Speaking to the Bow Group at the Ideas Space in London today, Shadow Children's Secretary Michael Gove said:
"One of Gordon Brown's most attractive features is his love of history. A politician who enjoys the company of academics and takes private pleasure in study of the past is worth celebrating. That a Prime Minister should be devoted to the discipline of history is worth praising all the more.
So today, having paid the Prime Minister one compliment, I should like to pay him another - the compliment of taking his ideas seriously - and looking at his Government in its historic context.
It's my contention today that the essential characteristics of the Brown premiership have now been set and we can fix the defining features of his administration quite clearly. The Prime Minister had a relatively long, and uncontested, period from May to prepare the ground for his assumption of power and since then politics has been both turbulent and eventful. Enough water has passed underneath Westminster Bridge for us to know the measure of the man and his ministers.
The country knew, after only a few months, that Margaret Thatcher was departing courageously from a thirty-five-year-long consensus.
We could all see after just a few months that Neil Kinnock, whatever his virtues, was never going to be prime ministerial.
The country recognised, also in short order, that David Cameron was a breath of fresh air changing his party radically, and, more recently, and sadly, the nation knew within weeks of his leadership victory that Ming Campbell was trapped and defined by a past he could not break free from.
In exactly the same way the country can see the sort of Government that Gordon Brown brings.
And it is a Government doomed to disappoint.
It's not for want of personal virtue or laborious application on the part of its members. The Prime Minister is patently someone driven, and driven hard, by a belief in the power of his party to effect change for the better. But for all his application to the task, the Prime Minister is trapped, by circumstances he inherited, choices he has made, trapped in a position which made a sort of sense for a specific time, but which now, sadly for him, leaves him unable to respond effectively to a world which has changed.
The Prime Minister's position, in one sense, recalls the historic position of other leaders who have come to the top job, often after a long apprenticeship, and, tragically, just as the circumstances and ideas which brought their party to power are becoming obsolete.
In that sense, the Prime Minister is like Balfour, a man of great academic talent, fated to become premier at the end of a long period of one-party rule and to disappoint all those who thought him the ablest man of his generation, or like Roseberry, the obvious successor to a liberal interventionist premier, with a reputedly dazzling intellect, yet who crucially lacks the ability to take his party forward into a new world of changed circumstances.
In our own century there have been a number of these leaders who have been fated, like film sequels, to have none of the success of the blockbuster which first brought lustre to their brand.
Whether it's been Neville Chamberlain after Baldwin, Eden after Churchill or Bush senior after Reagan, the successor model has never quite recaptured the excitement of the first. They have been Roger Moores cast to replace the original Sean Connery - with the best will in the world the same quality isn't there.
But the problems of the Brown premiership go even further than
these historical parallels suggest.
For there is another, even more tragic, historical model which the Brown premiership appears fated to follow. The path of the thwarted idealist.
There is a particular type of leader who comes to politics inspired by a particular set of values - ardent, radical, idealistic.
Attachment to these values, and natural talent, carries this type of politician a considerable way. But in order to win power, in order to hold it, in order to manage affairs, in order to woo public opinion, that idealism is progressively diluted, twisted or sacrificed. Such a leader can appear impressive, even after the idealism has dissipated, for as long as the trappings of power allow him to occupy a position at the centre of events.
But, with the idealism which once animated him now bent out of shape by the exercise of power, the occupancy of office becomes increasingly an end in itself. And behind the manoeuvres which holding on to office requires, there is increasingly less to show - a vacuum where once there was a vision.
The twentieth century has had a number of leaders of just this type.
David Lloyd George - one of our most historically significant Chancellors whose peacetime premiership descended into an exercise in idealism-free positioning, truckling to establishment media figures and ideological drift.
Lyndon B Johnson - a man whose early career was marked by a genuine desire to tackle poverty and deprivation but whose idealism was thwarted first by the success of the more dazzlingly charismatic younger man to whom he played number two and whose eventual occupancy of the highest office was shaped by a cynical surfing of events not a principled programme of change.
And Francois Mitterrand - another politician, initially capable of being viewed as an idealist, whose early experience of having his radicalism checked by events left him deploying all his talents not to transform France but to hold on, by every manoeuvre possible, to the highest office, as if the mere occupancy of power by someone from a socialist party was itself a mark of progress.
In all these cases, when they fell there was not just a sense of an old order passing which had lingered too long, there was also a recognition that behind the swell and grandeur of their administration there was a hollowness, a series of empty exercises in manipulation. In a metaphor first deployed by Matthew Parris, the curtain was pulled and where once we had imagined there was the all-powerful Wizard of Oz, there now stood revealed a little man, frantically pulling at levers, which no longer appeared to respond…
The youthful Gordon Brown was certainly an idealist. Anyone who reads his preface to the Red Paper on Scotland, entitled "The Socialist Challenge", can be in no doubt that the author was a man of the Left.
The Gordon Brown who advocated, in 1975 more nationalisation of British industry, state direction of the economy and had no faith in "incentives and local entrepreneurship" was in a very different tradition to the social democrats such as Crosland, Jenkins and Healey who had rejected ever-increasing state control as the route to equality.
For the Brown of the Red Paper, the private ownership of industry was hindering "the further unfolding of the social forces of production", a position which put him directly in opposition to the reformist and revisionist school of social democratic thinking, with its belief in a mixed economy. While the Croslands and Jenkinses looked to Tawney and the Fabian tradition for support in the seventies, Gordon Brown was looking to Gramsci and Marxist thinking.
Now, I draw attention to the ardent socialist idealism of the young Gordon Brown not to mock, or to pillory him for betrayal or hypocrisy. But to emphasise just how ardent his idealism was, and ask, therefore, what price must be exacted on his administration for having moved so far from his starting point?
His position has clearly evolved - the man who counts the arch free marketer, libertarian thinker and capitalist icon Alan Greenspan as his friend is evidently a very different man from the one who once commissioned Tom Nairn and Jim Sillars, the New Left voices of seventies socialist Scotland, to produce a redprint for liberation.
Just as the Lloyd George who became a firm friend of the arch-imperialists Curzon and Beaverbrook was a different person from the youthful radical who opposed the imperial hubris of the Boer War, the LBJ who became a favoured crony of the capitalists at Brown, Kellog and Root, the fore-runners of Halliburton, had been an ardent New Dealer, and the Mitterrand who ended his days embroiled in associations with some of France's biggest capitalist power-brokers had come to power arm-in-arm with the Communists planning mass nationalisation.
In each case power, its pursuit and its exercise, led politicians to change.
And in Gordon Brown's case, the changes made were driven by the long journey he had to take before power was his. In order to defeat the Conservatives, and win eventually in 1997, Gordon Brown helped change Labour - and in the process he himself changed.
He had to learn to accept constraints on public spending - although in his heart he did not believe in them.
He had to recognise the new individualism which social change had brought about - although in his heart he could not reconcile himself to it.
And he has had to accept that the attachments which stir British hearts are not those which once stirred his - and it leaves an aching emptiness inside.
THE NATURE OF BROWNISM
On public spending - the classic problem Labour had throughout the nineteen eighties was the failure of the country to accept the left-wing analysis that social and economic ills would be solved simply by the application of additional public expenditure, administered by the central state.
Even as the country, rightly in my view, began to feel that public services needed a level of attention they weren't getting in the nineties, there was still suspicion that Labour's answer was simply the application of additional cash - money which the voters feared would only be wasted.
The work of students of public opinion from within the Labour family, such as Philip Gould and John Rentoul, demonstrated that throughout the eighties and early nineties Labour attempts to make the case for more tax and spending ran up against public concern that the cash would be squandered, go on the undeserving, be diverted into wasteful routes or swallowed up by powerful lobbies.
So, in order to try to secure consent for increased public expenditure, indeed for increased taxation, Gordon Brown refined and developed a system of targets, a matrix of tightly defined outcomes each of which would be delivered with the passporting of a specific sum, a web of public service agreements by which each department of state was to account for the additional resources committed by committing to specific, and above all, measurable, aspects of performance.
Gordon Brown reasoned that if every additional penny raised could be followed through the system, its progress monitored and the use to which it was then put measured, then it would be impossible to reject the case for additional expenditure because the good it was doing would now be rendered transparent.
So the whole panoply of targets which the Treasury administered, which define the Brown approach to Government, which the Prime Minister defends as vigorously as he can at the despatch box, are constraints adopted in order to prove that this Government's public spending approach is palpably, unarguably, good.
An earlier generation of socialists, a generation of which Brown was once part, would have considered such obsessive monitoring of public servants, and their subordination to this level of bureaucratic oversight, as inimical to any noble vision of the public sector and public service.
For this generation the answer to any defect in the delivery of public service was simply for more resources to be provided, and then for professionals and other workers to be left to get on with it. Brown's, and Labour's abandonment of that position is a rejection of the vision of public sector workers, in Professor Julian Le Grand's terms, as knightly figures who needed no external constraint to do the right thing. It marks, certainly, a departure from left-wing idealism. But it is a departure rooted not in ideological evolution but electoral calculation.
In order to win support for a tax and spend agenda designed to free the public services from the constraint of tight budgets Labour had to adopt a command and control agenda which subjected those same public services to the new constraint of even tighter supervision.
A CENTRALISED STYLE OF GOVERNMENT
So, the idealistic vision of socialist transformation gone - and in its place the seductive lure of the exercise of yet more and more, centralised, power.
Yet centralising power, like a miser hoarding gold, does not bring happiness. It is only through re-distributing power, through handing back control from the centre, that you can enrich every life.
And this is where the limitations of Gordon Brown's position become even more acute. He is profoundly uncomfortable with anything which occurs on any terms but his own. Because acquiring power has involved a sacrifice of so much, in terms of youthful idealism, the surrender of any power is an acutely painful exercise to contemplate.
If we look for one second at the nature and structure of his Government - the fabled big tent - then we can see that he is a ringmaster particularly fond of the whip. His principal Cabinet ministers are, with one or two rare exceptions, all former protégés. Three - Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander - former researchers. Others - such as Alistair Darling - are just satellite powers.
The principle that Cabinet Government should mean that able representatives of different traditions and philosophies within a party are all represented at the top table - the principle that Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan all understood, the principle that even Margaret Thatcher stuck to, with Hurds and Pattens as prominent at the end of her premiership as Pyms and Gilmours were at the beginning - has been abandoned under Brown.
Acutely aware of this weakness, the Prime Minister tried to compensate for it with the creation of his fabled Ministry of all the Talents. He set out to prove that he could live with, indeed, benefit from, other sources of wisdom, prove himself a pluralist.
But we can now see the reality of this co-option of outsiders. It has not resulted in a deepening and broadening of the conversation the Government has with the people, nor has it led to a new flourishing of open discussion within Government as the Prime Minister learns a new humility.
Mark Malloch Brown has been silenced after daring to offer his own opinion on foreign affairs, Digby Jones has been sat on after imagining that his own views on tax and enterprise might be of interest to the PM, and for every other recruit to the Brown administration the lesson is clear - know your place, or lose it.
All these recruits have been wooed on the basis that a relationship of mutual respect was being offered but in fact each new name was merely a notch on the bedpost - a one-night stand - intended to boost the seducer's status while leaving the other party feeling used.
It's a pattern we've seen before - from Wanless to Freud - outsiders are recruited to the Brown mission to lend it the impression of breadth and third party support - but in every case Brown has already decided the trajectory of advance and the outsiders either give cover for that advance, or get crushed under the tank tracks.
This profound unease with pluralism, this unwillingness to cede
power in order to achieve more by collective endeavour than any individual can by himself, has marked out not just Brown's dealings with outsiders but his dealings with all his ministerial colleagues. From Alan Milburn to Robin Cook, Tony Blair to John Reid, the inability of Gordon Brown to cede control has impeded the cause of reform - and in a different way it does so today.
THE ROADBLOCK TO REFORM
Gordon Brown's preferred method of managing public services is, as we have seen, a massively comprehensive and complex array of targets, measurements and monitoring arrangements.
This system has failed in its own terms - with nothing like the measurable improvements one would expect given the level of increased spending - and we can see in the latest pre-budget reports that a variety of targets have had, once again, to be downgraded or even abandoned.
In this year's CSR the target for dealing with MRSA was watered down and the target for reducing truancy was just ditched.
The targets for the number of pupils reaching an acceptable level in English and Maths at the end of primary school has been downgraded as have the targets for the number of 14-year-olds reaching the approved level of literacy and numeracy.
Overall, productivity in the public services, that is measurable outputs divided by extra expenditure, has been deeply disappointing.
According to the Office for National statistics productivity in the NHS has fallen by up to 1.3% every year since 1997 despite record spending. And productivity in education fell by 0.7% every year between 1999 and 2006.
And within the public sector the morale and élan of professionals has been undermined - with the Nurse of the Year leaving the NHS because of too much bureaucracy, a chronic shortage of headteachers because so many are unwilling to submit to centralised control and police officers at their wit's end, as PC David Copperfield's account of life on the frontline forcefully reveals
What makes me saddest of all is that the failure is greatest when it comes to those who need most help. In education we still have the scandal of a system which deepens inequality as children go through school. Instead of education acting as a route to social mobility, instead of making opportunity more equal, we have children from the poorest homes lagging further and further behind with the scandal of 43% of those leaving primary school failing to meet the basic standard in reading, writing and maths while one in five children leaves school unable to read or count properly.
But not only is Gordon Brown's approach failing in all these particulars, it also fails the biggest test of all, the ability to take account of a changing world and generate a vision appropriate to the 21st century.
THE WORLD IS CHANGING - AND LEAVING THIS GOVERNMENT BEHIND
As David Cameron argued in his speech to the Google Zeitgeist conference earlier this month, we are moving into a post-bureaucratic age.
Prior to the emergence of the liberal nation state in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, authority was dispersed, local, familial and often arbitrary.
With the emergence of a powerful centralised authority in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the nation state attempted to control, regulate, police and provide for its citizens. From Bismarck's embryo welfare state to Attlee's cradle to the grave dispensation to the post-New Deal managerial state in the US described by James Burnham, bureaucracies promised progress.
The history of our times however, is characterised by the growth of post-bureaucratic societies in which citizens take more control and seek to exercise greater power over their own lives and they also seek to re-make society in a more open and collaborative fashion, as mobilised volunteers rather than forced conscripts.
In this post-bureaucratic age, citizens are more assertive in their demands of all services, less deferential towards authority, more anxious to see where accountability lies, more convinced that their voice will be heard if they can transfer their loyalty elsewhere, less inclined to accept what has been designed, however thoughtfully for them and more determined to shape, however broadly, something to their taste.
Industry, commerce and technology are all enabling a rapid transition to the post-bureaucratic age. Open-source software collaboration means individuals don't need to wait for Microsoft to give them the upgraded service they need. Peer-to-peer file-sharing in music has broken the power of the monolithic music business. Sky Plus allows us to take control of our viewing and the growth of broadband means we are on the brink of a choice explosion in broadcasting.
In this post-bureaucratic age patients seek not just a second opinion, but a multiplicity of opinions, via the internet and other means, when facing a healthcare dilemma.
Personal identity is defined, and reinforced, by a multiplicity of choices, whether over education, reading, career, music, transport, fashion, the design of one's home, the charitable causes one sponsors or the spiritual traditions which enrich the inner life.
In the bureaucratic era many of these choices were heavily influenced, constrained, or even determined by others - whether it was support for the political party or church our parents belonged to, or expectations about educational achievement dictated by assumptions about our backgrounds.
In the post-bureaucratic era the public services have to change, in some cases quite significantly, to respond to new expectations. If they do not change then not only will their performance continue to disappoint, but also their performance relative to institutions in other, more adaptive countries will fall yet further behind.
If services do not respond to new demands then the risk grows of more individuals becoming detached from, increasingly resentful of the cost of, collective provision. For those of us who believe in the importance of maintaining strong support for taxpayer-funded public services, universal in scope, the need for reform is thus all the more urgent.
But under Gordon Brown the necessary changes are not being made - as the embodiment of the bureaucratic state, the man who has developed it to its highest level of centralisation, supervision and second-guessing - he is hardly like to abandon the mechanisms which have come to define him. He is so wedded to the bureaucratic way of operating that he cannot provide the change the public services need. And we have seen that in the way his ministers have behaved.
EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION
Take education, and the approach of my opposite number, Ed Balls.
He has moved, deliberately and with great determination, to close off openings for reform in our schools.
In 2005, when the Blair government published its Education White Paper the then Prime Minister and Education Secretary talked optimistically of the need for greater pluralism and diversity in schools, anticipated the development of fully independent schools within the state system, hoped to see a progressively smaller role for local education authorities, with all new state schools being created outside their embrace and they cited Florida and Sweden as exemplars, looking to those states which had enacted thorough-going supply side reform with greater parental choice and control as their models.
That vision anticipated, in its sense that LEAs should play a humbler role and parental choice a much larger one, the advance of the post-bureaucratic age.
That vision was given greater clarity and force by Alan Milburn in a speech he gave last September which argued explicitly for parental choice and school reform influenced by the Swedish model.
But it is a vision deeply uncongenial to Ed Balls. At the time the White Paper was going through the House of Commons he told the New Statesman that he opposed its thrust, didn't see what was wrong with bureaucratic control of schools and instead of moving in this, more liberal direction, he wanted policy to be changed to reflect more partisan considerations. His priority, he said, was restoring clear dividing lines with the Conservatives on education policy.
Well the job application worked - that agenda was clearly attractive to the new PM because Ed was duly installed as the minister responsible for schools and has since set about putting the brakes on reform.
Take academies. They were supposed to be genuinely independent schools within the state system, operating outside the reach of local authorities, in areas of deprivation and under-achievement, free to innovate and improve, acting as a spur to goad complacent bureaucracies and models of new good practice to emulate, but under Ed they have seen their freedoms stifled.
Instead of operating at arm's length from local bureaucratic control, they are now increasingly subordinated to its leadership. Instead of enjoying freedom over the curriculum, and freedom from bureaucratic modes of thought and operation, academies have had that option withdrawn.
No wonder those more reactionary union voices in the anti-reform lobby are delighted while those passionately committed to reform, not least because of their commitment to helping the most disadvantaged pupils, are despondent. Jennifer Moses, of the charity ARK, responsible for setting up new academies designed to help some of our children with the most challenging backgrounds has said, "rather than forcing academies back into the local authority family, we should be extending these freedoms to more schools."
The Government argue that their commitment to reform is shown in the increase in the number of academies. But that figure is nowhere near as impressive as it seems - their target of 400 by 2010, a decade after the legislation was first introduced compares poorly with Sweden which, although a country one-sixth our size, saw 469 new schools enter the state sector in the first 12 years following its reforms.
Yet numbers are not the real issue. If new academies are denied any real freedom to innovate, to provide a diverse way of operating, to escape from bureaucratic capture, then how can they provide the choice we need and generate the improvements we seek? If all they provide is the old model - straight off the production line - re-badged and more highly polished - we have denied ourselves the opportunity to benefit from meaningful diversity - the pluralism is purely for show, the choice on offer merely superficial.
Given the power of bureaucracies to resist change, the temperamental aversion of entrenched interests to innovations which challenge their monopolies, you cannot afford even to go slow, or equivocate, on reform, never mind go backwards and hope all will be well. Ed Balls's tenure in education so far has drained reform of all its momentum and delighted the defenders of the bureaucratic status quo.
Ed's worrying tendency to defer to the bureaucratic world-view, rather than think of professional freedom, parental control and pupil interests first, was on display again last week when he succumbed to the education establishment's long-nurtured aspiration to serve notice on the A-level and collapse the distinction between academic and vocational education. For far too long now, the educational establishment has put its ideological pre-occupations and in particular its dislike of excellence, ahead of the need to equip young people with the knowledge which they need to make themselves authors of their own destiny. The subversion of the A-level has long been an ambition for this bureaucracy, the same people who brought us five-minute lessons, pupils marking each others work and Churchill written out of the curriculum, and they have got their way at last.
Of course, the rhetoric coming from Government is all about putting individuals first - or "personalising" learning. But there is a fundamental deception at the heart of what they offer. Their approach to education is not to offer individuals real choice and control, but to have the bureaucracy assign nominally "individualised" attention to each of us - very often the same "individualised" attention for most of us.
Like those letters from direct mail companies that begin with our Christian name but have the same centrally-generated content, or cold calls from marketing companies which affect intimacy but operate to a tightly-ordered script, the Government's "personalised" public services offer just the level of distinctiveness the centralised bureaucracy consider necessary to make us feel looked after. But without that proper responsiveness to our needs which puts us in control.
There are some specific problems about personalisation in education, with the process which is going on under that name actually depriving individual children of the tools they need to most effectively defeat ignorance, but now is not the time to delve into that debate in the detail necessary.
RETREAT AND REVERSAL
Instead it is important to recognise that in health, as in education, the rhetoric of personalisation runs in parallel with a diminution in respect for public opinion, an erosion of the principle of real choice and a dilution of pluralism in the system.
As the NHS is, supposedly, moving in the direction of personalisation the institutions which embody personal care to many - the maternity and accident and emergency units of our district general hospitals - are being dismantled. The door is being eased closed to new providers, and the commissioning structures left in the hands of bureaucrats.
Indeed the sort of personalisation being offered looks likely to require not less bureaucracy - but more - as further information about processes, outcomes and ever more minutely-tailored targets is requested by the bureaucrats charged with delivering.
A genuinely post-bureaucratic vision for the public services recognises that its empowered citizens, capable of holding producers to account, in a system which promotes pluralism and diversity, which enables services to improves fastest. And in a post-bureaucratic world the moral imperative to spread opportunity more equally can be accomplished best by giving citizens not just more resources to secure better services but the power to choose.
But that is a challenge the Brown Government can't meet. Because the surrender of power downwards is something so alien to the master bureaucrat Brown that he can no more provide the necessary reform than he could plausibly cheer Gazza scoring against Scotland. Instead, in the absence of any vision for change, what we have are manoeuvres designed to keep power in Brownite hands.
Let me mention just two areas where the Government has tried to carve out an allegedly distinctive position - housing and Britishness.
The Government claims to be on the side of aspiration, and wider home ownership, even as the number of home owners has fallen, for the first time in recorded history, under this Government.
The commitment to wider ownership is, of course, made less credible by the considerable tax increases on ownership, not least through stamp duty, which Gordon Brown has levied. But instead of taking their share of the blame for the rise in prices, and the affordability problem thus created, the Government prefers to lay responsibility at the door of local authorities - Conservative local authorities.
Tory councils are portrayed as wicked nimbies, standing in the way of development, deliberately preventing the next generation from acquiring new home by refusing planning permission for them all. This attack ignores the significant level of additional building welcomed by Conservative local authorities but it also neglects to take into account the Government's own failures.
This Government has introduced no significant reform to the planning system which would make housebuilding easier, offered no new level of meaningful financial support to areas which might welcome building in order to fund appropriate infrastructure, provided no worthwhile reform of local government finance in order to incentivise building. And I know from my own constituency the Government has been curiously languid when attempting to deal with European legislation which holds back development.
Why, if house-building is so important to Gordon Brown, have figures been so low for so long and radical reform has been absent from anything he's done so far?
Because he would rather have a situation in which he could put Tory politicians in the dock than create the circumstances where problems could be solved by people other than him. Our housing problems can only be resolved when local communities are provided with the power and incentives to develop appropriately - but Gordon Brown won't see power dispersed - because his own hold on power depends on making those local authorities the villains.
The way in which the Government has tried to create difficulties on this issue, referring to housing as "the next grammar schools", reveals their mindset - policy is to be used to create difficulties for the Tories not opportunities for all.
If his Government's housing policy is influenced by tactical considerations, so is its interest in Britishness. What is striking about the Brown of the Red Paper on Scotland is his open-ness to Scottish nationalist arguments and thinkers. What is striking about the Brown who is Prime Minister now is the way his own power is threatened by Scottish nationalism.
Affirming the importance of Britishness is thus a way of affirming his own legitimacy for the Prime Minister. But beyond affirming its importance, and asking us to help define it, what has the Prime Minister ever done to outline what is distinctive and cherishable about British national identity which makes it worth celebrating and qualitatively different from any other form of civic patriotism?
When the Prime Minister talks about British traditions of liberty, open-ness and fair play how does that distinguish us from, say, the Dutch or the Danes?
Britain's distinctive civic identity is inseparable from its institutions. These have been vessels for the values which define us. Our Parliament, with its traditions reflecting the long battle of the people and their representatives to take power away from an arrogant, unaccountable, executive is central to Britishness. And yet the Prime Minister is seeking to undermine it further by yielding its powers to the European Union.
Another distinctive feature of these islands is the Common Law tradition which sits so uneasily with the more abstract concept of rights favoured in other political dispensations. Our tradition of liberty is rooted in that legal tradition, but Gordon Brown has shown no willingness to understand how imported legal mechanisms have subverted that tradition.
Instead of outlining a vision of Britishness which defends aspects of our civic culture from external challenges, or home-grown relativists, Gordon Brown's campaign is, I fear, primarily about defending his own position. That is not, in itself, ignoble, but it hardly constitutes a revived modern patriotism.
It does, however, serve as a powerful metaphor for what he is all about - the conflation of high-flown rhetoric and appeals to our better nature with a narrow tactical calculation of personal political advantage.
The tragedy of Gordon Brown's premiership, however long it lasts, is that its remaining raison d'etre is its own longevity. The Prime Minister and his closest colleagues spent the summer not preparing for the next century but positioning themselves for an electoral contest.
That's why we had the opportunism of a trip to Iraq where our soldiers were used to dress the set for a pre-election announcement on troop numbers, the co-option of slogans such as British jobs for British workers which a man as intelligent as the Prime Minister must wince every time he deploys and Jack Straw's shameless embrace of proposals to give individuals the right to self-defence which he spent all his time rubbishing when he was Home Secretary. These were tactical feints, designed to throw the media, and the Conservatives, off-balance rather than win converts for a newly-refurbished politics of the left.
And that's because there is no newly-refurbished politics of the Left, simply an itch to centralise and a faith in bureaucratic control which speaks of nothing so much as an attachment to power itself.
But if it is Gordon Brown's tragedy is to find that all he has left to occupy him are schemes and stratagems to cling onto office it is Labour's tragedy that they are now landed with him for the next few years. They have a working majority, and were given the chance to renew themselves in office. But just as Gordon flunked the election challenge, so Labour flunked the leadership challenge. Instead of recognising that a new century, and a new politics, required the torch to pass to a new generation, they forgot what had sustained them in power and failed, when it mattered, to modernise.
The requirements of internal Labour party politics prevailed over the chance to build a new relationship of trust with the nation. The Brown team stressed the need to guarantee a stable transition - that was simply code for not upsetting the brooding presence in Number Eleven by forcing him to actually make arguments rather than simply assert a claim. But the price of internal Labour party stability was the sacrifice of any dynamism in leadership of the country.
Perhaps the Labour party may yet realise the historic mistake it has made and make the generational change it shied away from, offering a renewed centre left approach to the challenges of our post-bureaucratic age.
But I fear that the Labour Party, like its leader, doesn't have the courage to change now, both the Prime Minister and his party are trapped by the decisions they made when they thought that holding onto power was more important than moving with the times.
On public services they flinch from reform, and hold the country back
Instead of adapting to a new age of freedom and dispersed power they have clung to centralised control and hoarded power
In public debate they choose not to offer hope, but simply go on the attack
Instead of introducing a new and more plural style of Government they have tried to resurrect an old politics of division, denigration and distortion
And in their style of Government, not least on Europe, they decide what we need and tell us not to answer back
They have said to the British people "give us your trust and accept our judgement" when a new politics of optimism should place its trust in the British people's own judgement
Nothing in politics is so powerful as idealism - it is Labour's tragedy that while they cling to power, the idealism in British politics is now found elsewhere…"