As British elections approach, the rest of Europe is watching with fascination the drama played out in a country riddled with an unusual number of problems, from quarrels about sleaze to foot-and-mouth disease. Are the proud days of the 'Third Way' over? How do European commentators now see this ideology as Tony Blair approaches the end of his first term in government?


'Third Way' to oblivion?

By Christopher Harvie

I  The ideology which wasn’t there

November 1999: in the Palazzo Medici in Florence Tony Blair hosted a conference. The ‘Third Way’ — not between communism and democracy but between traditional welfare states and neo-liberalism — was presented in grandiloquent if vague terms. Gerhard Schröder, Bill Clinton, Massimo d’Alema and Lionel Jospin were present, along with Henrique Cardozo (actually the conservative winner of the Brazilian presidency). The European press was respectful if guarded, not least because the right-wing alternative — Kohl, Chirac, and the clutch of  neo-nationalists who had run East Europe after 1990 — was discredited if not under criminal investigation.

Where is the ‘Third Way’ now? A scan of Amazon.com disclosed limp remaindered books. If Blair’s election in Britain looks a shoe-in, and Schröder and Jospin can be reasonably confident, the right is back in power in the USA, and looks like taking Italy. Bodo Hombach, Schröder’s ‘Third Way’ guru, actually anticipated the fall of his British partner Peter Mandelson and vanished into useful if unrewarding peacekeeping in the Balkans. Two years on, was enough ideology around to help evaluate the Blair government’s own, politically successful performance?

Polly Toynbee and David Walker of the left-liberal Guardian have produced a useful check-list in Did Things Get Better? (Penguin, 2001), and much earlier another Guardian journalist had baptised the ‘third way’ notion. In his critique of an over-centralised, Westminster-dominated state, Will Hutton’s The State We’re In (1994) compared the UK unfavourably to Germany and called for industrial priorities to be imposed on the City of London, for a ‘stakeholder society’ of workers with shares in their firms and seats on their boards, and decentralisation along German federal lines. Seemingly an economic pendant to the constitutional ideas of the ci-devant New Left’s ‘Charter 88’, 30,000 copies of Hutton’s book were sold, and it figured in Blair’s speeches over the next three years.

Yet by May 1997 all that was left was a commitment to Scottish home rule. To this was attached Welsh home rule and a London mayor, to preserve the notion of a ‘Britain-wide’ reform. Unexpectedly, the implications of this — the Welsh and Londoners stubbornly wanting the ‘wrong’ people — would give Blair as much trouble as the throbbing thirty-year old lesion of Northern Ireland. Industrial policy — let alone ‘stakeholding’ — had vanished. In the dyarchy which controlled New Labour Iron Chancellor Brown put it about that redistribution was coming ‘by stealth’. Toynbee and Walker accepted this, but noted how Brown also decoupled ideology and economics. A flutter of books from supposedly influential London think-tanks — often, intriguingly enough, led by ex-Marxist fortysomethings: Martin Jacques, Charlie Leadbetter — went on about ‘weightless economics’, to do with finding communication niches in global business structures. They might have got closer to the UK reality than Hutton, but had far less impact.

Should the electorate have noticed? New Labour’s ‘focus-group politics’ were grounded on the post-modern conviction that no ‘big picture’ ought to appear. The Third Way was close to what in the 1940s Herbert Morrison (Mandelson’s grandpa) defined as socialism — whatever the Labour Government’s policy happened to be. Yet it still haunted the place, like the creepy old poem:

As I was coming down the stair,

I met a man who wasn’t there.

He wasn’t there again today.

         I wish to God he’d go away!

Perhaps the Third Way was just the old-fashioned social market: an adequate infrastructure of socialisation and training, transport and welfare, paid out of taxation on the market economy. In which case New Labour had to catch up, after two decades of Conservative neglect. It took chutzpah to invert this, and claim to be in the lead. 

II   Sleazy virtue

The Third Way and the European reaction to it can be tracked by conferences and symposia, and the posh papers. Some (Le Monde, Die Zeit) are more reliable than others: nearly all are better than their British equivalents, with the exception of the Financial Times. But there was also the more plebeian level: Blair’s Britain projected in the tabloids, paparazzo papers (Hello!, OK), TV, etc.: tourism, football, celebs, food ’n sex. It impressed by being bubbly, busty and blonde … For ‘weightless’ Britain and its media couldn’t be detached from the Diana factor. In August 1997 the most famous woman in the world vanished, albeit in a fashion that Blair turned to his advantage. This meant, however, a subsequent salience for ‘human-interest stories’, and their doppelgänger, sleaze.

Blair — don’t forget little Leo! — kept ahead, domestically, because the Conservatives were stuck in the stuff, with Jonathan Aitken (perjurer), the party treasurer Michael Ashcroft (Caribbean financier of this ’n that) and the scrapes of the pulp novelist Jeffrey, Lord Archer, momentarily Conservative candidate for London mayor. From Europe, however, New Labour seemed becalmed. A reanimated Mandelson got the Ulster peace process back under way, but relations between Downing Street, Scotland and Wales remained problematic, and with London even worse. 'Deregulated Britain' produced BSE and foot and mouth. Transport was mired in policy paralysis: the National Railway of Absurdistan was what Der Spiegel labelled privatised British Rail. Blair was timid on Europe, and gained few friends there. The one (rather ominous) exception was his intervention in the Kosovo conflict in 1999, and the priority this seemed to give to European military integration. 

III   The great Satan

Most commentators homed in on Media: New Labour’s glamour-puss- cum-wicked-stepmother. Europe’s graduate journalists were simultaneously fascinated and repelled by it. Mobile and exploitative, it exalted profitability over innovation, and Blair’s electoral capture of it soon had a downside, in the Robinson, Mandelson and Vaz scandals. He had won it over by ignoring its programme: xenophobic, anti-European, lusting to commercialise (and profit from) all public entertainment. Rupert Murdoch, the Great Satan, stuck it out. Did he see the UK’s future — and his profits — in the American cultural realm, along with fast food, and limitless ‘infotainment’? Was he out to kill ‘socialist’ Europe? Or, more rational than his enemies supposed, would he settle ultimately with whoever was ahead? By 2001, an industrial dwarf in comparison with Bertelsmann and TimeWarner AOL, did he even matter?

In economic terms the UK wasn’t into industrial rationality. ‘Industry-based’ economics correspondents — for example in Die Zeit — noted that the flight from manufacturing into vaguely-defined ‘services’ through inward investment and foreign takeover of UK firms meant that the direct link between the London élite and technology, politics and society had disappeared. If the ‘product specialisation’ of London had become ‘presentation’, with media, advertising and fashion accorded an importance not to be found elsewhere in Europe, this leading edge existed for and in itself. There was no articulation with European manufacturing, to make this specialisation successful.

Devolution had slackened the traditional recruitment from the provinces to the core. If the bus to Euroland had left — and British knowledge of foreign languages, never profound, got steadily worse — attempts to revivify 1960s talk of the ‘dynamism’ of London were not reflected in the dislike the rest of the UK had of the place.

IV   Opium of the people

Journalists given to social inquiry — serious ’68ers in Berlin’s taz, for example — detected that behind the klatsch generated in those ever-interchangeable, open-plan offices, ‘Cool Britannia’ had a distinctly dodgy cultural pedigree. British ‘yoof’ was badly educated; its sexual health and narcotic addiction the worst in West Europe. For girls in ‘sink’ schools in housing schemes with third-generation unemployment, pregnancy at least brought the unconditional love of a small child. For their brothers, heroin was the fastest way out of Manchester’s New Hall or Edinburgh’s Pilton: something present to cinemagoers or Arte viewers in the films of Ken Loach or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.

Dynamism, and political influence, came at the upper end of the lifestyle business, what Professor Colin Crouch, of the European University Institute, Florence, would see as a commodified, privatised, public space in his deeply-pessimistic Coping with Post-Democracy (Fabian Society, 2000). A central example might be The Ministry of Sound — the multi-million pound techno-disco at London’s Waterloo which assisted Mandelson in the 1997 election. It was run by James Palumbo and Matthew Freud (great-grandson of Sigmund) who lived with Murdoch’s daughter Elizabeth. It fancied itself as a major European entertainment complex, a ‘yoof’ version of Disneyland, and helped  transform Ibiza into the ‘dance-and-dope’ capital of the Mediterranean, with the Brits as the core of the ravers. Rapid-beat music of the Ministry’s sort — D-ream’s ‘Things can only get better’ — themed New Labour’s victory.

Such enterprises notoriously ran on ‘recreational drugs’. They would never survive the crackdown on them promised by an apparently puritanical government under Roundhead Tony. So what?

V    Everything for sale

Beneath Blair’s evangelical rhetoric wasn’t the old Adam, but the hedonism of a fashionable metropolitan oligarchy kept going by international operators like Murdoch, just as in H G Wells’ dystopia The Time Machine the child-like Eloi were shepherded in the arcadian ruins of London by the subterranean Morlocks, until needed for food. Cultural critics of ‘Cool Britannia’ saw it as consonant with the advertising business: Maurice Saatchi wasn’t a second Medici, but an ad-man through-and-through. ‘Sensation Art’ and a vast, expensive restaurant culture came out of City profits, the agent’s percentage from a country with everthing for sale.

Hardly a brand name which once meant 'British' was by 2000 still in national hands. The Rover-BMW imbroglio needs no repetition, but think of Jaguar (Ford), Macmillan (Holzbrinck), Thomas Cook (Preussag), joined in 1999 by Midland Bank, now the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Cooperation. Even the great retailers like Sainsbury and Marks and Spencer, who led Europe in the 1980s, were in trouble. The American giant Wal-Mart took over Asda, one of the ‘Big Four’. The most emblematic name of all, Imperial Chemical Industries, went for profit by ditching basic chemicals for things like perfume ingredients, ran slap-bang into the Far Eastern slump and lost half its share value. 

Britain became the bolt-hole for inherited, illegally-acquired, or tax-resistant wealth, so Europe’s financial sections alleged. With ninety per cent of the City of London’s operations to do with takeovers or speculation there was no place here for ‘growing’ the small firm. Instead a parasitic capitalism evolved whereby minor executives nested within advertising, PR and entertainment giants, using their hi-tech resources to gain advantages, and then flew the coop. The casualty was both traditional industrial democracy — the power of the trade unions — and the long tradition of ‘mutual’ or co-operative ownership, such as insurance concerns and building societies. Blairite ‘enterprise’ was ‘turbo-capitalist’: firms were milk-cows for entrepreneurs concerned to make a lot of money and get out, to the sunny uplands of ‘lifestyle’. Those at the bottom rung of the order had only minimal security.

VI Crack of dome

After the period of Conservative domination, the normal expectation would be of redistribution and a more positive state role. Instead, New Labour preserved the status quo, concentrating on the self-development of its cadres within the City. The German commentator Jürgen Krönig in Die Zeit saw this as a sort of ‘left populism’, a shift from the finger-wagging didacticism of the old liberal élite, but its qualities were negative and existential.

According to Blair ‘The eyes of the world would be on Greenwich’ in  2000: fixed on the Millenium Dome. Its opening was chaotic, and things got worse. Ironically the one man who came out of this with credit was French: its manager the unsinkable P-Y. Gerbeau, bought in from Eurodisneyland. The Jubilee Line to Greenwich cost GBP 3.2 billion, while the London underground system needed GBP 7 billion to save it from collapse. And what was there to see in the Dome itself? Mandelson’s creation celebrated advertising sponsorship rather than patriotic endeavour. Its ‘spirit zone’ celebrating religion was only saved by the Hinduja brothers, whose dealings in machine-guns would bring about his own downfall.

London dominated, perhaps, because ‘Britain’ was fading fast. The evolution of distinct and increasingly combative regional politics made Hague’s Conservatives irrelevant in Wales or Scotland. Yet Blair’s truce with vestigial Old Labour, in the shape of John Prescott, meant that proportional representation, out of which a Liberal alliance might have come, was junked. There was a mismatch between a centre that, increasingly, could not hold – inexpert, unrespected, yet plentiful in its paymasters - and provinces which lacked both access and voice.

VII  Church militant?

Even in 2001 few leaders seemed as fortunate as Blair. Set to trounce a chaotic Conservative party, he had eclipsed a sexually-disgraced American President, overshadowed a tyro German Chancellor and a France divided between radical premier and Conservative president. But this was sapped by ineffective co-ordination between Britain and Europe. Toynbee and Walker note that the only point where Blair took a pro-Europe initiative was in the Kosovo conflict of spring 1999, yet the consequences of this soon showed up: allied military ineptness and unpreparedness, and — through the USA’s insistence on the bombing of ‘soft’ targets like the Danube bridges — the destruction of most of the Balkan economy. Suspicious European journalists saw the British as America’s ‘useful idiots’: promoting the destabilisation of territories bordering on the EU, and the rise of embarrassing xenophobic movements in Austria and Italy. Blair did little to disabuse them.  

Blair’s ‘third way’ was about ‘having it all’, in bubbly-blonde-speak. Being part of Europe yet at the same time open to international, and — while Wall Street boomed — American wealth. The flexibility of British society had once been its one great advantage over Germany — its ability to co-operate informally in environmental or educational causes, untramelled by bureaucracy. Now the surge of the profit motive into the voluntary and cultural sphere had resulted in a defensive mediocrity. Britain was unserios.

In The Leopard, his great novel of Sicily at the time of the Risorgimento, Lampedusa made the Prince of Salina compare his decaying island to a senile invalid being propelled round London’s Crystal Palace in a wheelchair. But in 2000 London’s Dome looked as empty a boast as Palermo’s two huge fin-de-siècle opera houses. Did its proprietor offer any greater hope?

Christopher Harvie is Professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen in Germany. His most recent book is The Road to Home Rule, with Peter Jones, Edinburgh: Polygon, 2000.


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