Two nations, one language: reform

The interests of the political elite and the voters are converging on an agenda for change; David Walker (below) suggests a prime candidate
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Few political images have worked so well, or lasted as long, as Disraeli's ''two nations'' conceit. It may have been a crude and literary version of the rhetoric developed by socialists. But there was something about the Tory radical's language that dug deep into Britain's political imagination.

There the old phoney glistens still. The past few days have powerfully vindicated those famous lines scribbled down in Sybil more than 150 years ago: ''Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets...''

Disraeli was speaking of ''the rich and the poor'' but that short passage describes a division in the political debate in 1996. At one end, there is a great and growing row about Conservative Party funding. Below that bubbling lava-pool of acrid revelations swirls a hot argument about political reform which is of absorbing interest to many politicians, journalists and campaigners.

But there is another political zone or planet which has seemed entirely separate. It is all about cash and jobs. It is interested in the size of the pre-election boom which is coming. It is interested in the state pension, in real wages, house prices and - of course - taxes. It is the politics of Budget and chequebook and little more.

Many politicians will say that this second zone of politics is the only real one. Among Tory MPs and many senior Labour ones, too, there is still a basic belief that grown-up politics is about economic growth, and that everything else is inessential.

On this bluff and brutal reading, everything else is relegated to the second division - the Government's response to the Scott report, or the Nolan report; the possibility of a referendum on Europe or voting reform; Scottish devolution; the Conservative Party's propensity to fund-raise among dubious foreigners; the struggle between Michael Howard and the judiciary. It's just intellectual entertainment, metropolitan blather. It's just stuff for...

Well, who? The most compelling description is still Alan Watkins's dismissive coinage, ''the chattering classes''. That would, I suppose, encompass the Independent, Charter 88, Jeremy Paxman, the Today programme, Prospect, Paddy Ashdown, the New Statesman, Tony Blair's friends and office (if not perhaps Blair himself), the Guardian, Will Hutton, and so on.

But these days, we have to go further: the Tory crusade against Brussels has brought others into the constitutional debate, including Conservative newspapers and writers. The Tory Reform Group, scenting the public mood, suggests cutting the number of MPs. Then there is the judiciary itself. So the chattering classes have been joined by the harumphing classes and the admonishing classes.

We need a wider description. It was John Major who described Britain's political obsessives as ''the upper one thousand of politics'' - though my guess is that upper hundred thousand would be nearer the mark. Alternatively, one could turn to a familiar, hand-me-down phrase like ''the Establishment''. Whichever, Britain is neatly divided into a country interested in the principles and mechanics of power and another, much greater, nation which isn't. And these two nations have lacked, in Disraeli's words, intercourse and sympathy.

This has had a big effect on our politics. It has tempted Conservative politicians to wave away pressing constitutional questions. Though a foe of anti-Europeanism, I think it is remarkable that we have got so far towards political union under successive Tory governments without a considered assessment of its effects on British law and governance. And as we saw last week, the ignorance of some Conservative MPs about basic constitutional thinking, such as the separation of functions, is breathtaking. But if they have been brought up to believe that power equals tax cuts plus jingoism, why bother with anything more complicated?

On the Labour side, nervousness about the relative unimportance of constitutional issues has persuaded some Blair advisers of the need to crunch down the political reform programme he is committed to. It is all just so much wasted parliamentary time and effort. It is not what ''our people'' want to hear.

This reduction of politics to cash was always a patronising piece of head-patting by the very politicians who presented themselves as populists. The British electorate is more varied, alert and reflective than that.

But even if that caricature once had a few grains of truth, there are fewer of them now. The recent revelations that have outraged the chattering classes - the dodgy fund-raising, the evasions in Parliament, the sleaze stories - are also things that go with the current prejudices of the rest of the country. People who feel harddone-by economically and are bored with one set of politicians are abnormally open to the appeal of reform.

Meanwhile, on the right (but not only on the right) issues such as beef, fishing, and the earlier Sun-style distortions of European Commission directives have helped to popularise a constitutional argument about sovereignty which had been limited to the Powellites and the remnants of the anti- Common Market campaign.

In most respects the political reformers of the centre-left are on the opposite side to the constitutional reactionaries of the anti-EU campaign. Their dreams of Britain are different dreams. But both sides are united in hoping that economic determinism no longer applies to British politics.

For Labour and the Liberal Democrats, this is the great challenge and opportunity. The truth is, no great period of reform has occurred except when economic interests and progressive politics have converged and driven ahead together. The Victorian and Edwardian reformers created a democracy in this country because they were driven by the industrial and urban revolution. The welfare state derived from a mixture of post-war boom and the democratising effect of war.

In both cases, the gap between what the political elite was talking about, and what the rest of the country was talking about, abruptly closed. Whence came the mass appeal of a Gladstone, a Lloyd George or a Nye Bevan? From the belief in the crowd that their personal interests, their future prosperity and opportunity, were connected to the political programmes and principles being thundered out from the platform. However briefly, the two nations came together.

Today, the connection between reform and prosperity is looser, since the state can no longer offer to hand out better times quickly or directly. But the connection still exists.

Without reform, there cannot be self-confident cities and local authorities. Without reform, we will continue to move towards a country of economic outcasts and of pension-holders with no say over the use of their money. Without reform, Scotland's political economy will continue to be distorted by her inability to experiment and the tendency to blame England.

Without reform, there will be more incompetent acts of, and by, Parliament, bringing economic costs and individual injustice in their wake. Without reform, the private monopoly power will not be properly restrained, and Whitehall will continue to have its agenda twisted in the dark corners where corporate cliques and cronies congregate. Both mean wasted resources and squinted strategies.

And above all, without reform, government will not be trusted and, because it is mistrusted, its ability to act will be greatly diminished. Without reform, in short, politics itself will continue to retreat. And without politics, there is only the market; and that is not enough for prosperity or happiness. And on that subject both nations - the small nation of the political elite and the great nation of the apolitical and bored - are beginning to talk the same language. I don't entirely understand what Tony Blair means when he talks of a One Nation government. But if that's what he means, he is certain to do us some good.