We are leaving the Conservative century. The next one will be the progressive century. Aside from the passing rows over asylum policy or Railtrack, that is the big promise Tony Blair makes to the centre-left. He is a strategic politician, a man with one eye on history and another on the big rhythms of politics; and golden-tongued. A passage from dark reaction to a century of light is the most optimistic promise any centre-left leader has been able to make for a generation. But is it a realistic one?
Let us start with what is measurable. That phrase, "the Conservative century", entered the political lexicon through a collection of essays on the Tory party published six years ago and taken up by various journalists, including me. The book's editors, Anthony Seldon and Stuart Ball, pointed out that not only had the Tories been in power for 70 of the hundred years since 1895, but the main non-Conservative party had enjoyed a significant majority in only three parliaments - the Liberals in 1906-10 and Labour in 1945-50 and 1966-70.
Since then, we have had the new Labour landslide of 1997, altering the mood more than the overall arithmetic. But the record of a century of Tory rule merely punctuated by progressive blips hit Blair with great force. He was particularly struck by the way in which the historic division of the centre-left into Liberals and socialists had allowed the Tories such a long and easy dominance; and his continuing interest in healing the progressive wound in the British body politic follows from that.
And yet, aside from years served in No 10 and election victories chalked up, the 20th century looks in retrospect more like a progressive century than a Tory one. It was Conservative. But it was not conservative. This was the century, after all, when women got the vote, when trade unions rose to the height of their power, when the welfare state was constructed, when wealth taxes and substantial income taxation were introduced, when full employment was made an explicit part of government policy.
Tories may have been in office for most of the years, but they were also following agendas that were not traditional conservative ones. The ratchet of history was against them. Who was it who first used the phrase about welfare, "from the cradle to the grave"; who argued for "a broadening field for state ownership and enterprise"; and who said, about the need to abolish unemployment, "we cannot have a band of drones in our midst, whether they come from the ancient aristocracy or the modern plutocracy or the ordinary type of pub-crawler"? None other than Winston Churchill, speaking in March 1943. His postwar government supported the newly created NHS, setting the line for subsequent Tory administrations.
Comprehensive schools grew faster in number and grammar schools closed faster during Margaret Thatcher's time as education secretary than before or since. As prime minister she may have committed herself to the rolling back of the state and the reversal of the postwar socialistic consensus, but privatisation never reached the core provisions of welfare - indeed, between 1981 and 1991 welfare spending rose as a proportion of GDP.
Overseas, it was Tories, such as Iain Macleod and Harold Macmillan, who were among the most determined and effective decolonisers. The party of empire and navy became the party of the scuttle. Tories may be, in theory, the great defenders of national sovereignty, but it was under Tory leaders - Ted Heath, Thatcher and John Major - that the decisive moves of Britain into European union were taken. There were no socialists in power at Westminster when we signed the Treaty of Rome, the Single European Act or Maastricht.
At home, again, the 20th was the century in which homosexuality and abortion were legalised, theatre censorship was abandoned, the death penalty was abolished and racism became unrespectable. There were occasional Tory moves to resist the tide of liberalising culture, such as the ineffective and unpopular Clause 28, but they were pretty feeble. Divorce, drug use, sexual openness and tolerance all grew inexorably under Thatcher and Major. Deference and respect for the royal family declined. Society became more mobile. How can any of this really be called a conservative record?
The demands of a literate, urbanised and economically powerful people for more freedom, more rights and more security meant that the political direction of the 20th century was - in the fashionable phrase - a centre-left one. And it ended with devolution for Scotland and Wales and the abolition of the hereditary peerage as a political force, both of them long-standing aims of the Liberals swept from power after the first world war.
So, if the 20th century was really about Tory men and left-liberal laws, will the next one be the flip side of that? Nothing is inevitable, but there are reasons to think it may be so. War and the rise of the industrial urban nation created the politics of the western 20th century, an era when the state was strong, the franchise full and the parties were mass ones. But the opening of the next century offers a very different picture.
First, notoriously, individual states are weaker. Global markets and supranational treaties, on everything from defence (Nato) to trade (the WTO and the EU) and the environment (the Rio convention on climate change), are limiting their autonomy. The tax competition allowed by freer trade, and the difficulties in collecting taxes created by the Internet, put tighter limits on their tax- raising abilities. Their populations are, in general, better educated and informed, and also tutored as consumers to demand more from national governments. Instead of shaping and squeezing society, or at least trying to, the state finds itself squeezed.
What about the pressures on political belief? Ayn Rand herself would be proud of the new elite, the superclass that has risen beyond nationality and whose assumption of superiority is far more powerful than blood or race or culture. A glossy magazine advert I saw recently summed it up beyond parody. A cold male face stared from the page and the words beside it read: "I will challenge assumptions. Especially my own. I will leave the guesswork to others. I will identify the cause, not just the effect. I will leave no room for wrong. I will create maps. I will be blind to nothing. I will call a mirage a mirage. I work for J P Morgan." Good for you, you smug git, I thought. No room for wrong? I hope the world stock market falls right on to your tasselled glossy loafers.
At the other end of the scale, the post-industrial poor have deserted progressive political parties. They hardly impinge on the electoral strategies of the Democrats or new Labour. If and when they return to politics, it is as likely to be for a nationalist party of the right or for isolationist Republicanism as for the left.
Another pressure is demography. All western population curves are ageing, though Britain's less than those of Germany, France and others. Older populations are unlikely to be radical ones. Inter-generational pressures get worse, the politics of fear gets easier.
The harsher rhetoric and indeed the harsher measures against crime already implemented by new Labour are perhaps an early indicator of this. Inside this shifting population, a greater proportion is going to be Asian and, therefore, Muslim or Hindu. The fast-spreading secularisation of British life, the loss of public faith, may well be challenged by the new growth groups and their religions. Could that really affect our anti-censorship, highly liberal culture? Turn the question around and ask: well, why would it not?
Another shift is produced by the move to a "knowledge economy", tilted permanently away from large-scale manufacturing and towards high value-added products. It unties the extended and settled family groups of the old working class and helps the segregation of people by wealth, since the professional and managerial groups no longer need to live close to industrial sites. In general, it requires smaller organisations, less social mixing and more of a premium on individual achievement.
To be poorly educated is to be economically useless; to be stupid becomes a sin, not merely a misfortune. In such a world, it will be increasingly hard to maintain a sense of solidarity between the poor and the affluent middle classes, who are making a success of e-commerce and invisible trade, the entertainment industries and hi-tech light engineering. That, at least, is the US experience.
In response, 21st-century governments may continue what new Labour has tentatively begun: the replacement of progressive taxation (largely a 20th-century development) with charges for public services, hypothecated or earmarked taxes, and the continued privatisation of pension and insurance provision. The biggest companies can already in effect opt out. Might the same be true of the highest-earning people in the future as well? If you have an ageing and less socially committed working population, privatising pensions makes political sense. But it does not seem a secure foundation for a progressive century.
Then there is the tricky question of how environmental politics will play. One could imagine a Britain in which conspicuous consumption, second homes, third cars and supermarket trolleys piled high with ready meals and cheap food, half of which would be later chucked out uneaten, becomes as socially unacceptable as smoking is in California now. Greater wealth may come to mean greater discrimination in what people buy and use, rather than greater raw consumption. The new puritans demand better public transport systems, fewer cars and more expensive organic food.
The preservation of the remaining countryside, and higher individual travel costs, combined with pressure on housing, may also have a mildly conservative social effect. People may become less geographically mobile, not more, for the first time in decades. Conservation and conservatism often go together. In a more densely packed, land-conscious Britain, divorce or separation may be seen as a selfish act, requiring extra housing and wasting resources, rather than a legitimate expression of individuality. The beady eye of Middle England may turn to the 65,000 net immigration to this country that happens each year, and is calculated to continue for the first third of the new century at least.
One of the few predictions that is entirely safe is that the politics of these islands will be heavily affected by events outside our control, in the coming century, as in the past one. Rising oceans and more extreme weather will produce larger world migrations; tensions between European countries and between trading blocks seem inevitable. The steady increase of populations in Asia and Latin America and their greater economic weight will edge aside the comfortable, predominantly white and English-speaking world-view of the 20th-century British. Countries and peoples easily held down under the thumb of the postwar global order will become more assertive and impossible to ignore. And that will have a local impact, because liberalism flourishes most when people feel most secure.
There are other factors. As in the past few decades, the extraordinary speed and power of scientific advance will test traditional assumptions hard and constantly. Designer babies, the screening out and killing of foetuses with abnormalities, cloning, genetic modification of animals and people as well as foods, increasingly sophisticated "lifestyle" drugs, the ability to stay alive, at great expense and in some discomfort, for longer and longer . . . all of these, and more, could produce a reactive, traditionalist politics, hostile to further change and moralistic in ways that today we have half-forgotten. How long before we are able to grow meat without animals around it? And how would that impinge on the growing politics of animal rights?
Similarly, the cult of health and fitness today, the "body fascism" and the introverted obsession with self may simply extend. As we live more inward, private lives, knowing more about our bodies and their chemical make-up, we could become less and less community minded - selfish perfectionists. I am deliberately playing up darker possibilities, though not unlikely or unexpected ones. But, putting it all together, one could imagine, at least, a next century that is dominated by self-righteous puritans, unprepared to pay general taxes to lift the rest of the population out of poverty, picky and suspicious of government action; where national governments are weaker economically but are required to be tougher in fighting crime and limiting migration; and where macro- economic management has moved so far up to the global level that it is hardly connected to national democracies at all.
That could lead so easily to a century that turned out to be anything but progressive. Spring 2017: the first MPs elected for the British National Movement, following the collapse of the European Union. In 2024: abolition of income tax, and a system of food stamps for the poor. In 2032: the reintroduction of the death penalty following a referendum. In 2050: private cars finally abolished and overseas travel restrictions introduced. And so on. All fantasy; but all consonant with current trends, and in particular the privatisation of life for the affluent majority, threatened by the poor around them.
It is perfectly possible to look ahead and expect British cities to begin to look, in their social composition, more like American ones; to expect the "superclass" to contract out of social obligation, or simply move if they have to pay taxes; to imagine a raw, populist politics in the densely populated English south of 20 or 30 years' time. The press of science and a revival of religions could provoke an era of inwardness and edgy hostility to the very idea of progress. We might maintain the language of social-democratic politics, but below it there would be a less generous and progressive agenda than we have known since the early 19th century.
In old age, today's thirtysomethings could find themselves looking nostalgically back at the 1990s not as a turning point from conservatism to progressive politics, but as the opposite, the brief, gaudy heyday of decadent liberalism - Damien Hirst and the Spice Girls as exotic, fin-de-siecle sprites, rather like Oscar Wilde and the wilder aristocrats of the 1890s; Michael Portillo and Jack Straw as comfort-zone liberal politicians - all of them cavorting through a brief, golden era of self-indulgence in alcohol and fresh meat and fish, of travel and freedom.
It need not happen that way. But to ensure that Blair's dream of a progressive century has a chance of happening, then what it needs most is ideology. It needs a politics of openness and generosity, a liberal toughness, a readiness to reform and to democratise, a creed that insists on our common humanity. The progressive advances of the 20th century did not come about by chance, but through inspired leadership and the hard work of millions of citizens. A progressive next century will have to be fought for, by generations that believe in politics and common action and are not consumed by inwardness and self-obsession.
If not, it is quite possible that we are moving from a century of progressive ideas, led by conservatives, to a century of triumph for conservative ideas, led by people only professing to be on the left.