Where lies the moving spirit of the Nineties?: Today's dominant political mood jars with the decade's key themes, argues Martin Jacques

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We are now almost at the half- way point of the Nineties: a good observation post from which to reflect on what the decade is about. There is no great political project, no totalising ideology, no era to bury, no obvious enemy to destroy. On the contrary, in the Nineties political leaders are objects of scorn and grand ideologies are seen as having failed.

Yet there is something profound about the Nineties. If the Eighties ushered in the era of the grand political gesture, the Nineties are about deeper movements in the foundations of our society and culture. The dominant language of the Eighties was economic; now it is ethical and cultural.

Political leadership was a national obsession in the Eighties: now we are concerned with the place of politics in society.

The meaning of the Nineties is defined by key characteristics: globalisation and the rise of East Asia; change, insecurity and the flexible society; meritocracy and the decline of deference; the decline of traditional politics. But what what defines the zeitgeist of the present decade?

I would argue that the dominant political discourse or mood of the decade is probably around the theme of community and security. The idea is most clearly associated with Tony Blair, but it has become a major theme of the Tories as well. Indeed, it was one of the key factors in the fall of Margaret Thatcher and her replacement by John Major. It is pretty universal and is part of the political zeitgeist.

What this preoccupation suggests is a reaction against the pace and extent of change in the Eighties. There is a feeling that the Eighties were simply too much: it is time to call a halt, to take a breather, to consolidate. So does this concern with community, to give it a label, represent one of the key trends of the Nineties? So far, yes: but it is doubtful as to whether it will look like one by the end of the decade. It seems to be more a reaction against the Eighties than a positive new trend in its own right. In other words, it is likely to run out of steam sooner rather than later.

Above all, it is based on a misreading of historical trends and an over-politicised view of the Eighties. The latter may have been dominated and articulated by Margaret Thatcher, but it would be quite wrong to think that she was the prime cause of what happened. On the contrary, she simply understood which way the historical winds were blowing far better than anyone else.

Change and insecurity were not contingent features of the Eighties - courtesy of Baroness Thatcher - but new permanent conditions of existence, driven by globalisation and the new competitive environment. We witnessed their spread across society in the early Nineties to embrace the middle classes. It is a delusion to believe that this process can be halted or even slowed. That is not within the power of politicians or governments, or even the nation-state. Its roots lie in a deeper economic and cultural process that is essentially global.

But this is not the only failure of comprehension. A frequently painted picture is one of the erosion of social ties, the weakening of civil society and, at its most extreme, the break-up of society. This is based on a complete misreading of cultural trends. There are, of course, disturbing phenomena, for example the spread of anti-social behaviour and the increase in crime. It is also true that some institutions are in decline: the traditional nuclear and extended family, and some of the traditional large social organisations, such as political parties, the Women's Institute and the Boy Scouts. But it would be utterly wrong to infer from this that civil society is in decline.

On the contrary, one of the great trends of the last 30 years has been exactly the opposite: civil society, far from weakening, has grown richer and denser. What is true is that civil society, in becoming more diverse, has grown more fragmented. The danger with the notion of community is that it is determinedly backward-looking. The term itself immediately invokes a picture of locality. Yet there is no return to the local community as it was: indeed, there hasn't been since the industrial revolution commenced.

The problem with the term 'community' is that it would appear to value only the local community. It does not recognise that the weakening of locality has been accompanied by the emergence of many other forms of community and collectivity, based on interest, gender, sexuality, hobby, friendship, profession or knowledge, and those collectivities may be local, regional, national, European or even global. - think of the Internet. In other words, the growing diversity and complexity of civil society describes the emergence of the many more identities now available to us, all of which by definition are social in nature.

The notion of community represents a form of cultural essentialism or fundamentalism. It is rooted in nostalgia rather than modernity. And, by definition, any political position which is backward-looking must have limited purchase on the present, and even less on the future. It represents an emotion rather than a guide.

The same can be said about much of the rhetoric surrounding the family.

There can be no return to the traditional family. Does anyone seriously believe that we can reverse the trend towards divorce or serial monogamy? I think it is highly unlikely. And the reason is that these changes are not about any simple weakening, or strengthening, in personal morality, but rather are rooted in, and a product of, deeper cultural changes in the social and cultural environment, of which the family is but a part.

We have moved from a cellular society to a network society, in which the family plays a crucial, but less important role than was previously the case. Above all, the reason for the decline of the traditional family is the changed position and expectation of women - the most revolutionary cultural change since the war, arguably this century.

There was an uncanny correlation between the meaning and zeitgeist of the Eighties and Thatcherism: to wit, the end of the corporatism, the dominance of a powerful political project, the triumph of ideologyand the emergence of a new economic language.

Yet the predominant political theme of the Nineties has no real rapport with the underlying trends that characterise the decade: it is evident that there is a mismatch between the meaning of the Nineties and the dominant political discourse. It is perhaps a little premature to expect a politician to give proper expression to globalisation and the rise of East Asia, though we should not forget that Mrs Thatcher managed to do this in a limited way in the Eighties with her warm endorsement of Japanese inward investment - and quite right, too.

But the need to understand the remorseless nature of change, together with the decline of deference, is a different matter. No political figure has yet emerged to embrace and represent these trends. On the contrary, on the one hand politicians talk about security and community and on the other hand they place little priority on the reform of our governing institutions - remaining, for instance, miserably silent on the crisis of the House of Windsor and what it represents - and have little to say about the emergent crisis of national identity.

The nearest figure to representing the zeitgeist of the Nineties is Tony Blair. In three senses he is clearly in tune with the times. First, he recognises and embraces the collapse of the old political traditions and polarities. He has rejected and moved beyond labourism: the culture of class, trade unionism, the traditional labourist pecking order of social constituencies, certainty and introversion. In so doing, he strikes a chord with the spirit of the times.

Second, he is the first political leader of either major party to be manifestly a product of the Sixties and after - that is, of a new, more pluralistic, informal, less deferential, more exploratory culture. And third, he speaks not the language of economics, but an authentically Nineties' language of culture, morals and ethics.

As yet, though, he does not speak the unambiguous language of modernity. He is still suffering in part from that old British disease, nostalgia - albeit in this case, in its social rather than national manifestation.

This is an edited excerpt from the lecture given last night at the Annual Discourse of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

(Photograph omitted)