Leading article: The "third way" must go further

IN ALL the big policy decisions he has made since the election, the Prime Minister has steered a middle course with such skill that we can only stand back and admire. In two Budgets, in his huddling under, but just outside, the skirts of European monetary union, in his splitting the difference between the TUC and the CBI on the question of trade union representation, and now in setting the minimum wage, he has found the "third way". In each case he made it look like a principled position, not a compromise.

Tony Blair has been much mocked for promoting the "third way" as an ideology. When he invited a collection of academics to Downing Street for a seminar on the subject recently, Roy Hattersley, his former patron, was cutting. Since the "third way" was the ideology of the New Labour Government, he said, it was no bad thing to try to work out what it was. Clever historians have rushed to point out that the "third way" has been adopted as a label by all manner of anarchists, fascists and Trotskyists over the years. And any casual Blair-watcher can spot the contradiction between the virulent anti-intellectualism of Alastair Campbell and the cerebral speeches drafted by the Number 10 policy unit setting out Mr Blair's vision for a global politics of the "radical centre".

But we come not to mock. Big talk-ins about the "third way" with President Bill Clinton and a bunch of his policy wonks at Chequers and the White House may be more about cementing the special relationship than a joint ideological crusade modelled on that of Reagan and Thatcher. And the idea of an over-arching ideology may contradict Mr Blair's pragmatic insistence on "what works", his hostility to dogma and his obsession with building the broadest possible coalitions of support.

Nevertheless, everything which has been described as the "third way" turns out to be remarkably close to the positions adopted by this newspaper since its foundation. We have always been committed to a dynamic free- market economy, combined with social responsibility. We have argued for the open-minded search for policy answers, "radical" in the sense that they should pay no heed to pre-conceived notions of left and right. We have been pro-European while entertaining doubts about the quality of Europe's democracy - matching our concern for modernising and democratising the rickety institutions of our own nation state. None of this adds up to a "way", first, second or third, but it makes sense for our times.

If a new brand of politics emerges from this government, though, it will be defined by how it meets the challenges to come, especially that of welfare reform. What seems lacking from the Prime Minister's seminars is the intellectual ambition to tackle such a subject with the vigour it deserves. So, while the Government has so far taken well-judged positions at the centre of the established consensus on much-discussed policies, the "third way" peters out rather quickly when we try to follow it into the future.