All elections are earth-shatteringly important, until they happen. The fate of the nation and the cause of truth and justice are always at stake. After polling day, normality usually resumes, and no one can remember what the fuss was about. But not always. Occasionally, hindsight vindicates contemporary hype. Critical elections are uncommon, but they do occur now and again. The 1924 election, which destroyed the Liberals' claim to be serious contenders for power, was the most obvious example between the wars. The 1951 election, which confirmed the postwar recovery of the Conservative Party and showed that Labour's big 1945 majority had been a flash in the pan, was another. The 1979 election, which ushered in the Thatcher revolution, was a third.
Despite the size of the Labour majority, it is pretty clear that 1997 should not figure in this list. The record of the first Blair government is much more impressive than disgruntled leftists are happy to admit. It has normalised Britain's relations with the rest of the European continent. It has given coherence and direction to the fumbling and inchoate reconstruction of the welfare state that began under the Conservatives. It has done something (not much, but something) to countervail the insistent pressures for inequality emanating from the worldwide capitalist renaissance of our times. It has launched a confused, ill-thought-out, but potentially far-reaching, constitutional revolution. But these changes matter because of what they portend for the future, not because of what they are in themselves.
Will 2001 belong to the small, select category of critical elections, or to the large category of anti-climactic ones? Everything depends on what actually happens during Labour's second term. What is clear, though, is that it will have the potential to make a decisive difference to the history of this country. If Labour wins a fair-sized majority, Blair will re-occupy the dominant position he enjoyed at the start of his first term - for a while, at any rate. His first victory was a remarkable feat; his second will be an extraordinary one. In the crude but crucial area of electoral politics, he will have outclassed Gladstone, Asquith and Attlee, let alone Harold Wilson. The party and the nation will be his to command. He will tower above his Cabinet colleagues, even above the relentlessly advancing Gordon Brown. Middle England will be at his feet. There will no longer be any need for the crippling hesitations that have held him back since 1997.
How will Blair use his new freedom of manoeuvre? On one crucial issue, the answer is reasonably clear. As he knows better than anyone, the normalisation of Britain's relations with the European mainland is still incomplete. Britain no longer glowers at its EU partners from a position of sulky non-cooperation. But it is not yet fully part of the club, and it won't be until it signs up to the euro - the single most important element in the European project. Blair's fellow heads of government have treated him indulgently so far. They know that he wants to sign up, and they have assumed that he will take steps to do so as soon as the election unties his hands. If that assumption turns out to be false, if Blair continues to haver, if Britain remains half in and half out, they will change their tune, and rightly so. On the euro, Blair has an appointment with destiny that can no longer be postponed. I believe he will keep it. In truth, he has no alternative.
But that is only one of the appointments that now await Blair. Domestically, too, he faces a fork in the road; and his attitude to the domestic fork is swathed in mystery. Personally, and still more ideologically, he is an enigma. He is certainly no socialist. He thinks of himself as a social democrat, but he is a social democrat of a very odd kind. He is out of tune not just with the culture and tradition of the Labour Party, but with those of Continental social democracy as well. Yet his own attempts to suggest that he belongs to a broader-based progressive tradition that also embraces Keynes and Lloyd George are not convincing. Their restless iconoclasm is as foreign to him as the instinctive collectivism of Bevin, Bevan and their Germanic and Scandinavian equivalents. Whatever else Blair may be, he is not an iconoclast. He is an honourable, clever, likeable, idealistic and rather conventional man, who went into politics to make the world a better place. He is also an English barrister, instinctively suspicious of general principles, but adept at mastering a brief. In a different era, his attitudes would have equipped him to be a one-nation Conservative; in a different country, he could easily have been a left-wing Christian democrat.
Yet for reasons that are not entirely clear, he is the most anti-Tory leader that Labour has ever had. Ideologically speaking, the Blair project is a mess. His political aims are crystal clear. Central to them is a steely determination to marginalise the Conservative Party: to break the historic, century-old link between British Conservatism and the British state. That is what the talk about a "progressive century" really means, and it provides the rationale for Blair's assiduous courtship of both soft Tory voters and hard corporate tycoons. But, as so often with Blair, there is a paradox here. When he says he wants to usher in a "progressive century", he means what he says, and he has done more to realise this ambition than any other left-of-centre prime minister in modern times. But he has not yet done enough, and the great question for the second term is whether he realises what he has to do next.
The constitutional agenda about which so much has been written since 1997 has to be seen against this background. The ties that have bound the Conservative Party to the British state are older, tougher and infinitely more deeply rooted than they at first seem, or than pragmatic English lawyers are equipped to realise. The British state is, of its very essence, a Tory state. The values embodied in and transmitted by its central institutions are Tory values. For a brief period at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the Liberal governments of Gladstone and Asquith tried to reconstruct it, but the real significance of their endeavours is that they failed. If Blair really wants to inaugurate a progressive century, it is not enough to seduce former Tory voters. He must dismantle the Tory institutions over which he and his colleagues now preside, and must rewrite the Tory constitution that legitimises the pre-democratic engine of executive power they control.
He has made a start - a much more promising start than I expected. For the first time since the Act of Union, Scotland has a parliament. For the first time ever, Wales has a representative assembly. These changes have undoubtedly cut into the flesh of the old Tory state. Almost certainly, they are irreversible. All the evidence suggests that the Scottish and Welsh nations want more autonomy, not less; that in both countries a dynamic is now at work that will sooner or later lead either to more devolution or, if Whitehall and Westminster are foolish enough to resist, to the break-up of the Union. The Human Rights Act has punched yet another hole in the quintessentially Tory, but already leaky, doctrine of absolute Westminster sovereignty to which its framers insisted on paying illogical lip-service.
But the old Tory state still lives. The tradition of autonomous executive power once celebrated by the Tory imperialist Leo Amery has lost hardly any of its old force. The old culture of centralism and secrecy still pervades Whitehall. The tentacles of an irrevocably centralist Treasury have, if anything, penetrated even more deeply into the rest of the government machine. The monarchy is still quintessentially imperial. The rituals and icon-ography that surround it are still profoundly undemocratic, if not positively anti-democratic. The unelected second chamber is still a scandalous - and ludicrous - engine of patronage. The electoral system still distorts the popular will and fosters a winner-takes-all political culture, hostile to democratic participation and power-sharing. The core executive of ministers and high officials still sees the general public not as partners in a common enterprise, but as inert blocks of stone waiting for a sculptor to descend from on high.
That state has been locked in a mutually supportive embrace with the Conservative Party for most of the past 120 years. If it is allowed to survive, it would fit a revitalised Conservative Party like a glove. Almost certainly, it would soon become a purely English state instead of a British one. Post-devolution Scotland and Wales are anomalies in the Tory state; and they have already tasted too much autonomy to give it up willingly. But for a Conservative Party that has become, for all practical purposes, the English Nationalist Party, the secession of Scotland and Wales represents an opportunity rather than a threat. A small, nasty, mediocre England, presided over by an ever-more archaic and ever-more diminished version of the Tory state, would be fertile soil for a populist and xenophobic Conservative Party. Even if the United Kingdom somehow contrived to hold together, the dream of a progressive century would fade away.
It would not take much to give the Tory state its coup de grace. A combination of elected assemblies in regions that want them, PR for Westminster and an elected second chamber would do the trick. The question is whether Blair will have the stomach for it. If he doesn't, the years from 1997 to 2005 will go down as another lost opportunity. And he will go down as the man who blew it.
David Marquand is principal of Mansfield College, Oxford