What's the Big Idea? I don't know that we need one

The centre Left hankers for Thatcher's sureness, a set of responses to any problem that arises
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THREE IS the most potent force in numerology. Hence the third eye for wisdom, the third breast for witchcraft, the Holy Trinity, and the Three Bears. Its mystical hold thrives in politics in the search for a Third Way, an approach to government and ideas which will be not too hot and not too cold: just right.

When The Independent staged its fringe debate at the Labour Party Conference last night, we chose not to pursue the task of defining the Third Way which, like definitions of sexual relations, means different things to different people. Instead, we asked whether modern governments need a Big Idea at all.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, argues that the Third Way is a new expression of the conviction that political theory matters: "People cannot live by bread alone. They need a framework of belief."

Ken Livingstone replies that the idea of an all-encompassing Third Way is nonsense: there would always be haves and have-nots, and it is the central responsibility of a government of the centre-left to address these inequalities, even if that means making enemies along the way.

Trevor Phillips says that it is the First and Second Way apologists who should be in the dock: "The great political tribes have gone. Polarisation is no longer appropriate: people don't want it. We need a new politics."

But what would this new politics look like? A random sampling of commentators, since the publication of Tony Blair's Fabian pamphlet on the subject, yields a number of conflicting images:

Still, the yearning for a Third Way is there: an almost desperate enthusiasm to find, lurking somewhere in the diffuse Blairite project, a firmness, a bottom line, a set of goal posts that won't shift.

The centre-left hankers for the same sureness of touch that Margaret Thatcher exhibited - a set of responses towards any problem or challenge which presents itself. This was part of the strength of the New Right. It had a firmly set compass, which would become known as Thatcherism. But I do not think that it will be possible to create Blairism, or that it would be desirable to do so.

A government that has made a virtue out of ditching one out-dated ideology should think carefully before adopting another set of fetters, even if they appear to be made of ideological Lycra.

Lady Thatcher would not have dreamt of couching her ideas as an alternative to two given ways. There was Her Way - and her way was readily and easily understandable to the brightest intellectual, or the simplest Tory drone - namely that the market was more efficient than the state.

Mr Blair is a different kind of political animal, with a talent for co-opting many strands of opinion to his cause, rather than battering them into submission. He succeeds in this by avoiding strict categories and delineations. So Blairism is not a word that looks or sounds natural. Yet we speak quite easily of a Blairite approach to decisions.

Mr Straw builds his personal Third Way around a statement in Tawney's Equality: "If Labour is to do the job for which it was created, it must do three things. It must be returned to power. It must succeed when returned, in carrying out its programme. It must defeat such attempts... as may be made to frustrate it. It will not do so, except on the spearhead of a strong body of convictions."

That is eloquent. But it is far from obvious that it is true. Many parties have governed successfully without fulfilling Tawney's requirement: the Conservatives, from 1951-1964, spring to mind as a party which held office simply by being, rather like New Labour, a party people felt comfortable with. In the Continental post-war split between Christian and Social Democrat parties, the difference has been emphasis, not conviction, with both parties honourably wedded to corporatism, and the principles of social inclusion.

Courtesy of Anthony Giddens, we now have something like the updated version of Tawney's creed: "The new individualism is associated with the retreat of tradition and custom from our lives," Giddens writes. "We have to make our lives in a more active way than was true of previous generations. Third Way politics should preserve a core concern with social justice, while accepting that the range of questions which escape the left/right divide is greater than before."

Amen to all that. It sounds like a recipe for flexible, responsive, grown- up politics. But a "way" it isn't: The neglect of the F-word in the Third Way should concern Blair-friendly liberals. There is not a lot of freedom about in this discussion. The desirability of "limiting the voluntary exclusion of the elites" sounds suspiciously and impracticably dirigiste for a modern government, however well intended. Giddens writes: "Freedom, to social democrats, should mean autonomy of action, which in turn demands the involvement of the wider social community."

Call me old-fashioned, but autonomy of action cannot "demand" anything. Freedom may be, as libertarians believe, the highest good. Or it may be, in the definition of that other great political theorist, Janis Joplin, just another word for nothing left to lose. What it cannot be, in any readily understandable sense, is Professor Giddens' definition.

It is easy to understand why intellectuals enjoy the hunt for a Third Way - they are obviously perpetuating Keynes's view that, "Ideas are more important than commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else." But prime ministers do not spend time on pamphlets for fun. We already know who they are without seeing their name on a slim-bound volume.

So what is the Third Way really for? Sidney Blumenthal, Bill Clinton's chief courtier, describes it as: "The practical experience of two leading politicians who win elections, operate in the real world, and understand the need, in a global economy, to find common solutions for common problems." This assumes that a set of problems will need the same response in Nebraska as in Newcastle, and it overstates the global importance of two men - Clinton and Blair - who are clever and inventive, but not the alpha and omega of political thought.

The bit about winning elections is a bit of a giveaway: would the Third Way outlined by Mr Blair have any future, if he should ever end up losing an election?

A truly big idea, like Gladstone's support for Irish Home Rule, must be worth risking defeats for. I doubt whether the Third Way will enjoy such longevity.