Why we pine for days of order

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'THIS has been a year in which Britain's faith in the ability of its politicians to reverse national decline was further, and dangerously, eroded . . .' That was how I started a column looking back on 1992, a year marked by shrivelled ambitions in Europe, failure in the Balkans and political degeneration at home, from the arms to Iraq affair, to abstruse parliamentary guerrilla warfare. A year further on, why not simply shrug, submit the same yellowed article, and slope off through the drizzle for a festive sorrow-drowner?

Well, because the detail shifts long before the general picture changes. British politicians may be profoundly unpopular and have little to show in their defence. But enough has been changing to keep us soberly attentive to what they do.

Most obviously, the Major administration no longer looks dead in the water. The gambles on Maastricht and Northern Ireland were the most dramatic signs of life, but not the only ones. Knocking the Budget has now become as fashionable as praising it was when Kenneth Clarke sat down. But in the circumstances, it had to be tough. And the crucial question was whether the Chancellor could reconcile tax rises and spending cuts in such a way as to keep the Tory party looking even half-serious in Parliament. He seems to have done so.

Mr Major himself has changed, compared with a year ago. He has closed his mind to the cacophony of advice and admonition that came close to destroying his self-confidence. He has narrowed his concentration, listens less, snaps more. He is less nice, but more focused. Accounts of Downing Street seminars (recently, for instance, on toughening up the Citizen's Charter for rail and education) and ministerial arguments tell a consistent story about Mr Major's disciplined and thick-skinned behaviour.

Really, he had no choice, other than to leave. His press critics, having scented blood, were closing in for the kill. That collection of quivering jellies known as Conservative backbenchers were useless as supporters, too: the advice from Thatcherite right-wingers and leftish Tory liberals was so inconsistent, yet infuriatingly insistent, as to paralyse anyone who took it too seriously (which Mr Major once did). A prime minister who had listened carefully to the views of the party on Northern Ireland would have done absolutely nothing - and would have paid a price.

Nor has this been a period when there was any hard outside evidence to measure success or failure. With no important elections, many of the other indicators are mere wraiths, flickering nothings in the night. The opinion polls are dreadful, of course. They tell us that this grumpy, attractively hard-to-please island race is unhappy with its politicians, as are so many other peoples in these days of recession and post- Communist uncertainty. But they say nothing about how we will vote in an election. We have short memories. And, anyway, lots of us lie.

Other unreliable indicators include most of the economic ones. In particular, any current statistics about Britain's performance comparative to other European countries should be treated with asbestos gloves and tongs: we entered the recessionary cycle very early and ought to be out first, too. Nor do we know very much about our balance of trade with the rest of Europe.

So with few stars to steer by and a gabbling, quarrelsome crew, the Prime Minister really had no choice but to trust his instincts. And he has clearly been worrying about how to reposition his party and leadership to exploit changes in the national mood. With no elections this year, such repositioning, however undramatic, has been at the core of political thought.

And generally, the Tories are good at it. For all that they bang on about their enduring values and the faithlessness of Labour, the Conservatives are really the Chameleon Party. They have been remarkably successful at adapting their message, often radically, to the mood of the hour. This is the secret of their success as the party of government. So they were quasi-Socialists after the war, and decolonisers through the Fifties. They were corporatists in the Sixties and early Seventies.

We all talk glibly enough about Thatcherism, but Margaret Thatcher, like ancient Egypt, needs to be divided into periods. Early-period Thatcherism was about patriotic austerity and painful reform; late- period Thatcherism was quite different - boom and swagger. And when anti-Thatcherism became truly popular . . . why then the Tories promptly became the anti- Thatcher party.

A pretty astonishing tale; but clearly the longer the Conservatives stay in power, the harder it is to change the message without becoming wildly contradictory. And there are some signs that the mood of the early Nineties is proving particularly tricky.

What is that mood? In some ways strongly conservative. This has been a year marked by the rise of the moralistic, family agenda. It has been provoked at a popular level by murders, in particular that of James Bulger, and by justified panic about crime. But this new whiff of moralism and fear in the air is not solely about civil order. It connects to the economy, where, after a recession that has debilitated the south and the middle classes, an uncomplicated belief in free-market solutions is going out of fashion. When it comes to society and the economy, the 'go for it, get off my back' libertarianism that was a dominant, if unofficial, characteristic of the Thatcherite boom is being left behind. There is a turn to order.

But whence comes order, if not from the state? Here, the chameleon is in some difficulty. For one of the most potent messages of the Thatcher era was that the state was no damned good. It wasted money, destroyed industries. In welfare, it was a blind giant, crushing those it yearned to help. Even at the zenith of the Thatcher era there were some Tory politicians, such as Douglas Hurd, who recognised the danger of this anti-statism. But for many people, the libertarian, anti-state message has sunk deep. This, they reckon, is what Tories believe.

So the same ministers who would now exploit the yearning for order by moralising and finger-wagging are still thought of as Thatcherite individualists. It is all very well to scapegoat single parents, but the world has moved on: social change has occurred deep in the heart of Tory England. The loutish youths are part of a Conservative-created society. People haven't forgotten.

Indeed, when Mr Major uses patriotic, nostalgic generalities, he evokes a Fifties Britain which, even under the Tories, was suffused with post-war statist values. 'Community', another nostalgic word, is firmly part of the Labour vocabulary. This is dangerous territory for the reformed Tory radicals: it may even be that when the Prime Minister talks about the Britain of his youth, the unconscious message some people hear is: vote Labour.

That is the Tory dilemma for which no minister has yet found a convincing answer. But the role of the state poses as many questions for opposition politicians. If the next election is played by the old rules, the Chameleon Party still has a good chance; it is tough-minded and ruthless when the battle looms. Only if John Smith can change the rules of the encounter, turning a widespread cynicism about politics into a readiness to vote for Labour, will he tip the field his way. After all, we are quite possibly only part of the way through a very long period of one-party rule, for which British institutions and habits are badly adapted.

The Labour leader is a shrewd strategic thinker who knows that anyone in his position is constantly attacked by hostile commentators and underemployed opposition MPs. But the questions have to be asked: is Labour under Mr Smith in any sense starting to build a mood for radical political reform in the country? Is it reinventing politics as a relevant activity? Is it sending a shiver of excitement through the body politic? And once asked, they answer themselves.

A bad year for British politics? The Irish declaration aside, of course it was. But it has not been a year of passivity or irrelevance. The game moves on; and next year, when we have some real elections to watch, the plotting and positioning will be tried out for real.