He primes ministers

February 26, 1999

He has the ear of the prime minister, heads the LSE and is 'one of the 300 most powerful people in Britain'. Not bad for a boy from Edmonton. Harriet Swain talks to Anthony Giddens

 

The bright new dining hall at the London School of Economics hums with multilingual chatter. Computers buzz in the new computer rooms, mixed white, black and brown groupings hover around the freshly painted entrances. Plans are afoot to refurbish the LSE's social science library, with more refurbishments to follow elsewhere.

But in the director's office there is an air of weariness. It has been quite a couple of years for Anthony Giddens. Made LSE director in 1997, he quickly put in hand innovations designed not only to maintain the school's position as a top academic centre but to make it the capital's hub of ideas for the general public.

Already associated with new Labour before the party came to power, Giddens also became known as a guru of Blairism during the government's first year. He was present at the so-called "Chequers One seminar" held by prime minister Tony Blair late in 1997 for Hillary Clinton and senior American officials to look at the politics of the centre left. He then accompanied Blair to Washington for a return match on the same theme. So it is hardly surprising he was recently included on a list of the 300 most powerful people in Britain.

Meanwhile, snatching minutes between meetings and on planes he wrote The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, an attempt to find a philosophy between the new right/Thatcherism on the one hand and social democracy/the old left on the other. The book propelled him into celebrity status from Japan to South America.

And now he is giving the 1999 Reith lectures. He was pleased to be asked, of course. He says the end of the millennium is an "auspicious" time to be giving them. But he confesses they have been a struggle to write. Usually, he speaks off the cuff, but the BBC wanted the lectures written down.

He will also have to deliver them in four different countries. This is because the theme is globalisation. He starts recording in London on March 22. Three days later, he will be in Delhi, talking about tradition. Four days later, it will be risk in Hong Kong, then a focus on the family in Washington on April 20 and finally back to London for democracy the following week.

Wiry for his 61 years, Giddens tends to inspire adjectives like prolific or restless. Author of more than 20 books, he started Polity Press, one of the chief social studies publishers, in 1984, and he still lectures to students in addition to the day-to-day duties of being director.

He modestly told Christopher Pierson in Conversations with Anthony Giddens, published last year, that he learned the value of hard work early on from Norbert Elias at Leicester University: "If you are relatively untalented, as I am, you can make up a good deal of the difference simply by giving more time to your chosen endeavour than others do and sticking with it through the difficult patches."

His critics attack him for being too productive, for churning out quantity rather than quality of work, dipping into different disciplines and skimming over details. His fans - and they are strikingly devoted - say he is not only a hard worker but under-estimated. "There is not much Tony couldn't do if he really put his mind to it," said one.

Now Giddens obligingly opens the well-oiled ideas box and pulls out thought after thought in a low, classless, matter-of-fact voice - about family life, sexuality, modern communications, active government, risk.

His key idea, first outlined in his 1979 book Central Problems in Social Theory, is structuration. This is the theory that social structures and individual action are inextricably linked and that people can draw on information and their personal experience to transform the structures that organise them.

He moved on from this to explore "modernity", arguing that modern society is no longer bound by tradition, that "pre-existing habits are only a limited guide to action, while the future, open to numerous 'scenarios' becomes of compelling interest".

Advances in communications mean time and space are now organised independently - conversations and commercial transactions can take place instantly across continents - which forces people to find ways of dealing with new kinds of pressures. Whereas in the past the rhythms of the natural world framed people's actions, increasingly, he argues, the conditions in which we live are the product of our actions and our actions a way of handling the risks and opportunities we have created. This he calls "reflexivity" and he argues that it affects every individual and their relationships.

"The self today is for everyone a reflexive project - a more or less continuous interrogation of past, present and future," he wrote in Transformation of Intimacy, published in 1992. Giddens argues that relationships now rely less on tradition than on negotiation between partners, what he calls the "democratisation of emotions", and that these kind of changes in personal life stretch right up to the institutions that control society.

The idea of a changing world, the sense that the future is up-for-grabs proved irresistible to Tony Blair and new Labour, fresh in office and looking for a way to distinguish themselves from previous unpopular governments. Giddens recognises this. He writes in The Third Way: "Bereft of the old certainties, governments claiming to represent the left are creating policy on the hoof. Theoretical flesh needs to be put on the skeleton of their policy-making - not just to endorse what they are doing but to provide politics with a greater sense of direction Hence new Labour's enthusiasm for the 'third way'."

But the Reith lectures also tackle another Labour obsession - changes in sexuality and family relationships and how these have altered the way people live. Twice divorced, with two daughters and two step-daughters, Giddens has experienced the shifting patterns of modern family life. In The Third Way he sketches new models, suggesting the "protection and care of children" as the most important thread that should guide family policy, although the chapter also reads a bit like a plea on behalf of divorced and unmarried dads - that they should have more parenting rights and more support when they do choose to look after their offspring.

Giddens was born in Edmonton, north London, to a household with few books. His father was a clerical worker in an office that dealt with refurbishing underground carriages, his mother a housewife. At the age of seven his friends were stealing sweets from shops. A member of an informal gang, he lived in "more or less chronic fear" of more violent groups by whom he was "occasionally roughed up".

While not particularly interested in schoolwork at Minchenden School, Southgate, he read philosophy, psychology and anthropology in his own time "more as a protest gesture than anything else". Without support from the school, he applied to university, only to be rejected by all but Hull, which was experimenting with interviewing a range of people, including those without high qualifications.

After Hull, where he read psychology and sociology and was the only one in his cohort of students not to be a member of the Socialist Society, he studied for an MA at the LSE, writing his dissertation on "Sport and Society in Contemporary England". His interest in sport remains - he is a keen skier, former tennis partner of Baroness Blackstone and supporter of Tottenham Hotspur - but in the time no one at the LSE took it seriously.

He found fellow enthusiasts only at Leicester University, where he taught sociology, before travelling across the Atlantic, at the height of student radicalism, to teach in Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, then the University of California, Los Angeles.

On his return, he went to Cambridge, where he became a fellow and tutor of economics at King's College. As a sociologist from a non-Oxbridge background he had trouble adjusting and he never felt entirely accepted. His application for promotion to readership was rejected nine times. The appointment to the LSE, soon after being made a Cambridge professor, also raised eyebrows in some quarters.

But he has applied to the job his usual energy - and it needs it. "The LSE really needs a lot more money in my view to compete with the top American universities," he says. On whether different universities should charge students different levels of fees, Giddens says he continues to have an open mind, although he cannot see change happening soon because the government is so opposed. For him, the key is access. "I don't have any objection to the principle of students paying more for education," he says. "But the fundamental thing is protecting the possibility of students from poorer backgrounds coming in and being successful."

If he ever leaves the LSE, he says he would like to tackle some of the more human questions that arise from social and global changes - their effects on individual lives. "I think there are very profound issues beyond what is going on in the world, away from third-way politics. Something very fundamental that I would like to write a book about. Somehow I feel there is some big agenda I have to find. So if I ever give up the LSE that's what I would try to do."

This will surprise some, who would expect him to become more deeply involved in politics. But while Giddens stresses that he is an academic not a politician, his work states that ideas and their communication are enough to profoundly change the world. And that is what he is already doing.

 

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