Tony Blair: The Third Way (1998)


It is perhaps open to question why Tony Blair’s pamphlet is included in a series entitled ‘Our History’ as most Chartist readers will not consider Blair to be part of our libertarian democratic socialist tradition. However, as Blair’s interpretation of a liberal centrist social democracy was dominant within the Labour Party, and to a large extent British political culture, for nearly twenty years, and given this column has over the last fifteen years adopted a broad pluralist approach to the history of socialist thought, it seemed inappropriate to ignore Blair, however much we might wish to. Blair, party leader from 1994 and prime minister from 1997 to 2007, was not a theorist. Some would question whether he was a socialist or even a social democrat. Relative to his predecessors, Blair actually wrote little, other than his autobiography A Journey, published in 2010. Blair only published one other substantive book: New Britain: My Vision for a Young Country, published in 1996, before he became prime minister.

The Third Way was published as a pamphlet by the Fabian Society. Blair owed much of his approach to the writings of Anthony Giddens, the sociologist and director of the London School of Economics, who published Beyond Left and Right in 1994 and then his The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy in 1998. Giddens is now a member of the House of Lords. For his thinking on the ‘Big Society’, Blair drew on the work of the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, author of Persons in Relation. Blair was not the inventor of the ‘third way’ concept, a term also used by the Austrian Marxist, Otto Bauer, for whom the ‘third way’ was between Stalinist communism and traditional social democracy (and Chartist). Harold McMillan, Conservative prime minister between 1957 and 1963, in 1938 had published a book entitled The Middle Way, though this work in supporting a programme of nationalisation to support economic regeneration can be seen as to the left of Blair’s ‘third way’. The pamphlet does not reference any previous socialist writers, not even the early generation of revisionists such as Anthony Crosland. Blair does not refer to ‘socialism’ or ‘socialists’, preferring the term ‘progressive centre-left’ – a term which would incorporate most liberals.

“The ‘Third Way’ is to my mind the best label for the new politics which the progressive centre-left is forging in Britain and beyond. The Third Way stands for a modernised social democracy, passionate in its commitment to social justice and the goals of the centre-left, but flexible, innovative and forward-looking in the means to achieve them. It is founded on the values which have guided progressive politics for more than a century – democracy, liberty, justice, mutual obligation and internationalism. But it is a third way because it moves decisively beyond an Old Left preoccupied by state control, high taxation and producer interests and a New Right treating public investment, and often the very notions of ‘society’ and collective endeavour, as evils to be undone.”

“My vision for the 21st century is of a popular politics reconciling themes which in the past have wrongly been regarded as antagonistic – patriotism and internationalism; rights and responsibilities; the promotion of enterprise and the attack on poverty and discrimination. The Left should be proud of its achievements in the 20th century not least universal suffrage, a fairer sharing of taxation and growth, and greater improvement in working conditions and in welfare, health and educational services. But we still have far to go to build the open, fair and prosperous society to which we aspire.”

“The Third Way is not an attempt to split the difference between Right and Left. It is about traditional values in a changed world. And it draws vitality from using the two great streams of left-of-centre thought – democratic socialism and liberals – whose divorce this century did so much to weaken progressive politics across the West. Liberals asserted the primacy of individual liberty in the market economy; social democrats promoted social justice with the state as its main agent. There is necessary conflict between the two, accepting as we now do that state power is one means to achieve our goals, but not the only one and emphatically not an end in itself.”

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