In Defence Of The Third Way: A Response To Peter Hand

Paul Williams and Rob Dixon

Originally published in 1998/1999, Issue 2

In Issue 53 of Interstate, Peter Hand argued that the ‘Third Way’ was nothing but a well packaged combination of rhetoric and soundbites on the part of a government wholly obsessed by presentation.[1] Given the constraints of space we will limit ourselves to primarily responding to Hand’s agenda by contesting four of the central themes of his “argument”. However, it is sometimes difficult to flesh out the assumptions and lines of argument Hand was making because of his own indulgence in ‘soundbite over substance’. The four themes we wish to contest are: the notion that the Third Way is devoid of values and principles; that Third Way thinking represents an attempt to undermine the ‘great’ model of British democracy; that the Blair government’s pro-European policies are detrimental to British interests; and, that socialism died long ago leaving no alternative to neo-liberalism. But initially, we will begin with a brief outline of the key characteristics of the Third Way as it has appeared in both the academic literature, official documents and speeches. Again for reasons of space we will concentrate on the work of one of the Third Way’s chief proponents, Anthony Giddens, and the attempt by Tony Blair to enunciate these ideas as a practical political strategy.

Giddens and Blair on the Third Way

Originating as early as the turn of the century, discussion about what is now commonly referred to as the Third Way has been occurring not only in Britain but also throughout Continental Europe, the U.S., New Zealand and parts of Latin America. In Britain, Anthony Giddens has been one of the key thinkers behind the concept’s development and the subtitle of his latest book, The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy hints at the political motives behind the concept’s rejuvenation. For Giddens, the impetus for encouraging discussion about the ‘Third Way’ is the desire to move political debate beyond the increasingly unhelpful binary of Left and Right politics. Giddens describes the Third Way as an attempt to combat a growing sense of political apathy and alienation linked to the failures of both the old Left’s socialism and the New Right’s neo-liberalism. In particular, the ‘third way’ refers to a framework of thinking and policy-making that seeks to adapt social democracy to a world which has changed fundamentally over the past two or three decades. It is a third way in the sense that it is an attempt to transcend both the old-style social democracy and neo-liberalism.[2]

Rather than claim to have uncovered a series of definitive answers to politics at the end of the twentieth century, the Third Way seeks to adopt and defend a position on some of the crucial dilemmas currently facing humanity, and thereby formulate a substantive agenda.

For Giddens, the five dilemmas concern:[3]

  • Globalization – what is it and what implications does it have?
  • Individualism – in what sense, if any, are modern societies becoming more individualistic?
  • Left and Right – what are we to make of the claim that they have no meaning any more?
  • Political agency – is politics migrating away from the orthodox mechanisms of democracy?
  • Ecological problems – how should they be integrated into social democratic politics?

The Third Way is therefore designed to help citizens and their representatives steer a path through the major revolutions of our time, to do with globalization, transformations in personal life, and our collective relationship to nature. By providing potential answers to some of these dilemmas, the Third Way prescribes a set of flexible but identifiable values designed to guide action which preserves ‘a core concern with social justice’ in a fluid political sphere.[4] According to Giddens, these values can be crudely distilled down to a concern for equality, protection of the vulnerable, freedom defined as autonomy, exercising social and political responsibilities in exchange for the expectation of rights, and that legitimate authority must be democratic authority.

Giddens’ recent work on the Third Way represents a sophisticated attempt to conceptualise the challenges facing social democrats in the late twentieth century. However, as Giddens acknowledges, Third Way thinking alone cannot produce the desired social and economic objectives. What is required is a series of policies designed to realise the values of the Third Way. The task of operationalising these ideas has been taken up by New Labour under the stewardship of Tony Blair. For Blair, like Giddens, the Third Way represents ‘a new politics arising from the ashes of the struggles of the 20th century between traditional views of capitalism and of socialism’ that ‘seeks to combine economic dynamism with social justice’.[5] In short, Blair’s key concern revolves around ‘how to provide security in a world of change’?[6]

Crucially, the Third Way is not just about what happens in our own country. For Giddens, distant events, whether economic or not, affect us more directly and immediately than ever before, and decisions we take as individuals are often global in their implications. What this means is that the boundary between the domestic and international spheres is becoming increasingly blurred. Consequently, for proponents of the Third Way such as Blair, foreign policy ‘should not be seen as some self-contained part of government in a box marked ‘abroad’ or ‘foreigners’. It should compliment and reflect our domestic goals. It should be part of our mission of domestic renewal’.[7] As Robin Cook confirmed, ‘The Labour Government does not accept that political values can be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business’.[8] It is our contention that this attitude is not only a necessary response to the changing world around us, it is also based upon a normative commitment to exporting a concern for social justice.

Points of Disagreement

It should by now be obvious that we do not agree with Hand’s suggestion that the Third Way is devoid of values and principles. Far from it. Third Way thinking is driven by a normative impulse to put into practice its core concern with social justice. In particular, Third Way thinking can be seen as an attempt to privilege ‘ends’ over ‘means’. By this we mean that the Third Way rejects old principles of behaviour when they are no longer appropriate responses to the changing world around us. To privilege principles over pragmatism is increasingly in danger of jeopardising the realisation of those values we hold to be important. If our objective is the promotion of social justice both at home (and when possible) abroad, it makes little sense to stick to outdated principles that simply hinder good thinking. The world has changed dramatically in the last two decades. As Tony Blair put it, ‘There are no ideological preconditions, no pre-determined veto on means. What counts is what works. If we don’t take this attitude, change traps us, paralyses us and defeats us’.[9] This is not to say that achieving these values will be easy – it won’t be. But to claim, as Hand does, that the Third Way is devoid of values is simply bizarre. Indeed, one of the main impediments to achieving such change are the attitudes and interests of Hand and those who think like him.

Hand’s argument about the attempts by Third Way politicians, as manifested in the Jenkins Commission, to ‘do away with our [Britain’s] great model of democracy’, leads him to the conclusion that the Third Way ‘is about undermining democracy’. Again, his comments here are equally ill-informed. The subtitle of Giddens’ book The Third Way: The Renewal of Social democracy gives a clear indication of the attitude to democracy held by exponents of the Third Way.  As Giddens notes, the ‘reform of state and government should be a basic orientating principle of third way politics – a process of deepening and widening democracy’.[10] Not only is it counterfactual to suggest that the Third Way is about undermining democracy, Hand’s argument fails to comprehend why a renewal of British democracy is required. Firstly, the renewal of the democratic system is required because of the destabilizing effect of globalization on patterns of domestic authority and legitimacy. Secondly, the dire state of British democracy is partly responsible for the continued underperformance of the British economy.[11] Thirdly, for proponents and practitioners of the Third Way, eighteen years of Conservative rule that witnessed the unprecedented centralisation of power, a denigration and disregard for Parliament, and a Prime Minister willing to ride roughshod over the conventions of British democracy, have highlighted both the inadequacies of our system of government and contributed significantly to a growing sense of popular alienation and disenchantment with politics. Simply put, British democracy is just not democratic enough. The Third Way is about more democracy not less. For Giddens and Blair, authority, if it is to hold any meaning must be democratic authority. This means increasing participation, representation and removing the more farcical elements of our system of governance.

A commitment to the Third Way has lead the Blair government to initiate a process of constitutional reform designed to renew the democratic nature of our polity. Far from seeking to undermine British democracy, the Jenkins Commission (established by Blair to examine how the British political system could be improved), proposed the introduction of proportional representation; the replacement of the House of Lords with some form of elected chamber; a freedom of information act; and, greater devolution to Scotland, Wales and the English regions. For reasons of space we cannot embark upon a more general discussion of the merits of constitutional reform proposed by Jenkins or initiated by the Labour government. Nevertheless, to continue our response to Hand we shall point to three areas of reform already undertaken or currently under consideration. In our view, these demonstrate the inadequacies of the existing system and illustrate the commitment of Blair’s Third Way to improving both the quantity and quality of British democracy.

First, although the arguments for and against proportional representation (PR) are well-rehearsed, Hand’s argument that PR is simply an attempt to gerrymander the electoral system does not wash. For a start, who is supposed to be the beneficiary of this gerrymandering? Certainly not the Labour party: witness the reluctance of some of the Cabinet to a system whereby overwhelming parliamentary majorities would be a thing of the past. Contrary to Hand, the case for the introduction of PR is less about the ‘restriction of choice’, rather it is about increasing the degree of real representation and providing good governance. Can a system that gives a parliamentary majority of 150 seats to a party that received only 42% of the votes cast, be genuinely representative?[12] A more representative and consensual style of politics might have saved Britain from some of the worst excesses of the 1980s. In addition, to suggest that these changes are to be foisted upon the British people ignores the fact that the introduction of PR will be put to a referendum following the next election. Second, in reference to the reform of the House of Lords, to bury ones’ head in the sands of tradition a la William Hague ignores the Lords’ anachronistic place in a democratic society. Reform of the House of Lords will undoubtedly improve the ability of the upper chamber to revise and advise on legislation, and it may go some way towards unraveling the vestiges of class-based politics that have dominated that part of the political system. Third, Hand suggests that the Third Way has ‘not made it out of London’. However, this overlooks not only its international appeal but the major process of democratic renewal undertaken in the last eighteen months: devolution. The establishment of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Assembly is part and parcel of a strategy of increasing local participation and control. This move has to be set against the “quangocracy” that dominated the Conservative’s relations to the regions of the UK. As Will Hutton argued, ‘that the nearest London has to any form of government is a committee of Conservative-supporting businessmen is an affront to any sense of democracy’.[13]

Hand’s comments on Britain’s relationship with the EU and ‘the job destroying social chapter’ are also misplaced. In direct relation to the concept of the Third Way, both Blair and Cook have commented on the need to project a new form of identity for Britain abroad, particularly in its relations with the EU. Cook has recently argued that Britain must ‘take the lead in the debate on the future of Europe’.[14] This included joining the Social Chapter because, in Cook’s opinion, ‘Britain no longer has a government that takes pride in giving people at work the worst rights in Europe’.[15] On the one hand, entry into the Social Chapter has already led to new regulation on rights for part-time workers, whilst it has also meant that the CBI now gets a vote at the Federation of European Employers. Such events appear to refute the notion ‘that business had everything to fear and nothing to gain from the Social Chapter’.[16] In other words, the promotion of British business interests is not incompatible with the desire to ensure workers’ rights in a European context. In addition, far from ‘giving way’ as Hand suggests, the Third Way is about ending the isolationist attitude of the last 20 years.

In order to buttress his dismissal of the Third Way, Hand confidently asserts that ‘socialism failed many years ago’ and that ‘there is no alternative, Neoliberalism has triumphed’. To be brief, Hand has been seduced by the tabloid version of Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis. This raises a number of issues. First, the extent to which ‘socialism’ can be viewed as synonymous with the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is debatable. Second, there have been (and continue to be) applications of the principles of socialism in various areas of the globe. For example, a consensus is emerging that the much heralded successes (although somewhat short-lived) of the Asian tigers, depended to a great extent upon state intervention in the economy. The period of spectacular growth rates in these countries cannot be divorced from the state-inspired and co-ordinated strategies nearly two decades ago to invest their human capital in relatively high-tech industries. Thirdly, if we focus on the patterns of global trade it is obvious that the world marketplace does not conform to neoliberal principles. While the world’s three main trading blocs (NAFTA, the EU, and ASEAN) have lowered tariffs within their borders, trade between the three blocs increasingly conforms to the doctrines of economic protectionism. The recent tensions between the U.S. and the EU over bananas, handbags and cashmere amongst other items are a case in point. Free-trade on a global level simply does not exist.

While all these factors run contra to Hand’s argument that there is no alternative to neoliberalism, there is a more fundamental problem with this line of thinking which was discussed by Karl Polanyi in his book The Great Transformation.[17] Polanyi’s numerous critiques of society and the ideology of the ‘free-market’ (now known as neoliberalism) have cast doubt on whether a political community that strictly adhered to neoliberal values could survive. In particular, it is Polanyi’s notion of the “double movement” that highlights the inherently contradictory nature of the ‘free-market’ social form.

Polanyi’s notion of the “double movement” is crucial to demonstrating why neoliberalism cannot be the only political game in town precisely because it is inherently contradictory and destructive. In very brief terms, the first part of the “double movement” occurs when various social forces attempt to create and extend a laissez-faire, ‘market-society’, as in Britain from the 1790s onwards. During this process, the state is publicly taken out of economic activity but crucially remains the enforcer of the rules of the market. In other words, it was the state that played the primary role in removing old restrictive regulations and established the political order through which a market framework could operate. In Polanyi’s words, ‘The road to the free market was paved with continuous political manipulation, whether the state was involved in removing old restrictive regulations … or building new political administrative bodies to bolster the factors of production of the new market economy’.[18]

However, to allow unfettered market logic to be the sole director of the fate of human beings would, according to Polanyi, ‘result in the demolition of society’.[19]Consequently, the second part of the “double movement” emerges from those social groups opposed to the commodification of land and labour. These groups develop unevenly but represent acts of community self-defence against the unforeseen and socially destructive consequences of the ‘self-regulating market’. Typically, such groups push for legislation covering such issues as working hours, public health, factory conditions and trade union recognition. In other words, without social and state intervention society would be annihilated by the market. What this means is that any attempt to impose free-market or neoliberal conditions upon society will result in a whole series of countermeasures designed to repair the fabric of community life by subordinating economic impulses to the social needs of the community in question. A ‘free-market’ society has not existed, nor can it in the future. The triumphalist rhetoric of neoliberals simply represents the ideological justifications of the rich and powerful for their selfish behaviour. As we noted earlier, the Third Way is sensitive to the excesses of the neoliberal project whilst recognising the difficulties in implementing old-style socialism.

Conclusion

Far from being ‘oblivious to what is happening in the ‘real’ world around it’, Third Way thinking is in large part a response to some particularly confusing processes currently underway in world politics. The impetus for renewed thinking about a Third Way in British politics is bound up with the failure of traditional frameworks (Hand’s being one of them) to respond adequately to the challenges of the late twentieth century. These challenges are commonly identified by what Giddens described as the ‘unlovely term’, globalization. For all its faults, the Third Way is a constructive addition to the British political scene. Indeed, part of its intellectual appeal is that it does not claim to be in possession of all the answers to the current political conundrum. In a world characterised by fluidity and uncertainty, proponents of intellectual frameworks which claim absolute knowledge are liable to end up with egg on their faces. In this sense, it is more helpful to view recent Third Way thinking as ‘work in progress’ at both the theoretical and practical levels.


Footnotes

[1] Peter Hand, ‘Why Being Third Isn’t Good Enough: A Critique of the Third Way’, Interstate, Issue 53, Winter 1998, pp. 33-4.

[2] Anthony Giddens, The Third Way: The renewal of social democracy (Polity Press, 1998), p. 26

[3] ibid., pp. 27-8.

[4] ibid., p. 65.

[5] This and subsequent speeches made by Blair and Cook can be located at http://www.fco.gov.uk. Tony Blair, ‘Facing the Modern Challenge: The Third way in Britain and South Africa’, speech , Cape Town, South Africa, 8 January 1999.

[6] Tony Blair, ‘The Third Way’, speech to French National Assembly, 24 March 1998.

[7] Tony Blair, ‘The Principles of a Modern British Foreign Policy’, speech at Lord Mayor’s banquet, London, 10 November 1997.

[8] Robin Cook, ‘British Foreign Policy’, speech at the launch of the FCO Mission Statement, FCO, London, 12 May 1997.

[9] Blair, ‘The Third Way’.

[10] Giddens, The Third Way, p. 69.

[11] Will Hutton, The State We’re In (Vintage, 1996)

[12] Dennis Kavannagh, British Politics. Continuities and Change (Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 97.

[13] Hutton, The State We’re In., p. 293

[14] Robin Cook, ‘Making the Global Economy Work’, speech to the CBI National Conference, Birmingham, 3 November 1998.

[15] Robin Cook, ‘Britain’s New Approach to the World’, speech to the Labour Party Conference, Brighton, 2 October 1997.

[16] ibid.

[17] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: the political and economic origins of our time (Boston, 1944).

[18] Cited in Scott Burchill, ‘Liberal Internationalism’, in Burchill, S., et al, Theories of International Relations (London: Macmillan, 1996), p. 44.

[19] Polanyi, The Great Transformation, p. 73.