Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Third Way

Chris Brooke has a series of five posts, partly prompted by an article in the Grauniad today, about the slightly disturbing way in which the Labour Party under Blair has adopted slogans used in the past by fascists, going on to discuss what exactly the ideological content of New Labour is. They're all interesting, but what really piqued my interest was the reference to my kind-of supervisor, Stuart White, and his piece in the book he edited on the Third Way. As I understood when but a lowly undergraduate, his point is that there are two roughly left-right cleavages within Third Way European social democracy: real vs. formal equality of opportunity and social responsibilities vs. individual rights.

The idea is that within a broad framework of equality of opportunity and civic responsibility, which are the distinctive normative commitments of the Third Way, there are choices between emphasizing a lack of formal barriers, or providing a genuine helping hand, and between taking punitive action against those who degrade a social environment, or recognizing sometimes awkward individual rights, precisely because of the broadness of the framework. This leaves a kind of two-two matrix giving ideological slants within the Third Way: economically egalitarian and socially liberal, economically egalitarian and socially authoritarian, economically free-market and socially liberal, and ecomomically free-market and socially authoritarian.

One could believe for example, in extensive support for the poorly paid, for working mothers, and generous retraining and relocation programmes, encouraging businesses to move into economically deprived areas, and in attempting to eliminate, through redistributive taxation, inherited inequalities, and take either the position that low-level vandalism should be stamped by curfews and all the rest, or that it should be dealt with by an engagement with its primarily social causes and a respect for the rights of the criminal, as well as those of the victim. Equally, one could combine the belief that once a basic level of services and a minimally decent level of income are secured for all, our economic obligations are fulfilled, with either of those two positions.

I think White's idea about the main normative commitments of the Third Way is basically right: equality of outcome is more or less gone as an end for Labour under Blair, for example, and the references to vaguely communitarian notions ought to be familiar (he also talks about the way that Third Way politicians emphasise the importance of non-state actors in securing these goals: hence PFI, privately-run but mostly state-funded schools and so on). What's interesting is that I think it's fairly clear on which sides of these two divides New Labour comes down, the socially authoritarian and the economically free-market. Whilst their attacks on civil liberties, both of terrorists and of petty criminals, are fairly well known, it is noticeable that their welfare reforms have basically aimed at ensuring that it is possible and not economically disadvantageous to enter employment, rather than attacking an ingrained class structure which does substanially alter opportunity sets.

This makes them basically One-Nation Tories: although some of us may be at the bottom of the pile, those at the top have the responsibility to ensure that they have the opportunity to live a minimally decent life, as long as they do not fall into the category of the undeserving poor (all that rhetoric about social exclusion does hide the basic fact that New Labour has resurrected, maybe only morally, as opposed to economically, the category of the undeserving poor) either through idleness or moral squalor. For all Blair's rhetoric about being the inheritor of Gladstonian liberalism as well as of the vision of the New Jerusalem bequeathed by the 1945 government, the late-nineteenth century politician he resembles the most is Gladstone's opponent across the dispatch box, Disraeli. Perhaps the apparent alliance with brewers is not wholly coincidental, in this respect: Gladstone's liberal party, good non-conformists to a man, would have never extended pub opening hours, whereas the Tory sympathies of publicans were an electoral force of no little note in the nineteenth century.

Anyway, to return to Chris Brooke's posts. Chris talks a bit about how a lot of New Labour rhetoric is not quite fascist, but similar to the rhetoric of Vichy France, which from what little I know about it, was basically a kind of One-Nation Tory deal. But White's diagnosis could have told us that too.

Postscript: Stumbling and Mumbling infers, from the content of some of Blair's speeches, an admiration for the Tory-Liberal Imperialist governments of the late nineteenth century. Interesting in this context, perhaps...


Shuggy said...

I completely disagree with the One-nation Tory tag and think the conventional Gladstone comparison is the right one. The only respect in which Blair resembles Dizzy is that they both understood that their parties had to reach beyond their natural constituency if they were to form future governments.

One-nation conservatism places the obligation on the ruling class to be charitable to the less fortunate precisely because they saw no prospect for much social mobility. Blair's much more the hard-faced meritocrat, unconcerned about inequality provided everyone has the opportunity to step over the poor on the way to the opera.

I would suggest that the aspects of New Labour's rule that looks one-nation toryish is simply old fashioned social democratic redistribution, albeit on a pretty timid scale - and this comes courtesy of Brown, rather than Blair.

Rob Jubb said...

Predictably, I disagree. There are undoubtedly differences between One-Nation Tories and Blair, and there are undoubtedly some similarities between Gladstonian Liberalism and Blair - liberal interventionism abroad and support for devolution, for example - but I think, at least most domestic issues, it is useful to think of New Labour as like One-Nation Tories. One-Nation Tories did not, I think, believe in charity on behalf of the social elites to the less well-off, but an obligation to better their condition: we are all in this together, and it is wrong for you to suffer, when we can alleviate that suffering, because we are all One Nation. It is true that they did not believe in changing the shape of the social heirarchy, but they did believe in ensuring that they social heirarchy did not translate into serious material disbenefit. This seems similar to me to the New Labour aim of ensuring that work pays, but not tackling inequality for its own sake, not attacking the class structure, as a genuine social democrat would do. There is a place for everyone, and it should not be a really bad place, but there is a place.

The social authoritarianism also gives it away, I think. All those appeals to working-class conservatism in the form of ASBOs and the rest, the communitarian rhetoric about criminal justice, these are classic One-Nation Tory moves. The forces of conservativism stuff can be explained in reference to this, because the forces of conservativism in question are the metropolitan elites, who divide us with their wishy-washy talk of individual rights and classes.