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The Third Way – Political essay: Blair, Bush, economics, credit crunch, Obama

A cloudy world

A cloudy world

(I see little to change in this essay writen in 2005. However we may hope that getting rid of the worst President in American history and the election of Barck Obama may have changed the political/intellectual environment enough for the complexity of the issues to be better understood and therefore that some coherent efforts might be made ot address them.

There does remain however the fundamental issue that Free Market World Capitalism’s addiction to endless growth, output and consumption is on a collision course with the necessary consequence of those forces – over-exploitation of finite world resources and Global Warming).

The Third Way

I have never heard anyone, least of all, Tony Blair, utter a single coherent thought about what this oft-quoted concept might mean. This is an effort to explore what it might mean.

The ‘Third Way‘ has been little more than a clever-sounding political buzz-word’. It was left to a journalist, the estimable Andrew Marr to say something revealing about the idea, albeit indirectly. Marr remarked, in the context of Blair’s desire to influence a new initiative in the Israel/Palestinian conflict, that this was the kind of challenge that he relishes. This key Middle East conflict mirrors that in Northern Ireland which Mr Blair has tried desperately to resolve. Marr’s observation was that Blair loves to try to mediate between two totally conflicting and contradictory positions: Protestant/Loyalist v Catholic/Nationalist; and by extension, Jewish/Israeli v Muslim/Palestinian. It is the toxic blend of politics and religious faith in both contexts that has made each so intractable. Each entrenched position in either context is diametrically opposed to the other: thus by definition, any path of compromise between the two could intelligibly be called a ‘third way’.

From this example we can glean key aspects of what a ‘third way’ might mean in general political contexts. As defined above: it is a path of compromise between two contradictory positions which adherents of each position can be brought to accept. In general social and economic political life I suppose these conflicting positions are represented by the historic opposition between Socialist centralised interventionist, planned, social and economic policies; and decentralised, non-interventionist, free market forms. Up to 1997, these broad distinction of political strategy and belief, were represented by the Labour and Conservative parties respectively.

By 1997 each of these distinct ideological positions had lost political credibility and public support. The unacceptable face of capitalism reflected in anti-social corporate behaviour at home and abroad, competed for electoral disapproval with the perceived expensive and inefficient failures of nationalised enterprises. Broadly: the one worked but was morally unacceptable; the other, despite morally worthy intentions, did not work.

What New Labour offered was not a ‘third way’ but a conflation of these two traditional, ideologically based, opposed political philosophies. A kind of managerialist, ideology-free pragmatism took over the centre ground where voters, disillusioned with the failure of both of the traditional philosophies were gathered. They were united only in their frustration that neither ideology was able to deliver the day-to-day benefits of efficient and effective public transport, NHS, Education, Policing and social stability and fairness. Mr Blair pitched himself into this frustrated middle ground: eschewing Clause 4 nationalisation, tax and spend economics and laissez-faire social policies. He also embraced enthusiastically so-called entrepreneurial, privatised, market driven solutions which traditional socialists opposed as much on moral as organisational grounds. Mr Blair is nothing if not a good marketer: he realised that the main body of the electorate just wanted delivery: good, safe trains; quick, free and high quality medical treatment; highly visible effective policing; and good social services funded somehow from a powerful economy predicated upon the unrealistic combination of low personal taxes and massive public investment in an infrastructure so starved of strategic funding, that parts of it were falling apart after years of neglect by both parties. He also spun some infrastructure capital investment from the private sector with the Private Finance initiative and part-privatisation deals on London Transport and a form of partnership of mutual benefit leading to privately funded schools and bought in, queue-busting deals with private sector medicine.

Mere empiricism testifies that politically this strategy has been an overwhelming success: consensus on its practical or even moral success is much more obscure and uncertain. The overwhelming dominance, rightly, of the bloody war and even bloodier peace, in Iraq has largely deflected the voters from preoccupation with the judgement of the more mundane issues of delivery on key strategic infrastructure development and effective delivery of services in the key domestic areas of transport, education, health and what is now buzzily called ‘homeland security’ – policing to you and me.

With Old Labour now virtually powerless, the New Labour mantra is confident, clear and often stated: we, the voters, don’t care how we get real delivery of what we want, as long as we get it. Scratch the surface of this innocent-looking proposition and you can uncover the moral principle that the end justifies the means; and the development of a rigorous pragmatism with no roots in ideological belief in key social values or political principle.

I want to examine these assumptions but first it is worth noting that if this is an accurate description of the change in political and social attitudes since 1997, it poses a fundamental democratic problem: what in the next election do we vote for? Historically we have cast our votes for values, principles, beliefs. These are on longer on offer: our franchise in 2005 will be exercised like someone choosing a contractor for a major project; and we’ll award our vote, our ‘business’, to whichever offers the best price. We will vote for the cheapest, in every sense. And when as, in business, the contractor who bought the contract with an uneconomic quote, pads the project out with more and more unforeseen expenses, delays derived from cost-saving methods to increase profit, we’ll get even more cynical and disillusioned with the political process itself. Principles abandoned, pragmatism failed, we will be ripe for any authoritarian leader who tells us the world is simpler than it could ever be.

Value-neutral, principle-free managerial pragmatism is no ‘third way’ between the ‘failed’ philosophies of socialism and capitalism, it is merely a conflation of the two designed to win votes and bring Great Britain plc into profit. There’s nothing a priori wrong with profit unless we generate it from deceptive, manipulative marketing (lying with flair) used to coax sales of second rate products and services. Or again if we profit from thoughtless, careless exploitation of nature and/or our fellow human beings, at home or abroad.

Our historical political divide was also class based which still permeates every aspect of British society. As a nation we are so obsessed about class we fail to see that hierarchical position is only a means, not an end in itself. To use sales jargon: class is a feature of our society not a benefit: the benefit that class endows is privilege. And people will do anything to protect their privilege – it is part of who they think they are and want to be. That is why if every state school could be shown to produce objective educational results as good as public schools (what a wonderfully ironic euphemism that is), the only children to revert to the state sector would be those that the core of traditional public school devotees would be pleased to see the back of. The fundamental benefit of a public school is not education, but privilege. Who could criticise any parent for seeking the best possible education for their child? Who could not criticise a parent for seeking to buy social privilege for their child? With honourable but misguided exceptions, the first of these is used as a smokescreen to perpetuate the second. And it works.

Great Britain plc? A country is not a company. Neither a student nor a patient is a customer. We experience education, we don’t consume it. Matching units of medical treatment to units of sickness as my GP practice now does with the sublimely Blairite system of ‘Advanced Access’ undermines the sense of personal relationship and mutual empathy between doctor and patient. Even a train passenger is a person first and a ‘customer’ second. There is a sacred duty of care for the life and safety of the commuter that goes beyond any responsibility a simple profit driven enterprise will acknowledge. Even policing rests on a consensus of trust between police and public without which punishment and authoritarianism prevails which are inimical to a free, democratic society.

A Third Way may be found in the answer to this question:

What unique features other than the freedom to employ people with minimum health and safety standards, at sub-socially economic wages; to re-locate jobs to countries with lower standards in both; and to hire and fire at will; are so unique to privatised organisations that publicly owned and accountable structures could not replicate them?

(Zettel 2005)

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