Neither to the left nor to the right

Podium: From the `Prospect' magazine lecture given by the writer at the Almeida Theatre, London

SUPPOSE THAT they had met, Tony Blair and Isaiah Berlin, a Prime Minister and a liberal philosopher. Suppose that fortune had smiled and allowed them time to clarify what the left has stood for since the Enlightenment and whether those hopes remain alive. Suppose that illness and death had not supervened. What can we imagine them saying to each other?

The youthful leader is bound to have said the left is not dead. It is alive, and the Third Way is its name. It brings together the values of two progressive traditions, liberalism and social democracy, whose divisions delivered Britain up to the ideological hegemony of conservatism for most of the century. Reunited, under my leadership, the two strands of progressive thought will create a new consensus on the centre-left which will be in power for a generation.

And what would the wise old sceptic have said to that? My guess is: Not so fast. Liberalism is one thing, social democracy quite another. We confuse them at our peril.

A dialogue between them might have clarified vital questions: whether liberalism and social democracy do share the same values; whether they belong to the same family of the European left; and whether, now that socialism itself is dead, they should be resoldered together into a new governing consensus in Europe.

These questions lead to another: opposition is good for democracy; opposition is even good for a powerful government. As Conrad Russell has argued: "Without an effective opponent at the next election, Blair can acquire no great democratic legitimacy if he wins it." With Conservatism unlikely to extricate itself from its intellectual cul-de-sac, Blair's appropriation of the liberal tradition - and possible electoral agreements with the Liberal Democrats - risks neutering the one intellectual source from which effective criticism can come. Third Way talk is very good politics for Labour. But is it good for democracy?

Let's be clear, these are my questions, not the questions of my master and teacher, now deceased. But they do arise from the dialogue cut short by his death last October, and I think we should return to this dialogue now.

It began with a challenge issued by Isaiah Berlin. This was the challenge to which Tony Blair replied in a letter, on 23 October 1997, in which he took issue with Berlin's apparent judgement that, if socialism was dead, the left must be too. The left's project had begun with the Enlightenment attack on "arbitrary authority, intolerance and hierarchy." These values "remain as strong as ever" but, the Prime Minister conceded, "no longer have a ready made vehicle to take them forward".

The Third Way, presumably, is the vehicle to "devolve political power and to build a more egalitarian community".

So far so good, but we need to ask whether they both meant the same thing by the left. For many liberals, to be on the left is to be in company only marginally less disagreeable than to be in the company of the right. Nothing is gained by obscuring the differences.

To quote the Prime Minister, the liberal tradition "asserts the primacy of individual liberty in the market economy; the other [social democratic] promotes social justice with the state as its main agent". A social democracy that has said goodbye to state ownership has much to say to a liberalism that has said goodbye to "neo-liberalism", to unfettered free markets. In Blair's New Way, the banner is no longer actually inscribed "Equality", but two very liberal slogans, "Equal Worth" and "Opportunity for All," slogans which take social democracy out of the project of fighting for equality of result.

So where, if anywhere, does a divide remain between liberals and social democrats? Here Berlin's famous distinction between negative and positive liberty becomes relevant.

Blair saw its relevance in his letter to Berlin, arguing that it was the "limitations of negative liberty" that have "motivated generations of people" to go "beyond laissez-faire".

But it's simply not the case that negative liberty means laissez-faire. It once meant much more: freeing men and women from superstition, tyranny and oppression: striking the chains off the slaves. Positive liberty goes further: it may not be enough to strike the chains: you may also have to teach them how to use their freedom. Positive liberty warrants compulsory primary and secondary education, compulsory taxation and transfer of income, public health.

There are still clear distinctions remaining between "negative" and "positive" liberty - it is the basic distinction between liber- alism and social democracy as traditions.

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