959 and broke down in Leeds Town Hall when he realised he had failed by what Mr John Major would call a very considerable margin. Mr Neil Kinnock now says he really did not expect to win in 1992. But if so he certainly managed to fool me and lots of other people as well, not least Glenys, Mrs Kinnock.

Ramsay MacDonald's governments of 1924 and 1929 were both more or less accidental, the first having been brought about by a combination of Stanley Baldwin, H H Asquith and King George V and the second by the reluctance of Conservatives and Liberals to combine together to force MacDonald out. In the end he was compelled, more by the King than anyone else, to desert his party and head a national government. That is a long and involved story which has no place in a column designed for Sunday family reading. Let us content ourselves with the conclusion that Mr Tony Blair is not just the first Labour leader since Wilson but the solitary leader apart from Wilson to go into an election with the expectation and the rational certainty of winning it.

It may be me, advancing years or something: but I do not feel any great sense of excitement, or much excitement at all. But then, though I think I am an optimistic person, I am quite sure I am not an enthusiastic person. Looking back, and even remembering some of the things I wrote at the time, I was not specially excited by Wilson in 1964.

When the great deflation occurred two years later (and it is often forgotten that there was a kind of mini-deflation in 1965 as well) I was not greatly disillusioned. For I had never possessed many illusions about Wilson in the first place. Certainly his speech on science and socialism at Scarborough in 1963 struck me as great nonsense, even if by verbal dexterity it managed to bury the controversy about nationalisation. His subsequent references to all those aluminium smelters (where exactly were they? I often wondered) and to the equally elusive British computer industry left me just as unmoved.

Mr Blair has not tried to over-excite us in this way. Men in white coats - I mean the sort with pocket calculators and pens sticking out of their breast pockets rather than the ones equipped with handy straitjackets - play little part in his orations. He did once promise to supply free computers to the under-fives. Or rather he revealed that British Telecom had promised to supply them. But on the whole Mr Blair has been reluctant to invoke the wonders of modern science on his party's behalf.

Indeed, he has not invoked much of anything. Never has the People's Party - I was flattered when Mr Blair picked up this phrase of mine at the last conference and used it with every appearance of seriousness - gone into an election so unencumbered by policy or, what is slightly different, so devoid of a political theme.

A theme is different from a set of policies, though people often mistake the one for the other. The only policy I can isolate is Mr Gordon Brown's proposal for a windfall tax on the privatised utilities. And the only theme is constitutional reform. This is to come about through a series of proposals which are unrelated in logic, in their origins and in their history. Some Labour politicians and newspaper leader-writers have a brave try at demonstrating that together they constitute a kind of neat package labelled "decentralisation", "power to the people" or what-have-you. But they do not.

In this sense constitutional reform is not a theme at all. One can, for instance, rationally be in favour of an independent Scotland, of removal of the hereditary peers and of both Commons and Lords elected by the alternative vote rather than by proportional representation or the present system of first-past-the-post. Of these possibilities, only one - the removal of the hereditary peers - is on offer. Of the possibilities that are on offer, one can, for instance, rationally be in favour of a Scottish parliament but not of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into our domestic law.

Even so, I should like to pay tribute to Mr Blair's courage in being prepared to take all this on. The Wilson government's (in reality Lord Carrington's and R H S Crossman's) attempt to reform the Lords foundered on the reefs of Mr Enoch Powell and Mr Michael Foot. The Callaghan government fell on account of Scottish devolution. I know. I was there, for both reverses. I do not think Mr Blair quite realises what he has taken on in trying to pass so much constitutional legislation within the lifetime of one Labour government.

Does Mr Brown realise what he has taken on? There is his promise not to increase direct taxation at all during the same period. There is a separate promise to keep within the present spending limits of the Government for two years. The point about these two promises taken together, "pledges" as they are still called in Labour argot, is not so much that no prospective Labour Chancellor should make them because they are detrimental to the interests of the poor (though they are) as that no prospective Chancellor of any party should make them. They are staggeringly irresponsible. For Mr Brown cannot possibly tell what the level of taxation ought to be in three years' or even in six months' time.

The proposal for a windfall tax on the utilities is not only irresponsible but unprincipled. Admittedly few Chancellors, however principled they may be in theory, are averse to collecting a little easy money. Lord Howe punished the banks (so bringing about the resignation of Mr Tim Renton as his PPS). Television companies have long been seen as fair game. But today discriminatory levies are more difficult to impose owing to European law. Mr Brown is already having to cast his net wider than he would like to escape its clutches. I still foresee trouble of the legal kind ahead.

As for Mr Brown's promise that the proceeds of the levy are to be spent on mitigating youth unemployment, I suspect they will go the same way as the proceeds of the road fund licence. These were supposed to be spent on the improvement of the roads. Instead they were swallowed up by the great Treasury maw. In any case, how can youth unemployment be cured except by more jobs, which are not in Mr Brown's power to provide?

Certainly there have been good Labour Chancellors who were not economists, as Mr Brown is not. Mr Blair is not the only Labour politician to win the approval of Lady Thatcher. She also considered Lord Jenkins the best Chancellor since the war. But I am more inclined to predict the traditional Labour financial crisis, which always occurs two years after the party has attained office. And by the year 2000 it may be Mr Robin Cook's turn at the Treasury.

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