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New politics for the new century

In the first detailed outline of his personal political philosophy, the Prime Minister reveals the values and goals that guide him in government. It is published on the day that he joins President Bill Clinton and other world leaders at a seminar in New York to discuss this `Third Way' in global politics

Tony Blair
Monday 21 September 1998 00:02 BST

I HAVE always believed that politics is first and foremost about ideas. Without a powerful commitment to goals and values, governments are rudderless and ineffective, however large their majorities. Furthermore, ideas need labels if they are to become popular and widely understood. The "Third Way" is, to my mind, the best label for the new politics which the progressive centre-left is forging in Britain and beyond.

The Third Way stands for a modernised social democracy, passionate in its commitment to social justice and the goals of the centre-left, but flexible, innovative and forward-looking in the means to achieve them. It is founded on the values which have guided progressive politics for more than a century - democracy, liberty, justice, mutual obligation and internationalism. But it is a third way because it moves decisively beyond an old left preoccupied by state control, high taxation and producer interests, and a new right treating public investment, and often the very notions of "society" and collective endeavour, as evils to be undone.

My vision for the 21st century is of a popular politics reconciling themes which in the past have wrongly been regarded as antagonistic - patriotism and internationalism; rights and responsibilities; the promotion of enterprise and the attack on poverty and discrimination. The left should be proud of its achievements in the 20th century, not least universal suffrage, a fairer sharing of taxation and growth, and great improvements in working conditions and in welfare, health and educational services.

But we still have far to go to build the open, fair and prosperous society to which we aspire.

The Third Way is not an attempt to split the difference between right and left. It is about traditional values in a changed world. And it draws vitality from uniting the two great streams of left-of-centre thought - democratic socialism and liberalism - whose divorce this century did so much to weaken progressive politics across the West. Liberals asserted the primacy of individual liberty in the market economy; social democrats promoted social justice with the state as its main agent. There is no necessary conflict between the two, accepting as we now do that state power is one means to achieve our goals, but not the only one and emphatically not an end in itself.

In this respect the Third Way also marks a third way within the left. Debate within the left has been dominated by two unsatisfactory positions. The fundamentalist left made nationalisation and state control an end in itself, hardening policy prescription into ideology. Radicalism was judged by the amount of public ownership and spending. In opposition was a moderate left which too often either accepted this basic direction while arguing for a slower pace of change or ignored the world of ideas. Revisionists periodically tried to change the agenda, but success was limited. The Third Way is a serious reappraisal of social democracy, reaching deep into the values of the left to develop radically new approaches.

A decade ago, the right had a virtual monopoly of power in the democratic West. In America, across Europe, even in Scandinavia, the right was in power, apparently impregnable. Today, the position is transformed. In most of the European Union, the centre-left is in office. While learning lessons about efficiency and choice, particularly in the public sector, we argue as confidently as ever that the right does not have the answer to the problems of social polarisation, rising crime, failing education and low productivity and growth.

Yet the left is not returning to the old politics of isolation, nationalisation, bureaucracy and "tax and spend". We are acting afresh. Across Europe, social democratic governments are pioneering welfare state reform, tackling social exclusion, engaging business in new partnerships, and establishing a stable economic basis for long-term stability and investment.

My politics are rooted in a belief that we can only realise ourselves as individuals in a thriving civil society, comprising strong families and civic institutions buttressed by intelligent government. For most individuals to succeed, society must be strong. When society is weak, power and rewards go to the few not the many. Values are not absolute, and even the best can conflict. Our mission is to promote and reconcile the four values which are essential to a just society which maximises the freedom and potential of all our people - equal worth, opportunity for all, responsibility and community.

Social justice must be founded on the equal worth of each individual, whatever their background, capability, creed or race. Talent and effort should be encouraged to flourish in all quarters, and governments must act decisively to end discrimination and prejudice. Awareness of discrimination is, rightly, being heightened over time. The attack on racial discrimination now commands general support, as does the value of a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society. A new awareness is growing of the capacity of, for example, disabled and elderly people, as they assert their own rights and dignity. The progressive left is on their side, recognising that despite two centuries of campaigning for democratic rights, we have a long way to go before people are recognised for their abilities.

The new constitution of the Labour Party commits us to seek the widest possible spread of wealth, power and opportunity. I want to highlight opportunity as a key value in the new politics. Its importance has too often been neglected or distorted. For the right, opportunity is characteristically presented as the freedom of individuals from the state. Yet for most people, opportunities are inseparable from society, in which government action necessarily plays a large part.

The left, by contrast, has in the past too readily downplayed its duty to promote a wide range of opportunities for individuals to advance themselves and their families. At worst, it has stifled opportunity in the name of abstract equality. Gross inequalities continue to be handed down from generation to generation, and the progressive left must robustly tackle the obstacles to true equality of opportunity. But the promotion of equal opportunities does not imply dull uniformity in welfare provision and public services. Nor does the modern left take a narrow view of opportunities: the arts and the creative industries should be part of our common culture.

In recent decades, responsibility and duty were the preserve of the right. They are no longer, and it was a mistake for them ever to become so, for they were powerful forces in the growth of the labour movement in Britain and beyond. For too long, the demand for rights from the state was separated from the duties of citizenship and the imperative for mutual responsibility on the part of individuals and institutions. Unemployment benefits were often paid without strong reciprocal obligations; children went unsupported by absent parents. This issue persists. Our responsibility to protect the environment, for instance, is increasingly pressing. So is the responsibility of parents for their children's education. The rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe: rights and opportunity without responsibility are engines of selfishness and greed.

The life of any family and any community depends on accepting and discharging the formal and informal obligations we owe to each other. The politics of "us" rather than "me" demands an ethic of responsibility as well as rights. This is the foundation of social solidarity on which any successful society depends. Some marriages and relationships will not be for life. But people's need to be able to make commitments has not changed.

Human nature is cooperative as well as competitive, selfless as well as self-interested; and society could not function if it was otherwise. The grievous 20th century error of the fundamentalist left was the belief that the state could replace civil society and thereby advance freedom. The new right veers to the other extreme, advocating wholesale dismantling of core state activity in the cause of "freedom". The truth is that freedom for the many requires strong government. A key challenge of progressive politics is to use the state as an enabling force, protecting effective communities and voluntary organisations and encouraging their growth to tackle new needs, in partnership as appropriate. These are the values of the Third Way. Without them, we are adrift. But in giving them practical effect, a large measure of pragmatism is essential. As I say continually, what matters is what works to give effect to our values.

Some commentators are disconcerted by this insistence on fixed values and goals but pragmatism about means. There are even claims that it is unprincipled. But I believe that a critical dimension of the Third Way is that policies flow from values, not vice versa. With the right policies, market mechanisms are critical to meeting social objectives, entrepreneurial zeal can promote social justice, and new technology represents an opportunity, not a threat.

Our values define our enemies. Cynicism and fatalism, prejudice and social exclusion: these are the enemies of talent and ambition, of aspiration and achievement. Cynicism, claiming that politics and public service cannot improve the quality of our lives. Fatalism that says global markets have wrested the economy beyond our influence. Prejudice, denying equal worth and encouraging snobbery and xenophobia. Social exclusion, limiting or denying opportunities on a scale unacceptable in a fair and open society.

What of policy? Our approach is "permanent revisionism", a continual search for better means to meet our goals, based on a clear view of the changes taking place in advanced industrialised societies.

Over the past 50 years two major political projects have dominated politics in Britain and many other Western democracies - neo-liberalism and a highly statist brand of social democracy. They have been applied in different ways, according to history, culture and political choice, but the broad intellectual currents are clear. Britain has experienced both in full- blooded form. That is why the term "Third Way" has particular relevance, and it is on the basis of British experience since the watershed of the Second World War that I now draw.

The Labour government elected in 1945 was shaped by the legacy of wartime conditions and of pre-war depression and poverty. It proceeded, with a landslide majority and wide public consent, to nationalise industry, manage demand, direct economic activity and expand health and social services on an unprecedented scale.

These policies achieved steady and high growth, and a fairer distribution of the benefits of growth. They fitted well with a world of secure jobs, large firms, low unemployment, relatively closed national economies and strong communities underpinned by stable families. Conservative governments of the Fifties made no attempt to dismantle the Attlee settlement, beyond sniping at the edges of the nationalised sector.

Yet as the Seventies advanced, post-war social democracy proved steadily less viable. The NHS and much of the welfare state remained - and remain - formidable achievements, at once cost-effective and transformative in their impact on the quality of life for the less well-off. But demand management and very high levels of state ownership and direction became increasingly ineffective at promoting growth and containing unemployment in a world of growing competition, external shocks and industrial and technological change. Social democracy proved too inflexible in response. In particular, it was too inefficient and low quality in its provision of public services, notably those such as education, telecommunications and other utilities where it was the near-monopoly supplier.

The Sixties was a decade of personal liberation. But individualism was not taking hold of just the private sphere: it spread rapidly to the realm of political economy. By the early Eighties, neo-liberalism had taken deep root in the form of the Thatcher government. Some of its reforms were, in retrospect, necessary acts of modernisation, particularly the exposure of much of the state industrial sector to reform and competition. But it went hand-in-hand with a visceral antipathy to the remaining public sector, damaging key national services, notably education and health, even as the ministers preached the language of national competitiveness and individual self-improvement.

By the mid-Nineties, the wheel had turned again - not back to a statist social democratic model, but towards a realisation that the dogmatism of the neo-liberal right had become a serious threat to national cohesion. Too many people were losing out; too many companies were under-performing; too many public services were failing through inattention; and too many communities were endangered by the rise of crime, unemployment and social exclusion.

And as the evidence mounted, the right proved increasingly obtuse in its failure to act - indeed, in its positive desire not to act in key areas such as education and social exclusion for fear of the ideological implications. Just as economic and social change were critical to sweeping the right to power, so they were critical to its undoing.

Around the world, governments are seeking to meet the demands of contemporary society. I believe that one of these demands is for a renewal of politics, for a new politics. But the choice of the new politics is not abstract. It is a choice which is already being made, in practice. In Britain, New Labour is the new politics. The challenge is to turn change into progress. We cannot rely on historical inevitability; we have to do it for ourselves.

This extract is taken from `The Third Way: New Politics for the New Century' by Tony Blair, published by the Fabian Society today

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