Back to the future

It seems to me just possible that at last we may have a Croslandite Prime Minister

I spent Monday afternoon in the Millbank studios of the BBC commenting - with Iain Duncan Smith as my opposite number - on Gordon Brown's first conference speech as Labour party leader. To my delight, halfway through, Brown broke the unwritten convention of British politics and made a brief excursion into political philosophy. After rejecting equality of outcome, because it blunts the incentive to improve and achieve, he was equally dismissive of meritocracy, which, he quite rightly said, leaves too many people behind.

It was not a bad two-sentence precis of "Is Equality of Opportunity Enough?", the pivotal chapter in Tony Crosland's The Future of Socialism. Crosland's answer to the question was an emphatic "No" and he went on to define what he called "democratic equality", a state of affairs that allows natural differences to flourish but ensures that society is organised in a way that reduces differences and discrepancies, rather than increases them. Listening to what Brown had to say about the failures of the education system - the institutions not the pupils - it seemed just possible that at last we have a Croslandite Prime Minister. The thought gave me even more pleasure than the sight of Hazel Blears - "Tony's little ray of sunshine" - wildly applauding her new hero.

Stern virtues

The BBC's commentators had no time to spare examining the PM's political philosophy. They were too busy with a competition where viewers predicted which word Brown would use most frequently. Nobody guessed correctly. It turned out to be "British/Britain", a choice to which Andrew Neil and Nick Robinson seemed to take exception. They also seemed mildly affronted that the Prime Minister had quoted from the Bible and declared discipline and hard work essential to the creation of the better society he wants to see. New guidance to BBC employees - along with forbidding fake competitions - I ought to point out that patriotism and the stern virtues are not exclusive Tory property.

Essential reading

I should have spent last week in happy anticipation of Borrowed Time's publication day. But instead I was in my usual agonies of apprehension about the reviews. Thanks to my illegible longhand, the caption below one of the pictures describes A J Cook as "not a negotiator but an actor". For days I had no doubt that experts on the General Strike - knowing that Ernest Bevin's antithesis was between negotiator and orator - would write that anyone who thought that the doomed miners' leader started life in repertory was not qualified to write "The Story of Britain Between the Wars". Then, at the New Statesman party, Francis Beckett was overheard saying he was reviewing the book and that he preferred history to be written as a continuous narrative rather than a series of essays. I went home in a state of near collapse. Life was worth living again when I read his review and Beckett failed to live down to my expectations. But I shall astound him with my ingratitude by correcting one of his errors of fact. Commenting on my treatment of the blackshirts and Oswald Mosley, he concluded that, because I do not mention his book on the subject, I had not read it. Believe me, I have, Francis. I have.

Wren's genius

A guided tour of St Paul's was designed to persuade corporate benefactors to contribute to the restoration fund, so I can only assume I was invited by mistake. There was much talk about the view down the nave as observed by viewers of the Princess Diana wedding video. But that nonsense aside, it was an hour of breathless joy. I can never understand how even a genius of Wren's proportions can have conceived and supervised the construction of a building of such splendour. Everybody except me condemned the 19th-century mosaic ceiling beyond the chancel steps. I rather like it. If I had corporate funds, I might offer a donation on the understanding that guides would be forbidden to attack a wonderful example of Victorian bad taste.

Roy Hattersley's "Borrowed Time: the Story of Britain Between the Wars" is published by Little, Brown (£20, hardback)

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies