Wired up and baring his soul

Tony Blair's youthful new Britain is tinged with nostalgia and revivalism. But it does offer a choice
What was Mary Wilson thinking? Tony Blair was giving her, and us, an eerily intense taste of the early Sixties, when Britain seemed optimistic, smart and young again. Though a Durham schoolboy when Harold Wilson was white-hot-heating, intellectually Blair is a child of that brief, sunlit time, who echoed Kennedy and Wilson in his celebration of youth, of technology, of patriotism and in his central claim, that the state can be used for Christian purpose.

To say that his vision of newness is tinged with nostalgia is not to sneer at it. What was wrong with Wilson wasn't his language but that he betrayed his words by his actions in power. Revisionist history has demolished the icon of Kennedy, reducing him to a perpetually tumescent warmonger. But the rush of political idealism both men described and stood for during that short period of Western optimism was precious. It was the essence of all progressive politics. Was then - and is now.

In being as youthfully, almost boyishly, idealistic, Tony Blair was showing his true self and disinterring an aspect of the Sixties that has been too generally forgotten by the low disillusioned decades that followed. But he was taking a risk with his project and with the rest of us, for his basic proposition was not political. It was religious.

He described the next general election as nothing less than "a battle for the soul of our nation". He spoke of his generation as one which enjoyed a thousand material advantages over any previous one, but which suffered "a depth of insecurity and spiritual doubt they never knew". They were "frightened for our future and unsure of our soul". By contrast, he wanted a "country reborn". This is the language of revivalism. Blair's offer was less a change in the priorities of the administration, than the promise of spiritual regeneration.

All political leaders go it a bit. But this was going it a lot. What follows is that people will either feel the faith, and be unusually inspired, jerked back into an interest in politics; or they will turn away in disgust. As a nation we have been let down before by fine-sounding political promises and it is a dangerous thing to tamper with our precious cynicism.

Had Wilson and Kennedy not raised such hopes, their later fallibility might not have aroused such bitterness. For Blair to escape that, he must be offering a solid, worked-out series of policies which he has some chance of implementing. On that test, how well did he do?

When it came to political reform, there was the sense of ambition and the bones of a programme that really would change this country. Here at least, his claim to make this a "young country" again has substance. Labour proposals on local government are particularly radical. I would have liked a stronger message on pluralism. But that's a carp - there comes a point when erecting hurdles for a politician and then booing when he clears them starts to look a little churlish.

Across the broad range of public services, this was an unequivocal attack on Tory neo-liberalism but one which failed to give us all the answers we need.

On education in particular, the pledge that there would be "no return to selection, academic or social" came naked and surrounded by question- marks. What does this mean for the large number of state-sector schools which are already selecting? What does it mean for the Oratory? I didn't get the impression afterwards that this had been thought through.

His most dramatic flourish was the revelation of Labour's agreement with British Telecom about cabling up schools, hospitals, libraries and other public institutions. This was one of a series of announcements that helped to convey the impression that Labour wasn't only poised to govern but had almost started governing already. Other examples include the use of Professor Robert Winston's ideas on regional centres of excellence in health specialisms, and the warning on rail privatisation, which will affect the price of the sale - and may help to scupper it. But even the promises on wiring up Britain left some key questions hanging. The most political problem is the dominance of Murdoch's empire in the pay-TV sector, as he develops his black box control system and slowly but methodically mops up the sporting events once available to every viewer. For reasons which are not hard to fathom, this tricky question was avoided.

The idea of Blair already being a powerful player who deals in a practical way with other powerful players, is an important part of his strategy. BT had had similar conversations with the current government but they broke down when the company was unable to get the relaxation of regulations it wanted. It is only a little startling that they turned to Labour.

It all helps make the idea of a change of administration seem thinkable, even inevitable. Even so, there is a residual big-boy corporatism in the party which it needs to be careful about. The generation now running Labour are Wilson's children in more ways than one.

So this was not a perfect speech. It was rather too long and conventionally shaped. As a platform poet, Tony Blair will never match the coiled, nape- tickling anger of Kinnock at his best, or the chatty thoughtfulness of Paddy Ashdown.

But after that hour of oratory yesterday, Conservatives who allege that Blair has nothing to say bar platitudes and generalities will have a far harder job convincing the country that they're right.

For there is a programme emerging here with the capacity to generate national excitement, if we choose to let ourselves become excited. There is an ideology, too - though interestingly there is no word that quite describes it. Blair is not a socialist. "Social democrat" underplays the political reformism and the moralism of his platform. And he is no kind of liberal, neither neo-liberal nor old liberal, not an economic liberal, and not a social liberal, either.

Maybe we are simply going to have to talk about Blairism and leave it at that. Perhaps, even before he makes his bid for power, this man has already earned the right to be a noun.

And the noun is certainly in control of its party; for what was cheeringly absent from the speech was lengthy navel-gazing about the nature of Labour. It wasn't needed because that battle is over. A party which is embracing Lord Owen's admirers and which Arthur Scargill is thinking of leaving (go on Arthur, be bold) may not be new. But it's utterly different from the Labour of old. From Blair's point of view, his party has moved from being a dilemma to being a weapon.

Now it must be wielded in what looks like being a punishingly long political campaign, stretching from this winter right to the spring of 1997. This week really could affect the eventual result. It could have gone badly wrong for Labour. But the party is holding firm and its leader is on song. We can no longer say we don't have much of a choice.

I don't really believe nations have souls, but if they do, Tony Blair's battle for the soul of ours is going to be an epic.