The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again

Social equality, free health, strong defence: Anne McElvoywants Blair to slaughter more sacred cows.

It is three years since Tony Blair enjoined centre-left intellectuals to go away and think the unthinkable. Sound-bites are useful but poetry says it better:

Read history and see

The headlong flight of invincible armies

Wherever you look

Impregnable strongholds collapse

And if the Armada was countless when it set sail

The returning ships

Could be counted

So one day a man stood at the summit

Of the unscalable mountain

And a man sailed across

The uncrossable sea

Bertolt Brecht is an unlikely new Labour laureate. But the Blairite party is founded on what was once unthinkable - the revision of the Clause Four commitment to public ownership, ducked from Hugh Gaitskell to John Smith. It was an important step not because of what replaced it, which was a fudgy and unmemorable communitarian construct, but because it heralded a readiness to break through the accumulated carapace of Labour musts and mustn'ts.

The unthinkables I will outline here will strike some as a renegade's view of the centre left, many of which must be wrong because they are supported on the right. Think again. Nothing is so boring as the apportioning of views and people who hold them into little boxes: as in, "You can't do/think X because if you do, you're not left-wing". To paraphrase Brecht: says who?

Often in Labour's case, the party/intellectual establishment's definition of what is unthinkable is more timid than the public's. Intellectuals of the left-of-centre, for instance, are disproportionately influenced by the egalitarianism of Rawls and Dworkin. Yet Labour's own focus groups suggest that the word "equality" does not go down so well with the public, which is rightly sceptical of the practicality of enforcing equal conditions.

Tony Blair's core strength as a politician is that he has no shame in altering previously held convictions to new circumstances and finding new means to old ends. My fear, however, is not that he will challenge Labour tradition too much but that his government will mistake rhetoric for action and end up altering Britain too little.

Here are the unthinkables at the top of my agenda:

Campaign for less equality
The left's obsession with equality has distorted its goal of a fairer society. Once a demand for more equality is admitted as the central political philosophy, it quickly becomes insatiable. There can never be enough equality for an egalitarian. Equality diverts attention to the rich at the expense of relieving poverty; it tends to disadvantage those it sets out to help because it creates incentives for the better-off to flee egalitarian institutions, making them worse.

The centre left should stand for an alleviated meritocracy - that is, a system which provides high minimum standards and the best possible chance for everyone to live a fulfilled life. Unlike egalitarians, meritocrats do not assume that the outcomes should be the same. And unlike supporters of equality of opportunity, they accept that opportunity will never be equally spread, or the playing field truly level, because the better-off will always be able to provide a better start in life for their children.

Contrary to the egalitarians, meritocrats do not believe that inequality is the greatest evil. Deprivation, misery and hopelessness are far worse fates. Instead, meritocrats want to promote and open up access to excellence so that social mobility, as far as possible, reflects true merit.

But a new Labour meritocracy must also accept that governments should make provision for those not blessed with the gifts to take the chances on offer. An unalleviated meritocracy, the kind parodied by Michael Young in the 1950s and Roy Hattersley today, would take only minimal account of the poor by installing a safety net. Centre-left meritocracy addresses the factors that keep people poor and create cycles of deprivation. That is neither a cheap nor a callous option.

Free the schools
Intended to promote a more equal society through education, comprehensives make up 85 per cent of state schools. Instead of bringing out the best across the ability range, they produce far too many school-leavers who lack basic skills, while many more in the middle and higher ability ranges underperform. Yet the traditional Labour response is: "We can't give up on comprehensives because that would mean going back to the 11-plus."

The principle is defended not as good in its own right, but simply because it is not something else, a shocking abrogation of responsibility for its failures. Education is the only policy area I can think of in which the only major alternative to the status quo is deemed to be the status quo ante - in this case the Butler Education Act of 1944, which was never fully implemented.

We should accept that a variety of schools, variously funded, will produce better overall results than the present homogenised model which even the egalitarian sociologist A H Halsey thinks too inflexible. New Labour's proposals to tender out failing schools and to threaten the privatisation of poorly performing local education authorities is just a start. Some schools should be run by business, some by churches, others by third-sector (voluntary) institutions. Some should select academically gifted pupils, others specialise in subjects from sport to music. Yet others, for the sake of pupils who need more time to learn, should concentrate on a smaller number of skills than those demanded by the sprawling national curriculum. To make this a fair market and to redistribute opportunities, the charitable status of private schools should be phased out. Parents should be given vouchers to pay for their children's education, with poorer families getting higher-value vouchers.

Critics say that if schools are freed from the state, some will be "run for profit". This is not the point. Schools should be run for the good of pupils. I can't see why anyone should object if a profit is made along the way. They might also remember that, while the free-marketeer Adam Smith believed that the state should provide education, the ur-radical Thomas Paine favoured a state that facilitated it, but allowed different types of school to flourish.

Introduce NHS charges
The National Health Service as a provider of free and equal care was the postwar Labour government's greatest achievement. But victories do not last for ever. The NHS today is outdated and over-stretched. It is neither equal nor universal.

The endless, sterile argument between the parties about who is spending more/fiddling the waiting list figures more craftily is two decades out of date. Decisions about who should receive new treatments or drugs are taken randomly with wild variations between health authorities. The universal right to free treatment is widely breached. It is time to acknowledge that some treatments must be rationed by means other than waiting lists and to find the fairest and most cost-effective way to provide free core services, topped up by payments for non-essential treatments and non-medical costs of hospital stays. This would entail breaking up the cartel-like private insurance schemes and restoring tax relief on private healthcare for the over-60s.

Those who palpitate at the very use of the words charges and NHS in one sentence might consider the fate of dentistry, from which the NHS has steadily and stealthily removed itself over the past decade. NHS dental patients pay some 80 per cent of the charges. Even the most committed public-sector dentist will often advise patients to pay more for the private option because the publicly funded service cannot keep pace with innovations in dental care.

Act on welfare reform
The unthinkable has been thought twice already - by Frank Field, who was deemed too extreme, and by Harriet Harman, who was not considered extreme enough. New Labour acknowledges that, in far too many cases, dependency on the welfare state is not just a waste of money, but a waste of lives. It is, however, nervous about embracing the degree of compulsion on welfare-to-work schemes that is needed to ensure they function more efficiently.

The Department of Social Security has revived an old unthinkable by piloting a variant on the Tory workfare scheme, requiring that claimants take a job when it is offered or forfeit benefit. Pilot schemes are a marvellous way of slowing down implementation of a policy. Either you believe in workfare, in which case get on with it, or you don't, in which case pilot schemes won't help. The New Deal is also crying out for a more rigorous assessment of its effectiveness than the questionable claim that the mere act of diverting money to the young unemployed is a good thing in itself.

The whole welfare state needs a more rational design than merely prodding the reluctant to work. It is still viewed too much as an entitlement and not as a safety net, much less a trampoline. The government is too shy in reforming middle-class benefits. Universal child benefit and pensions are still defended by the government as giving the middle classes a stake in the welfare state. But it is a costly and inefficient stake. Better to divert the money to public goods such as a truly integrated transport system and better urban planning, which affect everyone.

Decentralise - and mean it
The 1997 Labour manifesto promised to end the rate-capping of local councils - or to be precise, "crude and universal" rate- capping. Crude, universal or otherwise, rate-capping is still in place. The commitment to redress the centralisation of the Thatcher years is being studiously neglected. A manifesto commitment to end the standardised business rate has similarly dwindled into an unmentionable. The government has a powerful cabinet enforcer in Jack Cunningham. It has more pressing need of a cabinet decentraliser.

The result of denying local government powers over everyday matters is predictably negative. Ministers end up defending decisions of which they have little detailed knowledge and even less direct influence. The town halls lag behind the new Labour centre in modernising because there is so little incentive for imaginative and ambitious people to seek election.

New Labour's objection to allowing local councils more freedom is that they will abuse it by spending wildly on dubious or inefficient services. But the growth of the evaluative state - which does not dictate how money should be spent, but whether those who spend it are getting sufficient value - means that local councils are less free to go wild with taxpayers' money.

The alternative to stronger local government is bad local government and the proliferation of the quangocracy - the least accountable form of public administration. If Blair is still concerned about the inability of local councils to reflect the interests of local citizens, the removal of rate-capping could be accompanied by reforms in council elections. The American primary system allows a far more direct identification between voters and those they elect. The idea horrifies my new Labour friends because it would lead to old Labour candidates standing against modernisers. But Blairites must get used to being tested at local as well as national level.

Ban the bomb
When the cold war was under way and the Soviet Union posed a serious threat to the security of the west, the Labour Party was in favour of unilateral disarmament and swingeing cuts in defence expenditure. Now the cold war is over, it embraces Trident and the Eurofighter, a project already on the way to obsolescence.

The suggestion that Britain's extremely high defence expenditure should be questioned is a new Labour unthinkable, mainly because any discussion reminds the modernisers painfully of the divisions of the 1980s. But it makes far greater sense to be a unilateralist in 1999 than it did in 1989.

Last year's defence review was remarkable only for how little defence was reviewed in it. We must debate whether we need the deterrent and why we spend so much on defence for a small country without immediate enemies. Too many British defence priorities hark back to the cold war, from the commitment to maintain submarines in the North Atlantic to the survival of the RAF.

The armed forces' producer interests have gone unchallenged. The UK forces still have a policy of global reach - absurdly, given that we have surrendered Hong Kong, the last territory whose defence might have required it. Our so-called security interest in the South Atlantic, expensively conceived by the Tories in order to justify the Falklands war, ex post facto, is a chimera. We have no strategic interest there. The Falklands should be returned to Argentina by negotiated settlement.

Learn to love the individual
In his early attempt to find a central philosophy distinct from the collectivism of old Labour, Blair opted for a vague embrace of American communitarianism without seeing the intellectual honey traps. The trouble with the cosy ideal of communities striving for a single purpose is that it neglects individual freedoms and ends up imposing authoritarianism in the name of the common good. As the late Isaiah Berlin pointed out, the rights of individual citizens are nowhere more vulnerable than to a benign government's conviction that it knows what they really want.

If there is one overriding risk to the Blair project, it is that it will reduce individual freedoms. Examples of its illiberalism include reducing the burden of proof needed to convict terrorist suspects; the proposed "three strikes and you're out" policy; and, in its disregard for the importance of individual circumstances in a criminal case, the erosion of judges' discretionary powers in sentencing. New Labour is anxious to re-create the pre-1914 radical alliance of the left with liberalism, but there is not much sign that it understands the meaning of the word beyond a commitment to lifestyle choice. Blair wrote to Isaiah Berlin asking if he would help new Labour in "appropriating the liberal tradition", to which I like to think Berlin would have replied that liberalism cannot be appropriated by a collective entity and especially not government. That is why it is liberal and worth fighting for.

And finally . . . truly, madly, deeply unthinkable
Do not support Britain's bid to host the 2006 World Cup. It will ruin a perfectly nice summer and divert the police from more important tasks. The anti-climax when we are beaten by Argentina in the quarter-finals will cause a mid-second-term government crisis and explode the myth of Cool Britannia.

Some may object that my unthinkables could easily command support from Tories. (All the better: they'll keep voting Labour.) But to my mind, what ought to be distinctive about the centre left is its belief that the government should actively promote redistribution of opportunity. The Conservative Party is too attached to privilege and vested interests to embrace such an aim. It had its chance to reform education - the key to meritocracy - but it failed because too few leading Tories cared enough about state schools. Further, the reformist drive of Tories such as William Hague is undermined by the party's exaggerated respect for the status quo and the mystical bounds of tradition. The pursuit of alleviated meritocracy demands a willingness to upend entrenched views and interests. That is why it is so suited to the centre left today.

The writer is associate editor of the "Independent"

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again