Two weeks ago Tony Blair invited a select bunch of academics to No. 10 to help him find his 'Third Way'. But, asks Brian Brivati, what exactly is it and where will it lead?
In opposition Tony Blair liked to talk about his project for the Labour Party. In government, he can get virtually anyone he wants into Number 10 to discuss his vision for Britain. Earlier this month he assembled a group of the best and brightest from British academe, including members of the think-tank Nexus, to talk over the new political approach which has been termed the "Third Way". It is a gathering which will take place monthly from now on, each time with a different theme on the agenda.
Blair's need and approach are understandable. He has been running ahead of his party, and in some ways the country, and now needs an ideology to match his rhetoric. But the mystery remains, even after last week's seminar: what does the Third Way mean?
Imagine it. You have two hours to make an impression on a politician who is known to listen and learn. But more than this, you have been asked to spell out the significance and workings of the Third Way, the political philosophy that will lead Labour into its second term, if only it can be decided what it means and how it connects with the party's existing vision thing: social justice.
Some stage fright is understandable. But what was seen to have come out of the Number 10 session in early May is hopeless division and confusion. It could be that we are simply in the early days of the formation of a new politics and should not expect coherence or even conviction. It could also be that the content of the Third Way, as it begins to be implemented in policy terms, will be much more radical than what has so far been claimed by either David Halpern (Cambridge University) or Stewart Wood (Oxford University), founders of Nexus.
The Number 10 seminar proved that everything is, in a sense, up for grabs. There are four or five discrete positions competing within the general area of the Third Way. Some people at the seminar, such as the political theorist David Marquand, do not believe that we need the new political concept of the Third Way, arguing that there is much that needs to be done within existing political frameworks. Others suggest that only thinking rooted in social and economic reality matters. For yet other academics, like sociologist Anthony Giddens, capturing and focusing political language is essential if the Third Way is to be a genuninely new political position and not just warmed up Thatcherism or watered down social democracy.
Part of the problem is that much of the running in the Third Way debate has been made by those who think that the free market has a greater role to play in the economy. These market-solution thinkers, including Halpern and Wood, set out the Third Way as the means to transcend state socialism on the one hand and the unrestricted market on the other. They are making the waves at present much as similar people did in the mid-1980s, when an intoxicating mixture of power, popularity and rhetoric overtook the Thatcher government.
In higher education, for example, Wood argues that the Russell Group of top research universities will break free and charge a market rate for the teaching they offer students, so Blair should get ahead of the game and make a virtue of the fact that different universities will charge different fees for teaching. The implication is that the government cannot control the pricing policy of these elite universities. So bugger the rest and to hell with access and higher education as a right. In a wider political arena Halpern argues that the state should pull back to such an extent that it stops helping those who take risks. The logical conclusion is that the state will not treat you if you choose to smoke and thereby contract cancer. The state will abandon a universal definition of citizenship, because it cannot afford medical treatment for everyone as we live longer and expect better health. This is the current vision thing. Thankfully, there are other views, not least the prime minister's, that do not share this bleak view of the future and do not endorse this frightening view of the Third Way. It is these voices that will matter in the long run because they include what Thatcher's children omit, practical policy thinking and practical politics.
The resolution of higher education's problems does not begin with the market price of Russell Group degrees. It begins with Labour's historic commitment to equality of opportunity in access to higher education. It begins with the way in which that established vision can be implemented in the era of mass higher education: it is a vision that is worthy of Blair's rhetoric and central to the long-term competitiveness of Britain. Luxury rates for one-to-one tuition are antediluvian irrelevances that will wither, not given factors of the future. But more than this, restricting middle England's access to elite universities by a flexible pricing policy for higher education is a massive vote loser in the new Labour heartlands of former Tory Britain. For that reason alone the government will prevent it and it is a nonsense to suggest that the government cannot prevent it. Nation states have lost power over many things in the evolving global economy, but the higher education system is not one of them.
As far as Haplern's risk analysis is concerned, it requires some hard number-crunching logic and political reality. You cannot build a new political philosophy - or renew the welfare state - on the presumption of inequality of citizenship. How will we be able to define a cancer caused by smoking as opposed to one resulting from other causes? Smokers could challenge such provisions on a host of legal grounds, but also, presumably, Halpern would remove the tax on cigarettes, hypothecate health taxes to exempt unhealthy eaters and so on. As soon as citizenship becomes unequal a large part of the edifice of society collapses and with it, the public realm shrinks further. Is that the vision thing?
As the debate develops we will hear a lot less of the back-to-the-future thinking of some of these early kites. The implementation of policy will take over from rhetoric as government develops and its overall direction and the difference it has made become plainer. Central to the long-term future of the Third Way as a new ideology will be its impact on Britain's two nations. That is the divide that Blair, and even more Gordon Brown, have indicated as central to their vision. They have the opportunity to end British decline in a way Thatcher never could because they are interested in the whole and not just the affluent parts.
Brian Brivati is reader in history at Kingston University.
WHO'S IN WITH THE PM? ACADEMICS AT THE SEMINAR
Anthony Giddens, Howard Glennerster, John Gray, Julian Le Grand, all of the London School of Economics; Alan Finlayson, Queen's University, Belfast; Andrew Gamble and Gavin Kelly, University of Sheffield; David Halpern, Melissa Lane, Cambridge University; Stewart Wood, Christopher Lake, David Marquand, Lord Raymond Plant,Lucia Zedner, Frank Vandenbrouck, all of Oxford University; Judith Squires,Bristol University;Paul Thompson, Edinburgh University;Joni Lovenduski, Southampton University.