Leading Article: The Third Way, easy to mock but an ideology for our age

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The Independent Culture
IT HAS been fashionable to mock the "Third Way". Roy Hattersley made a most memorable quip about it when he said that, since the Third Way was the ideology of the New Labour Government, it might be as well to work out what it was. It is true that the Third Way has never been especially well-defined. It has sometimes not been well- served by the efforts of friendly intellectuals to develop it. And attempts to co-opt the Chinese leader Zhu Rongji and the South African President Thabo Mbeki as fully paid-up members of the Third Way club have verged on the comical. But the joint document on the Third Way agreed yesterday by Tony Blair and his German counterpart, Gerhard Schroder, is a serious affair. Their initiative is a sign that the Third Way is an idea whose time has come.

This newspaper has always recognised the importance of the Third Way as a project to modernise European social democracy. Indeed, The Independent has stood for "Third Way" values since its foundation - the attempt to reconcile the best aspects of the Thatcherite revolution (flexible markets and enterprise) - with the traditional left-wing values of social justice. All this, of course, coupled with an open-minded approach to policy solutions.

It is thus gratifying to observe that, so far as practical politics is concerned, the Third Way is a going concern. Its intellectual foundations may be immature, but it seems to be serving this Government well. Mr Blair and his colleagues have, for example, skilfully managed to deliver a modest degree of social reform while maintaining healthy public finances. The minimum wage and the Social Chapter have been introduced without damaging job creation. In education, a pragmatic approach has delivered real improvements. Overall, the Third Way works, and is ripe for export.

The Blair-Schroder paper observes that "social democrats are in government in all the countries of the European Union". The clear, and correct, implication is that the Third Way is a natural ideology for a revitalised European Union. The document declares: "we are pro-Europe and pro-reform in Europe. Europe urgently needs reform: efficient and transparent institutions, reform of outdated policies and action against waste and fraud."

This is an important declaration of principle about Europe's future direction. Persuading others may be difficult. The Continental model - corporatist, interventionist, protectionist - has many vested interests. Reform will not be easy. But the warriors of the new, market-oriented social democracy will have a powerful ally on their side: globalisation. Either Europe reforms itself to compete in a global economy, or it will be forced to do so by its consumer-voters. Whichever path it chooses, the Third Way will be on the winning side.