Attlee and Margaret Thatcher, however, came to power aided by a sympathetic tide of ideas. Tony Blair does not. Attlee was elected to continue the development of wartime collectivism, Margaret Thatcher to dismantle it. Blair, by contrast, made himself a candidate for Number 10 by adapting New Labour so as to embrace the dispensation established by Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
The lack-lustre and apathetic campaign of 1997 seems a strange accompaniment to the triumph of the left. But the truth is that the mood of the country is far from being radical or left-wing. Electoral studies since the beginning of the 1950s have shown that voters are generally to the right of the parties which they support. That is even more true today.
General elections, however, are not such seismic events as we imagine. Indeed, they are more often consequences rather than causes of change. The year 1945 was Labour's glorious year, the very first occasion on which the party gained an overall majority. Harold Macmillan declared that the election was not a verdict against Winston Churchill but against the ghosts of Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, against a return to the mass unemployment and deprivation of the 1920s. But that decision had already been taken during the war. Opinion had begun to move against the Conservatives after publication of the Beveridge Report in 1942. The Attlee government was elected not to change the course of history, but to continue it.
When Churchill returned to power in 1951 on a free-market ticket, this had already been heralded by Labour's retreat from collectivism. In 1949, Harold Wilson, as president of the Board of Trade, had initiated a "bonfire of controls", and Labour had already so abandoned nationalisation that Herbert Morrison proposed, as the slogan for the 1951 election, "consolidation".
By the early 1960s, however, the Conservatives had become converts to planning, establishing Neddy in 1961 and a National Incomes Commission in 1962. It was hardly surprising if voters took the view that Harold Wilson's Labour party would administer this new dispensation more effectively.
In the mid-1970s, it was Tony Crosland, not Margaret Thatcher, who began the assault on public expenditure when he told local authorities "the party's over", and in 1976, Denis Healey, Labour's Chancellor, made the control of the money supply central to his economic policy. We used to believe that we could spend our way out of depression, James Callaghan declared. But we now know that this is not possible. Thatcherism, despite its role in the demonology of the Left, was a consequence rather than a cause of the collapse of Labour; and it was initiated by the Callaghan government, not by the Conservatives.
In the 1980s, however, Labour abandoned Thatcherism in favour of Michael Footism and Neil Kinnockism. The result was 18 years in opposition. Labour became electable again only when it was prepared to accept the changes initiated by Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Thus the advent to power of Tony Blair puts the final coping-stone on the Thatcherite revolution. Almost everything that Margaret Thatcher and John Major have done will be left in place. New Labour, like the Conservatives in 1951, will be administering a dispensation laid down by its opponents.
The age of the great ideological conflicts has ended, Tony Blair declared in 1996, since the Left has accepted the market and the Right has accepted the need for social provision. But socialism has suffered more than capitalism in the process. Indeed, the central theme of the 20th century, the American social commentator Irving Kristol once declared, is the death of socialism.
Does this mean then that there is no scope at all for a new government of the left? Has the general election been nothing more than a choice between a man with spectacles and a man with a smile? Not necessarily. For the precedents are by no means clear.
The 1945 and 1966 Labour governments both began well, but gradually lost momentum. The 1905 Campbell BannermanAsquith governments and Margaret Thatcher's administration of 1979, by contrast, began rather cautiously but gradually gained momentum. Both in 1905 and 1979 new governments took office more because of the unpopularity of their divided opponents than through positive enthusiasm for their policies. Yet, gaining confidence in office, they introduced irreversible changes which totally altered the contours of British life.
Those involved in education will be watching the progress of the Blair government with particular anxiety. For, while most voters are probably to the right of Tony Blair, middle-class professionals are almost certainly to his left. Indeed, one of the most fascinating psephological features of the Tory years has been the steady move of the professional classes to the left. Less noticed than the switch of the aspirant working classes to the Conservatives, it may yet have more profound consequences for the future of Britain.
For the professional classes - by contrast with New Labour - believe that the problems of the public services can only be resolved through large increases in expenditure, even if that involves higher taxation. It has, admittedly, become a commonplace to say that the problems of the public services cannot be solved by "throwing money at them". Yet it is this orthodoxy which the professional classes would challenge. It is for this very reason that they have reduced their expectations, and that they expect little from the new government. They may yet, however, be as pleasantly surprised by the outcome of the last general election of the 20th century as so many were after the Liberal landslide in the century's first general election in 1906.
Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, Oxford University. His book Power and the People: a Guide to Constitutional Reform will be published shortly by Gollancz.