Now take the high ground

Are the decisions of democratic governments now always to be determined by surges of public sentiment? The present fuel tax protests are a Europe-wide movement, and the British government is almost alone in standing firm. On other issues, the left might take this as further evidence of how Britain is still the most authoritarian, top-down state in Europe, just as the right might argue that the protesters were an unelected rabble. But ministers may ask if they are not damned either way. How can they obey the injunction to "listen" (usually code for being prepared to buy off some particularly clamorous interest group) without being accused of craven populism? When does a listening government become an unprincipled government, obsessed with focus groups? When does a flexible government become a weak, indecisive one? When does principle turn into arrogance?

The difficulty here is with the language of politics. Ministers now feature on TV and radio shows dozens of times a week. On every occasion, they must express absolute certainty, consistency and solidarity, while claiming a level of probity that would have done credit to Caesar's wife. No wonder that, to many, ministers appear dogmatic, arrogant and out of touch, speaking in the strangulated banalities peculiar to politicians. No wonder that they deal in half-truths and downright lies. In reality, governments are constantly beset by doubts and fierce internal debates, but all this is conveyed to the public only through the arcane circumlocutions of broadsheet political correspondents. Tony Blair was worried about petrol tax more than two months ago, but the rules of political discourse did not allow him to voice his doubts publicly.

Similar considerations apply to Labour's other albatrosses. It was the tyranny of political language that got Gordon Brown into a tangle on the Today programme over Bernie Ecclestone's donations to Labour funds. It is the inability to admit doubt or error that compels ministers to keep justifying the Dome.

Paradoxically, the decline of ideology has made politicians in power appear more dogmatic. When the ultimate goals were more or less clear, a degree of ducking and diving, usually known as pragmatism, was easy to justify. Yes, a minister could imply, ideally he would like to do such and such but, for the time being, people wouldn't stand for it; a step backward now might allow two steps forward in future. Now, no particular policy or action can be justified in any terms beyond itself. Knock the policy down, and all that remains is a gaping void.

This is the nub of the ministerial dilemma over fuel tax. New Labour has tried to assure the public that it does not favour "tax and spend" and that it is not "anti-car". It could avoid higher taxes through mysteriously cost-free partnerships with the private sector. If it was to raise taxation at all, it would do so stealthily; if cars were to be restrained through, for example, congestion charging, it would leave the system to the whims of local authorities. It thus conceded long ago the moral high ground in the present argument; it has never offered the larger vision that might persuade the public to accept an inconvenient tax. Only now has it begun to make the link between taxation and public services; it still refuses to make the environmental case, or indeed to talk green at all. Thus, the government's firmness appears merely stubborn or opportunistic: ministers, runs the popular view, can't admit they are wrong and they just want the money so that they can buy votes at the next election or spend it on more of their pet projects, such as the Dome.

This is the defining moment for Mr Blair's first administration, the passage of events that will determine its ultimate fate as the Falklands war, then the miners' strike and then the poll tax did for Margaret Thatcher's three governments, and as Black Wednesday did for John Major's. However, ministers should not regard a narrow gap between the main parties as a catastrophe, but as a restoration of what, in a functioning democracy, should be the natural order. New Labour has made its point. It is not old Labour: it is not the creature of the unions; it will not bloat the public sector; it will not tax punitively or spend recklessly. But it must now say clearly that it will tax and spend all the same because only then can it repair Britain's decayed public services and crumbling infrastructure. If Tony Blair confronts William Hague on this ground - ground where, if he would only admit it, he himself has changed his mind these past three years - he will certainly win.

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place