The New Statesman Essay - Welcome to the age of the goo-goos

Blair's real aim is to go back to the 1920s and 1930s, argues David Marquand

Tony Blair's disdain for party - and, on a deeper level, for the differences of ideology and interest that have sustained party in this and other European democracies - is almost palpable. He dreams of a united and homogeneous people, undifferentiated by class or locality, with which he, as leader, can communicate directly, without the need for intermediaries. In his vision of it, new Labour's vocation is to mobilise the suburbs as well as the inner cities; rich as well as poor; old as well as young; Christians as well as unbelievers; hunters as well as animal rights activists; believers in family values as well as opponents of Clause 28. His warm embrace covers all men and women of goodwill, provided only that they are prepared to enlist in the relentless, never-ending crusade for modernisation that he and his colleagues have set in motion. The "progressive century", the lineaments of which have been sketched out by his polling guru, Philip Gould, and which, presumably, has now begun, will be made in that same inclusive image. Only traditionalists will be excluded: conservatives, whether with a big or small "c", and the still not-quite- vanquished mastodons of old Labour.

This marks a departure from the postwar norms of British majoritarian democracy. All prime ministers like to believe that they speak for the nation, and many have become exasperated with their own followers; but no postwar prime minister has sought to transcend party in the way that Blair has done. There were premonitions of his statecraft in that of Margaret Thatcher, but the differences between them are more striking than the similarities. Like Thatcher, Blair is a populist, determined to communicate directly with an imaginary "people" over the heads of his colleagues.

But he is a healer where she was a warrior. His instinct is to blur sharp edges; hers was to sharpen them. He seeks to include, where she was determined to exclude. And his attempt to construct a vast, all-embracing coalition of what the political scientist Peter Mair, in a recent issue of New Left Review, calls "goo-goos" has nothing in common with Thatcherism. So far from trying to depoliticise government, Thatcher did her potent best to politicise it, glorying in her fierce and divisive partisanship.

It is wrong, however, to think that Blair has no precedent in British party politics. Majoritarian democracy on the postwar model was a child of the upheavals of the war itself, and in particular of the seismic shift in political allegiances that made it possible for the Labour Party belatedly to become a more or less equal player in a new two-party system. In the interwar period, majoritarian democracy on the postwar model did not exist. A vast, hegemonic, Conservative-dominated coalition held power from 1931 until 1940, and, if the war had not intervened, it would probably have continued to hold power for a good deal longer. The 1920s were in some respects a different story, but only in some respects. Conservative or Conservative-dominated governments were in power for ten of the 13 years from 1918 to 1931, interrupted only briefly by two weak minority Labour governments.

The implications are intriguing. In this, as in other spheres, it is unwise to take Blair's futuristic rhetoric at face value. He is best seen as a Charles II, not as a Cromwell. He seeks a restoration, not a revolution. His true aim is to reinvent the Age of Baldwin, not to stride forward into a hitherto unimagined future.

I do not mean that Blair is himself a second Stanley Baldwin. His contempt for tradition and his endlessly reiterated appeals to novelty, youth and a reified "Future" could hardly be less Baldwinesque. Yet the parallels between the two are as striking as they are unexpected. To be sure, Baldwin did not openly disdain party in the way that Blair does. He went out of his way to pay court to the House of Commons, which Blair treats with lordly indifference. But he was as anxious as Blair is to construct an amorphous, broad-based coalition, going well beyond the frontiers of his own party; as eager to transcend the divisions of class and interest reflected in party conflicts; as intent on including all men and women of goodwill in a warm, purportedly non-political embrace; and, above all, as determined to present himself as a friendly, trustworthy, "ordinary" person, unskilled in the arts of professional politics and uncorrupted by them. Again and again, he insisted that he was no orator; in his first broadcast speech, a masterpiece of deft, non-partisan understatement, he apologised to the listeners for interrupting the ordinary programme. "Baldwin's aim", writes Philip Williamson in a recent study (Stanley Baldwin: Conservative leadership and national values, Cambridge University Press), "was to invert the style and values which had been widely expected from democratic politicians - to deflate demagogy and establish a different, safer, demotic idiom."

With the art that concealed art, in short, Baldwin sought, like Blair, to depoliticise government, to damp down ideological controversy and class conflict, to convince the electorate that common sense pointed in one direction only and to insist that duties came before rights. His reward was nearly 20 years of Conservative hegemony, and a party system closer to the dominant-party model of postwar Japan than to the adversarial model of postwar Britain.

The parallels should not be pushed too far. Blair is reaching out to the middle ground from a party of the left; Baldwin did so from a party of the right. Perhaps because of this, Blair has tried earnestly (if so far fruitlessly) to construct an overt ideological justification for his statecraft. Baldwin's statecraft needed no ideological cladding, beyond the trusty standbys of fair play and patriotism. And the conditions of political life in the 1990s and 2000s are almost unimaginably different from what they were in the 1920s and 1930s. What was demotic then would sound almost mandarin now; Baldwin's nearest equivalent of a spin-doctor was the ubiquitous "TJ" (Thomas Jones), a former professor of economics. Mutatis mutandis, however, Blair's statecraft follows where Baldwin's led. Like Baldwin, he seeks to depoliticise government, but through party, not against it. If he succeeds, new Labour will be to the 2000s and 2010s what the Conservatives were to the 1920s and 1930s. It will not bear much resemblance to the Labour Party we used to know - not least, because it will dominate the political stage in a way that old Labour never did - but it will still be unmistakably a political party, and politics will still revolve around the conflict between it and its chief rival.

This project may not succeed. If the next election produces a narrow new Labour majority (or no majority at all), Blair may be forced to change to a proportional electoral system, after all; if he does so, the Liberal Democrats will have more parliamentary leverage than any third party has had since the Irish Home Rulers before the First World War. But despite some huffing and puffing, some of it quite congenial to liberal-minded people, the Liberal Democrats have conspicuously failed to define a political space exclusive to them and unoccupied by their new Labour big brother. This is because no such space exists. The traditional standby of the Liberal Party of old days and, more recently, of the SDP-Liberal Alliance - "a plague on both your houses"; centrist moderation in place of ideological extremism - can no longer fly. As Aneurin Bevan used to say, "you can't be deader than dead". In the same way, you can't be Blairer than Blair, more centrist than new Labour. In pure theory, no doubt, it might be possible for the Liberal Democrats to outflank new Labour on the left: to become the party of a reinvented, more flexible, less bureaucratic social democracy, probably with a strong green tinge. But the really-existing new Liberals show no sign of wishing to do this, not least because their really-existing voters would not stand for it. There is no reason to believe that proportional representation would change any of this. The Liberal Democrats would still be the moon to new Labour's sun. A Baldwinesque dominant-party model would still be in place, only on slightly different lines.

How does new Labour's professed desire to devolve power fit into Blair's ambition? I have written before about "the Blair paradox" (New Statesman, 20 March): the apparent conflict between new Labour's commitment to democratic renewal and its refusal to countenance dissent. If Blair's ambition is to turn new Labour into a dominant party on the lines of the interwar Conservatives, are his government's constitutional changes paradoxical?

The answer, I now think, is that it depends on the dynamics of the territorial constitution: on the way in which the prevailing conception of the proper relationship between central government in Whitehall and the governments of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions and localities evolves over time. In principle, there is no reason why a dominant-party model at the centre cannot coexist with a different model (or models) in the periphery.

In his now classic study of British territorial politics (Territory and Power in the United Kingdom, Manchester University Press, 1983), James Bulpitt suggested that central-local relations had traditionally conformed to a pattern which he termed the "dual polity". A subtle network of unwritten conventions allotted high politics to the central executive, and low politics to local governments and local elites. Each party to this implicit bargain was happy to confine its operations to its own sphere, provided that the other party did the same. Foreign policy, defence and (in the Keynesian era) macro-economic management were for the centre; service delivery was for the periphery. In the 1960s and 1970s, Bulpitt thought, the dual polity broke down. Central government launched a series of micro-economic interventions which trespassed on the sphere of low politics and created a crisis in the unwritten territorial constitution.

Although much has happened since Bulpitt wrote this, the basic insight is still enormously fruitful. It helps to explain the territorial turf wars of the 1980s, when far-left Labour local authorities tried deliberately to undo the consequences of the Thatcher government's macro-economic policy for their localities, and provoked ministers into a long campaign of aggressive centralisation, unprecedented in modern British history. It also helps to explain the Scottish backlash that led eventually to the Scottish constitutional convention and thence to the present government's devolution legislation. Not least, it suggests a new perspective on the Blair paradox.

Looked at in this light, the real meaning of new Labour's reconstruction of the territorial constitution is to make possible a return to the dual polity, in a new guise. In a reinvented dual polity, a long period of Baldwinesque single-party dominance at Westminster could perfectly well coexist with a variety of different regimes on other levels of governance.

That, after all, is what happened in the Age of Baldwin, which Blair is trying to recreate, and for that matter in the Age of Gladstone and Salisbury. As those examples imply, such a reinvented dual polity would run with the grain of the capitalist renaissance, which is the central reality of our time.

Ministers and officials at the centre would look after defence, foreign affairs and fiscal policy. Monetary policy would be for the Bank of England or its successor in Euroland. Within the tight constraints imposed by the rules of the global market place, local and regional governments of variegated hues would follow their own paths on other issues. Because high and low politics would be kept apart, these variations would not threaten the dominant party at the centre, any more than Lord Salisbury was threatened by the London County Council or Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain by the Rhondda.

This is obviously a far cry from contemporary Blairism, but it would be wrong to assume that it is bound to remain so. The feverish, febrile centralism that has been such a marked feature of the present government may cool down as ministers get used to office and neo-Baldwinism comes to be taken for granted. From the point of view of politicians and officials at the centre, the great beauty of the old dual polity was that it helped to keep expectations low and to narrow the area over which governments could be attacked. A new one would do the same.

The crusade for modernisation would have to be given up. But once the crusaders realise that their efforts have brought them no closer to the holy land, they may be relieved to abandon it. Government would indeed be depoliticised. But it would be crass to blame Blair for that. The real point is that an untamed capitalism requires a tamed democracy.

This essay, by the principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, is based on an article in the May-June issue of New Left Review. For copies, phone 020-7734 8830 or e-mail subs@newleftreview.org