Politics determined by the era, not the party

15th November 1996 at 00:00
There is more in common between two politicians of different parties who belong to the same generation than there is between two politicians who belong to the same party but to different generations. For the assumptions which unite a generation are more important than those which divide it.

The real ruler of Britain is the climate of ideas not the temporary custodian of No 10. So it was that the Attlee government legitimised the 11-plus, while Margaret Thatcher, as education secretary, created as many comprehensive schools as her Labour predecessors or successors.

In the first 30 years after the war, politicians were agreed that educational improvement meant organisational or structural reform and that government could resolve complex social and economic problems.

It is that belief, a defining principle of liberalism, which has now gone. In its place has come a characteristically conservative emphasis on the cultural dimension of social and educational problems.

It is a belief in the intractability of these problems - "intractable" was one of those words which horrified Margaret Thatcher - and their dependence on culture, which unites John Major and Tony Blair. Indeed, Blair tends to emphasise the cultural dimension of social problems even more than Major.

Thus it is not only on the economic matters that Blair has moved to the Right. On culture, also, he has moved entirely away from the permissive liberalism which characterised the post 1968 era. Instead of attributing the rise in crime or the break-up of the family to social causes, Blair is even more eager than Major to pinpoint a decline in individual responsibility. Instead of blaming educational underachievement or lack of resources or faulty structures, Blair has become even more determined than his counterparts on the Right to highlight the importance of the dedicated teacher and the responsibility of parents.

This puts him at odds with many in the educational world which, subject neither to the ballot box nor the market, has been able to cocoon itself from the forces of cultural conservatism. The educational world remains a bastion of 1960s liberalism, a doctrine which now obsolete in government.

On cultural issues, then, Blair, like Attlee and Gladstone, sounds more like a conservative than a liberal. He illustrates in his own person the shift in the political agenda from a liberal emphasis on the efficacy of government to a conservative emphasis on individual responsibility. Like Attlee and Gladstone, Blair seems to be conservative in everything but politics.

The disorganisation of society and how to cure it has become the central political problem of the l990s. It is for this reason that the appeal of Frances Lawrence, widow of the murdered headmaster, made such a powerful impact.

The appeal met a receptive audience in John Major and Tony Blair, who both believe that there is such a thing as society. The trouble is, however, that they do not know how to recreate it. How can they replace the ethic of personal fulfillment which owes more to the 1960s than to the 1980s - Lady Chatterley was more of a revolutionary than Margaret Thatcher - with a new ethic of social obligation? For, without it, individual aspirations will prove self-defeating.

Yet, while it is a comparatively simple matter for governments to pull the economic levers, it is much less easy for ministers to transform our culture. How are we to alter attitudes to education and learning? How can we restore traditional family values? The politicians, like the rest of us, have no answer.

If people want morality, Harold Macmillan once said, they should get it from bishops not from politicians. Today, however, voters want politicians to create the conditions in which the good life can be lived. The trouble is that politicians have not the faintest idea of how this is to be done. That is why the coming election campaign will bear all the characteristics of a sham fight. For the real cleavage lies not between Major and Blair but between Major and Redwood. Indeed, if John Redwood had defeated Major for the Conservative leadership in 1995, there would have been a greater shift than is likely to occur if Blair defeats Major in 1997.

Both Major and Blair seek non-authoritarian methods of transforming our culture. It is, however, of particular importance to the Left that a non-authoritarian way of securing a stronger sense of social cohesion be found. For the Left has always depended more than the Right upon the sentiment of voluntary solidarity, a sentiment which may now be passing away. The Conservative Right, by contrast, would be less unhappy with an authoritarian approach, one which would add the stick to the carrot so as to equate self-interest with social needs. That is the alternative agenda, and it would become increasingly attractive were a Blair government to fail.

In the absence of any clear notion of how society can be remoralised, however, it would be well if politicians, whether of the Left or the Right, were to display some humility. Knee-jerk reactions such as teaching citizenship in schools or bringing back the cane are unlikely to dent the problem. Yet how is a more long-term approach to be achieved? Since the demise of the think-tank in 1983, we have lacked any institutional machinery which can chart a long-term course free from the need to secure tomorrow's headlines. Until Margaret Thatcher came to office, Royal Commissions were widely used for that very purpose. Is it not time to establish a Royal Commission on social cohesion?

In the meantime voters would be wise to shun politicians with instant solutions. The trouble is that, deprived of substantive differences of political philosophy, the party leaders increasingly manufacture areas of disagreement where none exist. So it is that the coming campaign will be a very curious one and more likely to produce confusion than clarity in answering the nation's problems.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His essays Politics and the Constitution were published by Dartmouth earlier this year. His new book Power and the People: A Guide to Constitutional Reform will be published by Gollancz early next year.

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