We ought to acknowledge that Hitler - abused, lonely, romantic - was a rather appealing character

Onwards into the two thousandth year since the birth of Christ - assuming, of course, that such an event ever took place. One way of resolving that particular issue will be to see if predictions of Armageddon in 2000 turn out to be right. Given the recent trend towards gunboat diplomacy in the Middle East, such a possibility should not be ruled out. Last month's operation was perilous, not least because of its seasonal cosiness. "This did Herod sore affray, And grievously bewilder," we rosy-cheeked north Londoners trilled, as the stealth bombers flew in, seeking targets. "So he gave the word to slay, And slew the little childer." Then we put Nintendo war-games under our trees, blew out the candles, and settled down to Iraqi-zapping on News at Ten.

Clinton, Mandelson and other tumults soon erased a not-very-exciting war from the public consciousness. However, a sequel seems likely. We await evidence that Saddam is about to be toppled, has made a new year's resolution to stop manufacturing nasty weapons, or is preparing some small concession to let the Americans and British save face.

Why do the media treat the government as if it were desperately vulnerable? Probably because the government so treats itself, and in a way it is right. On the face of it, Labour continues to be better placed than any left-of-centre predecessor since 1906. Party and Prime Minister ride high in the polls.

The problem is that new Labour sees its whole approach as a gamble, based on a new-found freedom. Old Labour was stick-in-the-mud for a reason: as the newly released state papers from 1968 remind us, ministers lived in terror of back-bench MPs, local parties and trade unions. Today, by contrast, there is an eerie silence where grass-roots pressure used to be. The upside has been the national consensus achieved in the 1997 election, and still maintained. The downside is that the party's family silver has been placed in hock. When the Tories eventually revive and recapture middle-class support, Labour - sans trade unions, sans blue- collar community, sans bottom-of-the-heap gratitude for socialist handouts - may no longer be able to fall back on its formerly reliable friend, the proletariat.

This is the fear. Hence the paranoia, the iron discipline. Hence, too, the race against time: new Labour must produce quick results to show that the gamble was worthwhile.

Which brings us to the government's record. Education, you may remember, is new Labour's top social priority, and it is one that concerns average voters more than practically anything. Yet the kind of progress to be expected from a great reforming administration has been notably slow in coming.

Perhaps the sector should be grateful: after the Tory years, at least it is taken seriously. There has been cash for smaller classes in schools, plans for the University of Industry, primary schools on-line, and so forth. However, the scale of change has been less than breathtaking. In higher education, for example, we have seen a bland continuation of Tory "efficiency gains" (DfEE-speak for an annual drop in funding per student). If Labour is to hang on to poorer students, it could start by considering the achievments of earlier administrations. Thus, the much-derided Wilson government set up comprehensives, built universities from scratch, established polytechnics, made tertiary education available to qualified school-leavers, and pioneered distance learning. By any standards, the present administration is better placed than its predecessors economically to give education what it really needs - resources, resources, resources. So is a comparable revolution in the offing?

Christianity was launched by four biographies of the same person, and it is remarkable how little the genre has changed in the 2,000 or so years since. My two best Christmas presents were biographies. Both had points to make. Raymond Briggs's strip cartoon about his parents (a milkman and a lady's maid) examines a happy marriage against the background of an ever more bewildering world in which poverty, war, austerity, affluence, socialism, capitalism and the accumulation of bits of technology fail to alter essential values and a mutual love. Briggs's poignant little essay encapsulates the experiences of ordinary people in countless communities.

By contrast, the first volume (to 1936) of Ian Kershaw's brilliant biography of Hitler focuses on an exceptional individual. Kershaw's book is hard to put down. Yet in one respect I found it disappointing. I imagined that by now a study of the century's dominating political personality might present him as a human being, not a demon. Unfortunately Kershaw so dislikes his subject that he finds even a minimum of empathy hard to manage. Yet more than 50 years after the Nazi leader's death, we ought to be able to acknowledge that the Austrian drop-out - abused, lonely, romantic - was in some ways a rather appealing character. Furthermore, that the urban wastelands of our own world are probably producing potential Hitlers by the thousand. There is still scope for a study that churns us up by exposing the bits of the dictator that were likeable and even lovable - and, thereby, helps to explain his power to persuade.

It may be some time before anybody takes the risk: several centuries elapsed before the murderer of Duncan found a biographer who was sufficiently imaginative and bold.

Ben Pimlott is warden of Goldsmiths College, London

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium