We need more wonkers in the Opposition

Paddy Ashdown, one of the few politicians prepared to think in public, could use some company
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Thinking is not favoured by shrewd politicians. It gets in the way of their important activity, the getting and holding of power. Intellectual endeavour is a politician's form of self-abuse. Get that habit, and you will go blind to the realities. Wonk away and one day you will wake up and find yourself "interesting", Westminster's euphemism for being a powerless sad case.

David Willetts, the bespectacled chief beneficiary of John Major's reshuffle, appears to buck the trend. But his reputation as a chap who thinks - and dammit, writes as well - will have to be shed if he is going to rise to the top. He will have to become bluffer - more of a bruiser. Meanwhile, the conventional Westminster view of thinking has, on the face of it, been amply confirmed by the ludicrous tale of the leaked Treasury memo.

How everyone involved must wish those thoughts on the future of the welfare state, Whitehall and public spending had never been thunk! Leaked to the Labour Party, which leaked them to the press, then rebounding on their authors, and on Kenneth Clarke, and on Gordon Brown, they bounded across the political scene like a rogue firecracker, burning anyone who came into contact.

Many politicians will have concluded that radical changes to the British consensus should be cooked up in deep privacy, then sprung on Parliament with the benefit of a safe working majority; or, more often, that they should be simply avoided. We do not seem to be a country that can distinguish between policy options and hard proposals; here, the unthinkable must be laboriously and endlessly unthought.

Yet, unless we are happy with our lot as a country, radical thinking about our future is necessary. At the moment, it is coming almost exclusively from the right. This agenda is reactionary in the true sense; it proposes turning things back, removing recently acquired powers from the EU and restoring a centralist, all-powerful system of British ministers.

It is a vivid vision and, today, almost the only game in town. It is taking the Conservative Party by storm and, as things stand, will be the post-1997 Tory manifesto. But we need an answering vision that acknowledges the power of the global economy without giving up on the old priorities of the centre-left. And, in this pre-electoral period, when Brown the thinker denounces thinkers, it is somehow not surprising that among the few politicians prepared to go public is Paddy Ashdown. Free of the burden of being expected to win power, the Liberal Democrat leader has become the unguarded voice of opposition politics.

He can afford to be interesting, say Labourites surlily. Well, yes, but he is being more radical and aggressive than the main opposition party on political reform; now he is moving into Labour's traditional core area, the economy. Ashdown's argument, set out in a speech last week, is simple. He takes as his starting point the current political fatalism on unemployment.

He notes that British manufacturing is likely to be a declining source of employment and attacks the idea that the service sector will provide enough jobs to fill the gap: ''Britain's share of world services has actually been in decline since the 1960s

In service sector terms, that may be an overstatement. Many service jobs are not mobile. London cabbies cannot base themselves in Sri Lanka; The Independent could not be produced from Berlin; British high-street banks cannot squat anywhere other than British high streets. But Ashdown's basic argument is right and timely: back-of-house jobs in banking are being exported to poorer countries, while US credit card companies and German supermarkets are beginning to make inroads here.

As a result, he argues, we have two different British economies. One is working in the global market, with employees struggling to innovate and compete. The other economy is local, short of resources and under- employed. Ashdown calls the two of them a ''competitive-value" economy, where jobs are flexible, insecure, highly skilled and well paid; and a ''community-value'' economy, including the voluntary sector, whose jobs can be described by reversing the above list.

His policy answer is to use the profits of the competitive economy to pay for the social or community economy. But how? Ashdown talks reasonably about the need to think of the two economies differently and offers general policy suggestions, including making the privatised utilities mutual companies in order to enforce a wider range of requirements on them, and the introduction of ''citizen's service''.

His analysis is compelling - hard-headed, not woolly - but the policy is not there yet. He has not, for instance, addressed the central issue of how effectively politicians, representing the interests of the social economy, can tax the competitive economy which is moving in a different world, and is made up of companies that are becoming mobile and ever-harder to ''catch''. As part of the world economy, Britain is competing with other countries, bidding down corporation tax rates and so on, in order to win investment. But as a social economy, it desperately needs to milk those corporations.

That is one of the great dilemmas of modern government, and it goes far beyond Britain. Here, it needs Labour, as well as Lib-Dem, thinking that is at least as provocative as the leaked Treasury paper. It is the proper job of the Opposition to pursue its agenda deep into the touchy areas of tax, welfare and the role of the state.

So we should hope that Gordon Brown has his own secret paper on Britain in the early 2000s which, if leaked, would confront him with the same kind of synthetic outrage that Kenneth Clarke faced last week. But we should rather doubt it: thanks partly to Mr Brown himself, these have not been happy days for the wonkers.