Tony Blair can't get what he wants until he knows what he wants

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The Independent Online
THIS government is a puzzling thing. Like the unicorn, it exhibits the characteristics of an intriguing, kindly hybrid: some of its features sit oddly with others. By now we might expect to have more idea of what it intends to be when it evolves. Not even its keepers seem quite sure.

As a result, we have been able to project our own hopes on to it, with the result that the range of disillusionment is very broad. Socialists believed that its spending restraints were mere flimsy, a veil spun to seduce Middle England. After a discreet interval, they thought, Labour would rediscover its hard-wearing instinct for redistribution. Radical liberals anticipated constitutional refreshment and a revival of voluntary institutions like the credit unions and friendly societies which were the core of the Labour movement until they were eclipsed by Socialism after 1918. Moral authoritarians hoped for a Singaporean Britain presided over by a stern but benevolent Lee Kuan Blair and administered by Jack Straw and Frank Field: compulsorily stable families, compulsory private pensions, and laws against the irresponsible having of fun.

But as Kant observed: "The great goods cannot all live together." So Tony Blair is going to have to choose between these visions of the good society. So far, New Labour has yet to decide what its ends are and is thus ill-placed to decide what means will achieve them. We are to have welfare-to-work, but do not know how strict the penalties will be for those who do not embrace it. The Budget leaks on child-care suggest that Downing Street is still more at ease wielding carrots than sticks. There will be education, education and yet more education, but apart from the promise of rewards to a select band of super-teacher and some first-aid to stop the descent of inner-city schools into borstals, Mr Blair is unwilling to think the truly unthinkable by reassessing the effectiveness of local authority provision.

When in doubt, call for the Third Way; and here it is, the rave from the grave haunting us on the cover of the New Statesman this week. This is the least welcome revival since pedal-pushers. In so far as it means a compromise between the market and the state, we are in the Third Way already and have been since 1945. But the Third Way harbingers mean something else - a reverse perestroika, blunting the edge of the free market rather than liberalising state socialism. I doubt that Mr Blair will oblige them. The risk for any Western leader facing global competition and the uncertain economics of a Europe embarking on a single currency is that any move against flexible labour markets will simply produce a less efficient version of what went before. That is why stake-holding is an idea whose time came - and went again.

If we imagine ourselves 15 years in the future, governed by either Son of Hague or an endless Labour-Lib Dem coalition, how will we look back on the formative period of this government? To answer that, we first have to decide what is evanescent about New Labour and what will last.

The obvious candidate for the dustbin of history is New Britain. By definition, it is a short-lived phenomenon, so I can't see the point in staking credibility on pop groups, designers or restaurateurs - three synonyms for transience. In the old East Germany, I witnessed the unveiling of the one-mega-bit computer - the last, doomed chance to vaunt technological prowess. It was obsolete by the time the first models clanked off the production line. The same danger is apparent in the rebranding of Britain.

From our fantasy future vantage point, I think we will look back on an era of irrevocable constitutional change. Already, Conservatives have given up any thoughts of rescinding devolution. The Scottish and Welsh parliaments will grab more power for themselves because that is what parliaments do. Attempts to coral them into a fixed relationship with Westminster will fail.

Anyway, more devolution is no bad thing. It is as wrong to stop regions growing in self-government as their institutions mature as it is to deny them devolution in the first place.

Hereditary peers will lose their voting rights. William Hague will prise the Conservatives from their dusty love of inherited wisdom and propose an elected second chamber instead of the currently proposed Friends of Tony quango (ermine no doubt redesigned by Paul Smith). New Labour will find it difficult to resist such a meritocratic move.

In the second Labour term, we will move to a weighted alternative-vote which avoids the worst imbalances of PR but offers voters the chance to modulate their choices. This shift will offer encouragement to those who do not accept the Blairites' broad acceptance of the Thatcherite settlement. An anti- globalisation, collectivist party will emerge on the left, supported by the remains of the trade unions, who will have tired of waiting for New Labour to sever links with them and dropped New Labour first.

For all its complexity, politics reduces to some stark and ancient choices. So Mr Blair must decide how far he chooses to challenge the expectations citizens have of the state. The uncertain defence of university tuition fees suggests that there are doubts at a high level about this sea-change. But to accept that fees prevent working-class students from studying is to bow to the irrational premise that a debt for education is not worth incurring. No one who believes in breaking cycles of low- expectation would support the introduction of fees repayable at the same rate whether the graduate becomes a penniless poet or a merchant banker. A civilised country should not force writers to become underwriters. But neither should a reforming government allow university tuition to continue being funded solely by the state. This has always been an exercise in redistributing wealth from low earners to future high earners. It is indefensible.

Consultation projects like the newly launched Debate of the Age, in which we are invited to tell a kindly body of experts how we envisage paying for our longevity, are part of the mood music of Blairism. They are there to soften us up to the realisation that we must take more responsibility for our own affairs and show the way to a future in which our networks of support are voluntary associations, licensed by the state but not run by it. Blairites remain wary of articulating this case, partly because they have yet to find a language which would not sound uncaring and, well, Tory; and partly because to do so would mean more decentralisation than they can yet contemplate without feeling dizzy.

The alternative, of course, is that nothing very much happens under Mr Blair. Welfare to work joins its predecessors on the scrapheap of marginally effective job-creation. The two-tier school system continues, with more parents opting into the private sector. Devolved chambers become mere Babylons. As unsettling as the upheavals sound, the alternatives are worse.

That said, I hope that readers are not cruel enough to store these predictions to taunt me in the year 2013 when we meet in the newly rebranded Dome ("Oh Dad, do we have to go? It's so ten-years-ago."). Futurology is an even less exact science than politics. The London Library has a whole section devoted to the "history of the future". It contains enough spent visions to deter anyone from giving up their day job to become a Mystic Meg.

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