A bit too much of a prig and a prude

In his flirtation with communitarian ideas, Tony Blair is trying to reconcile authoritarian and liberal tendencies. Impossible: he will have to choose
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Authoritarian and liberal impulses can be found on both sides of the political divide. An urge to impose constraints, to control and direct human affairs, rubs uncomfortably against a desire to lift constraints and promote freedom of action. Traditionally, we have been able to distinguish left from right by the way the two tendencies are arranged. Old Labour reserved most of its controlling urges for the public sphere and economic activity. The party combined a traditional attachment to top-down planning and state control with a commitment to equal opportunity and a degree of sympathy for social and cultural diversity. Notwithstanding a puritan streak, it took a relatively permissive line on moral and civil liberties issues.

The Tories, meanwhile, have combined laissez-faire economics and a pursuit of individual "freedom" through property ownership and consumerism with a growing demonisation of "abnormal" families and other forms of social deviance, and an erosion of civil rights.

Now there are signs that New Labour's authoritarian tendencies are shifting on to new ground as it refashions its appeal to the electorate. The party knows it can do little to control interest rates, let alone the "commanding heights" of the economy. It has lost faith in municipal dirigisme. How can it present itself as a resolute government-in-waiting if it can't flag up the familiar signals? Why not crack the whip in the community instead?

The public feels increasingly insecure and anxious about the future. Labour wants to build hope and confidence. Voters are worried, chiefly, about income and jobs, crime and family breakdown. On the first two, the success of Labour's policies will depend conspicuously on the health of the economy, for which the party cannot plan with any certainty. Crime and the family offer more scope for a show of strength. This is not because success is any more likely - it is not - but because measures can be adopted (a stricter divorce law, perhaps, or a more punitive penal policy) without any reference to the state of the economy.

Setting out his credo for New Labour, Tony Blair stresses the virtue of "social discipline", of "duty" and "responsibility" forging "strong families" and "strong communities". All this smacks of conformity and constraint. Yet he also talks approvingly of empowerment, of women's "unfinished revolution", and deliverance, according to the new Clause IV, from "the tyranny of poverty, prejudice and the abuse of power". In his bid to build consensus, he is trying to juggle with authoritarian and liberal messages. Can he pull it off, or will he end up dropping one of them?

Blair's team may have calculated that a tough line on crime and family, which proclaims a stern stemming of tides, could win more plaudits from the media and strike a more memorable note among voters than appeals for understanding, preventive measures or tolerance. Liberal messages tend to be complex and circumspect, less certain, longer-term. Protagonists must risk the special venom the tabloids reserve for anything that smells of caring or do-gooding, and run the gauntlet of the backlash against "political correctness".

New Labour is actively seeking to be the party of law and order as well as the party of the family. Civil liberties lawyers have been appalled by its acquiescence on the Criminal Justice Act and other government measures to extend police powers. If things go on this way, Labour's emancipatory and permissive elements could find themselves out in the cold while the authoritarian tendencies of left and right snuggle up side by side, breathing the same air, dreaming the same dreams.

Could it happen? Consider the extraordinary cross-party infatuation of British politicians with the American communitarian Amitai Etzioni. He preaches a deceptively simply gospel of "common-sense" morality, rooted and nurtured in self-defining communities who shame miscreants into conformity by the force of majority opinion, backed up by home-grown taboos and the option to eject. Communitarianism rejects greedy individualism and the accumulative urges of unfettered capitalism. Duty and responsibility are key words in the mantra.

Blair is said to be intrigued with some of it. So are Paddy Ashdown and quite a handful of Tories. But its special appeal to New Labour is that it offers an intellectual security blanket, a philosophical agenda which appears to justify a shift towards civil authoritarianism.

Now you can drink your communitarianism long, with mixer, ice and straw. Or you can take it neat. Long, it seems liberal enough. Neat, it's lethal stuff. Etzioni recommends that we take it watered down with rights to defend individuals and minorities against the excesses of majority rule. Like this, it soothes and refreshes, just the thing for a hot summer night, as we sit and watch the divorce rate rise and the inner cities burn. We all know there is trouble out there, and we all want to make life better for ourselves and our children. So we fill our glasses and sip our communitarian cocktails.

But like any strong brew, it soon fuddles the brain, and it's the essence, not the mixer, that intoxicates. The essence of communitarianism is anti- liberal. Undiluted, it has no time for civil rights or the quest for individual autonomy. The fact that power is unevenly distributed - between genders, classes, races and generations - is not tackled. Nor is the argument that the roots of under-achievement and deviance can be traced to past injustices and impacted layers of exploitation.

The high priests of communitarianism include the philosophers Charles Taylor, Michael Sandet and Alasdair MacIntyre. They argue that liberalism is not part of any solution to contemporary ills. Some even claim it is part of the problem. Humans don't need equal opportunity or free choice so much as a sense of belonging and a clear set of rules. Authority. Boundaries. Certainty.

It is an elementary lesson which could only be taught by those who consider themselves natural insiders and rule-makers. Communities, like clubs, are defined as much by exclusion as inclusion. Where does communitarianism leave the dissenters and non-conformists, the artists and innovators, the misfits and migrants, the oddballs and loners, the recalcitrants and recidivists? Nowhere - unless in a long-stay institution of some kind.

Etzioni operates like a busy salesman, dashing round the world, reassuring everyone, offering his dilutant, urging us to taste. It's harmless, even anodyne, if the mixture's right. But we need to know what's in there, And when to say no.

Communitarians, like most conservatives, maintain that society is unravelling and needs to be knitted together again. The excesses of capitalism and welfare-state liberalism have produced a wayward individualism which has loosened the bonds of family and shaken moral certainties. Society must be restored to its old self, by which they mean the model that was constructed during the industrial era. Only thus can virtue and security be revived. It is a nostalgic view with a poor sense of history: civilisation is doomed without a firm hand to steer it back to the good old days. Romanticism about the past and pessimism about the present are combined with a wild optimism about the capacity of public policy to influence patterns of human behaviour.

What, after all, binds families and communities? Love, obligation, responsibility, reciprocity. But where do these come from? How can they be summoned up and arranged in appropriate formations? "Communities" in the industrial era were fashioned to a large extent by the capitalist system of the time. They were geographically fixed and based on families in which men were breadwinners and women ideally stayed at home to work unpaid, sustaining the infrastructure on which production depended. This profoundly influenced the way people led their personal lives: their sense of themselves, their aspirations, hopes and fears; their relationships and the balance of power between them. It determined the way children perceived their fathers and mothers, interacted with their neighbours and envisaged their own futures. It shaped patterns of authority at an intimate level, as well as in parishes, towns and cities. Economic necessity kept things in order.

After two major wars and 50 years of peace, after a technological revolution which has transformed communications and production, those conditions have ceased to exist. To reconstruct the old model of society without the incentives which produced it in the first place would require an unprecedented feat of social engineering: coercion on a grand scale.

A more realistic view is that society is changing and cannot be restored to its old shape. It is evolving and we don't know what its new shape will be. This is not to be deplored, but understood and embraced, so that we can ride the tide of change and make the most of it. Change can be messy and even painful, but things are improving in many respects - in material and moral terms. Our hopes of a better future depend on opening up options, not closing them down, on releasing human energies and creativity, on spreading power as evenly as possible across the population, on generating more freedoms, not fewer; on letting security grow from individuals' own sense of autonomy, instead of ladling it out through traditional hierarchies or the machinery of state.

Blair knows this. In January 1994, he denounced "the old-fashioned views of social order and hierarchy" and called instead for a "modern view of an active society empowering the individual". Earlier this year, he declared: "There is no going back to a mythical halcyon age ... The women's revolution requires a remaking of our patterns of work, caring, social security and institutions of power to enable women and men to operate as equals at all levels."

In the fine print of his speeches, Blair is often a sophisticated, liberal social analyst. The sound-bites and the silences tell another story. They tell us that Blair is a tough, determined leader who talks tirelessly about "strong and stable" family life, about "strong social ties and structures". They tell us that New Labour wants "proper discipline" in schools and a new criminal offence of un-neighbourly behaviour. The atmosphere and image projected bv the Blair campaign is a lot more authoritarian than it is liberal.

Nearly 40 years ago, Anthony Crosland wrote that the blood of socialists should always run with "a trace of the anarchist and the libertarian, and not too much of the prig and the prude ... Socialists cannot go on indefinitely professing to be concerned with human happiness and the removal of injustice, and then, when the programmes are decided, permitting the National Executive, out of fear of certain vocal pressure groups, to become more orthodox than a bench of bishops."

Today, mercifully, the bishops are riven with unorthodoxy. But New Labour is sounding a mite priggish. No amount of juggling with authoritarian and liberal tendencies will create a synthesis between them. They cannot be merged intellectually, or practically, however energetically Etzioni wields his communitarian cocktail shaker. If Blair wins the election, he will have to choose. Will he have the courage to embrace diversity and dissent, to speak up for civil liberties, to urge optimism, tolerance and understanding? Or will he opt for nostalgia and conformity, rules and regulations, pessimism, intolerance and retribution? His choice could determine the moral and practical mood in which we reach the millenium.

The writer is deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.