September 1998

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Tony Blair’s 'third way' compared to Nordic welfare state

New Labour’s claim of showing the way for the rest of Europe has raised the question of the exportability oftillblair.jpg (22550 bytes) Blairism. At the same time, Tony Blair’s political ideas have provoked a debate on whether the dramatic changes on the global stage dictate our responses to the new world or whether we are able to use our political imagination to mould the world more to our liking.

These were questions raised at a seminar at the Finnish Institute entitled Blairism – a Beacon for Europe? The seminar was an opportunity for several eminent social scientists from Britain, France, Finland and Sweden to present their analyses of Blairism and its attempt to set an example to the rest of Europe.

According to Professor Anthony Giddens, the Director of the London School of Economics, Tony Blair’s policies offer a new approach to a dramatically changing world. Giddens saw the 'third way' as a framework for discussion. He thought that Blairism seeks a dynamic economy which at the same time is tied to a society which has some norms of social solidarity, inclusiveness and justice. Giddens sees Blair’s reform of the welfare state as a step towards what Giddens himself likes to call a social investment state.

"The system shouldn’t be supporting people locked into benefits and an unhappy life. The social investment state therefore looks to shift the balance wherever possible from the direct payment of benefit, especially unemployment benefit, to investment in human Giddens1.jpg (105700 bytes)capital. But Blairism is not simply a British version of the American ‘welfare to work’ programme because Blair specifically rejects the American model due to its strongly punitive tone. What Blair has done is to incorporate aspects of the tried and tested Scandinavian system into the British approach to ‘welfare to work’."

"It obviously has its limitations. You can’t base everything on work, no one has the least idea whether unemployment can ever be eliminated, no one knows precisely where information technology will lead us. You have to prepare for a society where work will be scarce."

Nordic doubts

Even if Blair is successful in his policies, there is no reason to suppose that they will be imitated elsewhere. Erkki Tuomioja, the Chair of the Finnish Social Democratic Parliamentary Group, asked why the American and British experiences of welfare reform should be of particular value "when these countries are not welfare states in any sense that is familiar to and accepted by most people in the Nordic countries."

According to Tuomioja, the Nordic welfare states have been "extraordinarily successful in eliminating poverty", contrary to the view of their Anglo-Saxon critics.

"Much effort has been directed at preventing the emergence of a marginalised underclass through both social and physical investment. Social housing and city planning policies, for example, have consciously tried to avoid creating socially segregated neighbourhoods."

In spite of many problems, public opinion has not turned against the welfare state, Tuomioja noted. On the basis of this consensus, the Nordic social democrats are now trying to make the welfare state economically and socially sustainable.

Failure of political imagination?

The validity of Giddens’s analysis was also questioned by Nikolas Rose (Goldsmiths College). He disagreed with Giddens’s assumption that the changes in the world "somehow carry along with them some imperatives as to how we might respond".

In Rose’s view, the changes "don’t in themselves determine anything".

He continued: "The way in which they are responded to depends on thought and political imagination. In my opinion, the main weakness of the Blair project is a failure of political imagination, a failure to actually invent novel ways of responding to a whole host of different circumstances."

The seminar was jointly organised by the London School of Economics and the New Statesman.

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