All zest and little nerve

The Third Way

September 25, 1998

'As Oliver Cromwell, scarcely old Labour, once observed, none climbs so high as he who knows not whither he is going.' John Dunn has doubts about the destination of Blair's and Giddens's 'third way'

Anthony Giddens is an alert and astonishingly fluent sociologist, who recently moved from the chair in his subject at Cambridge to direct the London School of Economics. The Third Way is his assessment of the tasks facing, and the prospects for, social democracy as the millennium ends. For long the most striking feature of Giddens's work was the breadth of his intellectual interests and the apparent limitlessness of his energies. What makes his views on social democracy in Britain important is the long rumoured but now quite publicly documented fact that our present prime minister, Tony Blair, values his opinions and sees a close affinity between them and his own political sensibility and purposes.

Most sociologists (or political theorists) would give their eye teeth to have the ear of a prime minister. Almost any prime minister would do at a pinch. But a leader with the political flair and the initially awesome personal ascendancy and freedom for manoeuvre of Tony Blair would be a prize indeed. Since it is still so unclear quite what Blair wishes to achieve (aside from unlimited tenure of office), or even what he wishes to achieve it for, the identifiable sources of his inspiration matter more than they otherwise might. (The sources of John Major's inspiration, for example, seem to have been drawn more from the cricket field than the university podium. But even at the time it was hard to believe that it much mattered where they came from.) What then does Giddens see as the desirable or likely future for social democracy in Britain? It is less easy to answer this question after reading the book than it might be; but you can make a start. The first and second ways (the numeration tactfully drawn from a statement by the prime minister in Washington earlier this year) were socialism and neo-liberalism. Socialism here encompasses both old-fashioned British social democracy of the Attlee vintage and the more flamboyant aspirations of its predecessors, contemporaries and successors here and in many other countries for well over a century (less a broad church than a somewhat dissipated great tradition). Neo-liberalism, a more historically compact entity, means effectively the right-wing politics of the wealthier and more successful countries over the past quarter of a century (the programmes, and perhaps also the broader political purposes, of Thatcher, Reagan, and even Chancellor Kohl). New Labour has been at pains to distance itself from each of these for as long as the brand has been on offer (if somewhat more politely so in the case of the Attlee experience than of currents to its left). Other western European social democratic parties (many, as Giddens points out, now in office) have varied in their zest for brightening the line between their own pasts and their hopes for the future. President Clinton, in the balmy days when he could devote more of his time to such matters, was often more tentative in contrasting himself with his Republican predecessors.

Product differentiation is important in politics (a point far from lost on new Labour). It is easy to see why Blair, Clinton and Jospin (Prodi is an odder candidate for a social democrat on anyone's criterion) should wish to distinguish themselves from the first or second ways. But it would be nice to be a shade clearer just what their own goals are.

What is clear is what they no longer believe in. These are parties which have in some ways lost their political nerve, without in any way losing their zest (or in many cases their opportunity) for office. It has never been hard for them to distinguish themselves from the exponents of the second way. These were their immediate, vociferous, and frequently for long all-too-triumphant political enemies. But the contrast with the first way is inherently more delicate, since it was the way of their own past selves: what they used to believe in, and in some instances plainly long to believe in still. It was also, however, the way, at least in public stereotype, which lost four British national elections in a row, and gave a politician with the crudity (and guts) of Margaret Thatcher the chance to set her stamp so emphatically on the lives of her fellow citizens.

Giddens too, unsurprisingly, seeks to reassert the more engaging and edifying features of this past self, while making it clear that he fully understands what it is about the world of today or tomorrow that makes this so inhospitable to its political style and strategies. He stresses above all the irreversibility of the intensification and acceleration of global economic interaction and the consequent forlornness of any governmental attempt to plan and control the social or economic format of the lives of national populations in any detail. The exponents of the second way were simply right to insist on the ferocity and the irresistible authority of world market price competition, and the need for all of us who can to take a grip on our lives and assume the responsibility to plan, insure and direct these so that we can cope with it for ourselves. Sauve qui peut is an irreproachable slogan for the "philosophic conservatism" which Giddens commends. But, whatever else it implies, "can", of course, definitely implies "can". If you want to judge just how stern our new Labour masters (and mistresses) mean to be, watch carefully what happens to the reform of disability benefits.

Globalisation, Giddens insists, has cultural just as much as economic consequences. Old social democracy was culturally pretty parochial (in imaginative habit, if not in overt allegiance). Attlee's Britain was in some ways profoundly parochial: all too relieved to retreat into itself after the fears and struggles of the war (a fit political project for the tired centre of an already rapidly imploding empire). Blair's Britain will be (is? must strive to become?) a cosmopolitan nation. It has no remaining enemies. (This is not the view from Baghdad or the Afghan training camps.) What it needs to face is what we all always need to face: risks. The big question is just how it should set about facing them.

The first way had in a sense a destination (perhaps one it almost reached in Britain around 1950, or, more ambitiously, in Sweden a quarter of a century later). The second way had at least a definite line of advance. It might be hard to judge its prospects for ever arriving. But it was at least clear where it was trying to go. But, even when Giddens has finished, the third way still remains pretty discreet about its compass bearings.

Partly this is just a matter of expository style. There is little here on carefully described mechanisms for bringing about intended social or economic effects. There is no distinctive vision of what any aspects of social, political or economic experience are really like anywhere in particular. What there is in abundance are two things: in the first place a great array of approved vocabulary for picking out what is factually true about societies, economies and states today (a mildly Confucian rectification of names), and in the second an abundance of direction on the attitudes that social democrats should adopt towards these and what should happen as a result of their doing so. What is missing is any discernible conception of just what it means to say that something should occur in politics. (Should from whose point of view? Should by what criteria? Should just why and quite how? And does "should" necessarily imply "can"?) For all its brevity and confidence, The Third Way is a slightly fatigued book. (Even for someone of Giddens's formidable and engaging vitality it must be tiring running a major British university nowadays.) What it does say is in no way objectionable; but it is disappointingly anodyne and unspecific, especially as a message in Tony Blair's ear.

Social democracy is principally a view about how (and why) to use the power of government (the power which Blair now has, and which we have recently given him). Conservatism is a far-from-stupid view about how to use this power. But it has always been open to the suspicion of being less directive than it needs to be. What guidance does the "philosophic conservatism" of new Labour really offer? Burke, for example, is praised en passant by Giddens at one point. But what is Burke as a political pilot without an ancien regime to rescue or defend? Michael Oakeshott, at Giddens's own institution back in Attlee's days, offered a more compact epitome of political education - forget about destinations: just don't sink. Does Blair himself really need the advice to proceed with caution and eschew extremes?

Oliver Cromwell, scarcely old Labour but perhaps discernibly further from its novel counterpart, once observed bleakly to the French ambassador that none climbs so high as he who knows not whither he is going. (For he presumably read also she.) Blair is a politician of immense talent, but less frank at present with his fellow citizens (indeed perhaps even with himself) than we have a right to hope. (And what exactly, on this score, has happened to the Freedom of Information Act?) Now that the world economy is faltering so alarmingly, it may matter less just what he does hope to achieve than it did when he surged into office. That historical opportunity is probably already irretrievably squandered. But it would still be good to be told. Where is the third way going? Or is the model of directional motion inappropriate (deceptive or self-deceptive) in the first place?

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy

Author - Anthony Giddens
ISBN - 0 7456 2266 6 and 2267 4
Publisher - Polity
Price - £25.00 and £6.95
Pages - 155

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