The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?

Ralf Dahrendorf on the missing word in the Third Way speeches and pamphlets

The recent paper by Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder entitled Europe: The Third Way - Die Neue Mitte begins with a bold statement: "Social democrats are in government in almost all the countries of the [European] Union. Social democracy has found new acceptance - but only because, while retaining its traditional values, it has begun in a credible way to renew its ideas and modernise its programmes. It has also found new acceptance because it stands not only for social justice but also for economic dynamism and the unleashing of creativity and innovation."

It was perhaps unfortunate that this document was published a week before the European elections in June, which allowed us to check the statement that "social democracy has found new acceptance". The result of this check is telling. In six of the 15 EU countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands), social democratic parties had 20 per cent or less of the vote; in two others (France and Luxembourg) between 21 and 25 per cent; and in five others (Germany, Greece, Britain, Austria and Sweden) between 26 and 33 per cent. Only in Spain (35 per cent) and Portugal (43 per cent) did democratic socialists get more than a third of the vote. And in only four countries (including France, where Lionel Jospin's socialists got 22 per cent) did they emerge as the strongest single party.

Twenty years ago, many of these European social democratic parties had twice their present proportion of the popular vote. They are now minority parties in most of Europe. The real trend - which is underlined by the European elections - is towards non-traditional parties, many of which did not exist 20 years ago. In most European countries their vote adds up to more than the social democratic vote. In truth, voters are confused and uncertain, pulled hither and yon. It is hard to discern any real trend towards a new crystallisation of electoral views.

It is nevertheless conceivable that the set of ideas promoted by Blair and Schroder finds widespread support. Indeed it may find as much support outside as inside socialist parties; Blair seems to get on at least as well with Spain's conservative Prime Minister Jose MarIa Aznar as with his French socialist colleague Jospin. Though I don't wish to claim first authorship, let alone originality, some of the Third Way ideas are not at all dissimilar to the thrust of the report of a committee which I chaired in 1995-96, entitled Wealth Creation and Social Cohesion in a Free Society. The question that all countries are trying to answer today is: how can we create sustainable conditions of economic improvement in global markets without sacrificing the basic solidarity or cohesion of our societies or the institutions of the constitution of liberty?

The terminology used in attempts to give this answer is by now familiar. We need market economies with competitive strength, and this can be brought about only by loosening constraints and liberating the supply side of economies. We need societies that include all citizens, rather than exclude an underclass. Individual competition may be useful to the economy, but it has to be tempered by solidarity in social relations. The Blair-Schroder paper uses a phrase that I find misleading: "We support a market economy, not a market society." Or is this more than a slip of the pen? Do they want a command society? If so, they would take a step in the Singapore direction and reduce, if not endanger, the third element of a programme of squaring the circle, that of doing it all "in a free society".

Anthony Giddens, the chief theorist of the Third Way, places the task of achieving the combination of wealth creation and social cohesion in the context of the great changes that have come about through globalisation, the "new dialogue" with science and technology and the transformation of values and lifestyles. He then identifies six policy areas of the Third Way: (1) a new politics or "second wave of democratisation" by going directly to the people; (2) a new relationship of state, market and civil society that "joins them up"; (3) supply-side policies through social investment, notably in education and infrastructure projects; (4) the fundamental reform of the welfare state through creating a new balance of risk and security; (5) a new relationship to the environment by "ecological modernisation"; and (6) a strong commitment to transnational initiatives in a world of "fuzzy sovereignty".

The project has been described as a combination of neo-liberal economic and social democratic social policy. That is probably not entirely fair. What distinguishes this approach, implicitly rather than explicitly, is its optimism. I have described it as "globalisation plus" - that is, accepting the needs of global markets but adding important elements of social well-being. There are other ways of describing the underlying approach, for instance by reference to the use of the word "risk". Ulrich Beck, another protagonist of the Third Way, has shown that risk is an opportunity as well as a threat to security, an invitation to entrepreneurship and initiative as well as a warning of uncertainties. The same could be argued for another favourite word of this approach, "flexibility".

Perhaps this is where the Third Way actually divides social democrats. Old Labour sees risk as threat and flexibility as insecurity, and tries to hold on to the old certainties. New Labour emphasises the new opportunities of individual initiative and the ways in which people can enhance their well-being by coping with new challenges. Here it becomes evident why the reform of the welfare state is the main policy area in dispute. It also emerges that new Labour may exist in Britain and Holland but not in many other countries, where it is more the parties of the old right that tend toward the Neue Mitte. The alliance between Blair and Aznar is not so surprising after all.

The positive, future-oriented sense of opportunity makes the Third Way approach attractive for those who do not feel threatened, including the new "global class" of those who can hope to benefit from changed forces of production. Perhaps it also shows that the Third Way is not likely to inspire a mass movement even if it is in some cases useful for winning elections. There is something slightly contrived, almost elitist, about the concept. It attracts wider attention only if it is coupled with almost evangelical methods of communication. "Spin-doctors" are in that sense essential for the Third Way, as is the strangely religious style of Blair and the presentational brilliance of Giddens and Beck. They all manage to deflect criticism as on an oilskin that is made of a curious mixture of diffidence and dogmatism. Sceptical questions are as often answered by reference to what might or even should be as by pointing to real conditions.

For the inveterate Popperian this can be quite disconcerting. Doubts begin with the term itself, "third way". Its use shows a curious absence of historical awareness among its protagonists, which characterises the Clinton-Blair type of leadership in any case. The term also shows an unfortunate need to have a unified or at any rate uniquely labelled ideology. For many of us the great liberation of the revolution of 1989 was that it ended the dominance of ideological thought systems. There are no longer even first, second and third worlds, only varieties of attempts to cope with economic, social and political needs. The Third Way presupposes a more Hegelian view of the world. It forces its adherents to define themselves in relation to others, rather than by their own peculiar combination of ideas; and often the others have to be invented, even caricatured for the purpose.

The point about an open world is that there are not just two or three ways. There are - as I put it in an earlier NS article (29 May 1998) - 101 ways, which is to say, an indefinite number. For purposes of practical politics, that is important. The question may be the same everywhere, since it is put by largely global conditions: how can we achieve wealth creation and social cohesion in free societies? The answers, however, are many. There are many capitalisms, not just that of Chicago; there are many democracies, not just that of Westminster. Diversity is not an optional extra of high culture; it is at the very heart of a world that has abandoned the need for closed, encompassing systems. In fact, even politics in the name of the Third Way is quite varied. Nobody will expect Chancellor Schroder to turn Germany into another Britain. Even after reforms, the "Rhenish" model will remain quite different from the "Anglo-Saxon" model, and neither will necessarily be a model for others at all.

In any case, it is not only cynics who have observed that the best definition of the Third Way may well be that it is what Blair actually does. If he is for a directly elected London mayor, or against teenage pregnancies, or for the privatisation of railways, this must be the Third Way. The niggling doubt remains: why do Blair and his friends need to put it all in one basket? Are the unlimited opportunities of the post-1989 world too difficult to live with? Do the Third Way leaders crave a certainty, at least in their minds, that they deny their peoples in their lives? Is everybody supposed to take risks except those at the top?

Such questions lead to my most serious comment on the present political debate. I have read most of the publications around the idea of a Third Way and I have been increasingly struck that, in all these speeches and pamphlets and books, one word hardly ever appears and never in a central place. That word is "liberty".

There is much about fraternity, which indeed is one of the central themes of the Third Way. Equality is dispensed with as a goal and replaced by social inclusion and, more recently, by justice. (On both points, I have much sympathy with the discourse.) But liberty? No doubt Third Way protagonists would say that it is assumed and implied throughout. Consequently it makes a brief appearance in the list of "timeless" values in the introduction to the Blair-Schroder paper: "fairness and social justice, liberty and equality of opportunity, solidarity and responsibility to others". But among timely values, liberty has no place.

This is no accident. The Third Way is not about either open societies or liberty. There is indeed a curious authoritarian streak in it, and not just in practice. When Giddens speaks of a "second wave of democratisation" he has the deconstruction of traditional democratic institutions in mind. Parliaments are outmoded; referenda and focus groups should take their place. Third Way reforms of the welfare state not only involve compulsory savings but above all the strict insistence on everyone, including the disabled and single mothers, working. Where normal employment - let alone desired employment - is not available, people have to be made to work by the withdrawal of benefits. The Blair-Schroder document contains, among others, the following curious statement: "The state should not row but steer." It should not provide the wherewithal, but determine the direction, in other words. It will no longer pay for things, but tell people what to do. Certainly the British experience provides worrying illustrations of what this might mean.

The issue is of major importance at a time when there are too many authoritarian temptations in any case. The internationalisation of decisions and activities means almost invariably a loss of democracy. Nato Council decisions about war and peace, IMF decisions about Russia, even legislation by the EU Council of Ministers are not subject to democratic controls. And that is even more true of the "private" arena of worldwide financial transactions. At the other end, decentralisation rarely means a gain in democracy and liberty. Especially at the sub-national level, it is often the empowerment of more or less militant activists, rather than of the people; it means yielding to the new nationalism of self-aggrandising leaders. And at the national level itself, problems and solutions alike militate against the liberal order. Among the problems, law and order stand out; among the solutions, the proliferation of agencies and quangos that evade civic control. Indeed the Singapore style is not very far from present trends, even public preferences: let those up there deal and leave us in peace! Thus the political class becomes a kind of nomenklatura, which remains unchallenged because of the apathy of many; and when those who do not fit are silenced, nobody raises his or her voice.

I am not suggesting that this is what practitioners of the Third Way are consciously doing, and much less that it is what its theorists advocate. But I wonder whether the curious silence about the fundamental value of a decent life, liberty - old, very old liberty if you wish - will not involuntarily make this political episode one further element in a dangerous development. When, in setting up the Commission on Wealth Creation and Social Cohesion, I insisted on adding the words "in a free society", I thought of Beveridge (Full Employment in a Free Society) but also of Singapore. Today it seems more important than even a few years ago to begin a new political project with the insistence on liberty before we turn to social inclusion and cohesion.

The writer was warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, 1987-97. This article, based on a lecture at a symposium in Vienna in June, appears in the current issue of "Foreign Affairs" magazine