Tony's wonder year: a look back at 1997

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The Independent Online
Imagine you have slept soundly for exactly a year, and today is December 30th, 1997. You have missed a lot. Much has happened, much has changed: you need bringing up to date.

When you fell asleep, the ship of state was on the rocks with a mutinous crew. Those shipwrecked mariners now sit glowering and confused upon the opposition benches, still in shock after 18 years of government, 50 seats short of power.

If you had any doubts about whether New Labour would actually do anything when they won the election, let me set your mind at rest. Tony Blair knew that after his great victory he had only a short time to grab the initiative before the intractability of government fell upon him.

First came the promised Constitution Act, giving some independence to Scotland. The rest of us were bored rigid by this Celtic stuff: only 8 per cent of the population lives in Scotland, after all. One more earnest Dimbleby forum from Edinburgh on the West Lothian question, and the rest of us would gladly have expelled them from the union altogether.

It made us English resentful. What was so special about the Scots? They feel oppressed by Westminster? Well, so do we all, especially Londoners, who live under its very shadow without any self-government.

Blair acted quickly to involve the rest of us. He added in reform of the Lords, abolishing hereditary peers and removing the appointment of life peers by politicians. They are now chosen by the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Arts, the medical Royal Colleges, the Sports Council and other august bodies of the great and good. There are no bishops nor any representatives of other religions, as the Bill also disestablished the Church.

In truth, though, the arcane debate on the powers of the new second chamber threatened to be as boring as the Celts. So Tony Blair chose the moment to go for proportional representation for the Commons, ensuring we would never risk a Portillo, Howard or Redwood government in future. And probably guaranteeing Labour a second term.

At the same time the Commons was reformed: a commission will reduce the number of MPs by half. They will become a more professional cadre with committees served by a large, expert civil-service staff, also providing impartial information to journalists and others, in the hope of producing better-informed comment.

Europe welcomed Blair with warmth and generosity. His path is made easier in negotiations because Britain no longer hurls itself like a spanner into every Euro-machine. Despite the rhetoric, even now, at the eleventh hour, the single currency timetable may slip, as discontent over sharp cuts in pensions and welfare spills out on to the streets of Germany and France.

In the election, Labour made much of the state of the NHS. But nothing has changed, since the structure actually works well. A new independent complaints tribunal has been set up, giving rapid redress to patients, including some compensation, but withdrawing the right of patients to sue. Contraception clinics for the young are now universal so every secondary- school pupil has a nurse or clinic to attend, close by and confidential. Teenage pregnancy rates are already falling.

A Royal Commission on Social Security is about to sweep away the old National Insurance system. There will be no automatic entitlements for any new claimants for sickness, unemployment or pensions: money will only be paid out according to need. Labour dares to be far tougher on workfare schemes (under a new name) doing genuinely useful work, despite trade union objections. The quid pro quo is a raft of well-financed, individualised training and education programmes.

Private schools have been nationalised and brought under the control of a commission headed by George Walden, the former Tory MP: it was his idea. They have become super-schools for the brightest, regardless of means. As it dawns on middle-class parents of averagely-intelligent children that they will soon be using the state system, they are already turning their attention to the condition of local schools.

The defence budget has been halved, to bring it in line with the rest of Europe. It will take time for the money to come in because of old contracts for useless fighter planes and tanks. But it will raise at least pounds 10bn. We are bargaining to give up our permanent seat on the UN Security Council, in exchange for reform of the whole organisation. We have told the Northern Irish that they will have self-government in six months' time, and that our troops will leave, forever. We will not play nanny any longer, so if they want to go on fighting, that's up to them.

Billions have been saved by stopping the huge prison-building programme. In several strong speeches, Jack Straw has told judges to consider sentences that work, with proven track records for rehabilitation. Lord Tumin has been given money saved from prison building to set up a huge new crime- busting package, investing in prison regimes that reduce reoffending and schemes for young offenders outside prison that work.

Lord Will Hutton heads a Commission on the City of London. He will devise ways of actually implementing his own proposals on making banks and institutions invest for the long-term good of the country. The Bank of England has been made independent.

Lord Melvyn Bragg has been given the Department of National Heritage, because no politicians know anything about the arts. He has cancelled the millennium celebration in Greenwich, because it is too expensive for a temporary building. But he has set up a commission on ownership of the media, to consider severe restrictions on the amount of the market controlled by any one company: Labour won a big enough majority to feel no threat now from Murdoch.

As more die of CJD from BSE-infected meat, Labour made maximum use of the disaster to promote a new agricultural policy. We no longer fight a futile battle to foist our poisoned produce on our rightly suspicious neighbours. As a mark of our atonement for BSE, we direct subsidies to make British produce a symbol of the very highest quality, famed for organic purity. We may import cheaper meat and vegetables, but we shall export only the best. It makes economic sense to move upmarket.

Two good private member's bills tested the water and inflamed debate. Paul Flynn came top of the MPs' poll and brought in one to abolish the monarchy. Another bill sought to decriminalise cannabis and Ecstasy. Neither got near the statute books, of course. But in the excited debate, public opinion moved a long way in favour of both and the young felt more involved in politics.

So much for policy. All this has left the country reeling. But change was what they voted for. There is a sense that something can be done, progress is possible, problems are not insoluble, after all these years of looking backwards to an imaginary golden era. Many people used to fulminate about New Labour's pre-election caution, but it got them elected. Few thought Blair had the determination to act so decisively. But he seized the day.