The third way’s third strike

Ten years ago, Tony Blair’s triumph looked world-historic. He seemed like a real-life Jed Bartlet, TV’s West Wing dream liberal Democrat with a social conscience, a Nobel Prize in economics and a backbone in foreign policy. And, philosophically, Blair’s “third way” offered what progressives had long sought: anti-conservative politics that didn’t spell immediate economic, social and diplomatic catastrophe. A decade on, Blair is in horrible political trouble (his press secretary has made it clear that Blair will resign sometime next year, at the latest) and his third way looks like the biggest bust since Y2K. John O’Sullivan, the Liverpool-born former adviser to Margaret Thatcher and National Review editor-at-large, concedes that Blair rescued the Labour party from antediluvian Marxism. But, he says, it was politically necessary to accept “the Thatcher legacy... or they would never have got back into power.” In his famous 1999 “Forces of Conservatism” speech, Blair told Labour’s Bournemouth conference: “The class war is over,” and rejected accusations of mimicking Tory economic policy by puckishly boasting he’d gone further, cutting deficits and “at long last reforming welfare, making work pay more than benefit for hard-working families.” But he wasn’t a conservative; he promised “A New Britain” because “New Labour, confident at having modernised itself . . . can modernise the nation, sweep away those forces of conservatism to set the people free.” A key passage: “The Third Way is not a new way between progressive and conservative politics. It is progressive politics distinguishing itself from conservatism of left or right.”

It sure sounded good. Progressive governance summits were irresistible to trendy people like the U.S.’s Bill Clinton and Canada’s Paul Martin. And while Blair warned in 1999 that Labour had never won two straight elections, he has won three and his foes are still in disarray. But so now is his government.

Britain, and Labour, were already starting to find him smarmy and hyper rather than charming and energetic when, this March, the “cash-for-peerages” scandal erupted. Labour “modernized” the House of Lords by abolishing hereditary peers as lawmakers and was soon caught apparently trading upper house seats for “loans” that violated campaign finance laws. On July 11, the theatrical arrest of a top Blair fundraiser, Lord Levy, brought the mess to 10 Downing Street. But politicians come and go. The bigger crisis is ideological.

There are three key aspects of governance: national security, social policy and the economy. Pre-Blair Labour was hideously weak on all three. But New Labour has proved no better. First, taxes are skyrocketing. In 2003, local government minister Nick Raynsford admitted that year’s 13 per cent increase in local taxes in Britain had reached the “limit of acceptability” for many. But they kept rising, and have almost doubled since Labour took over. Inflation-adjusted public spending is also up, from £361 billion in 1997 to £516 billion by 2007 (from 37 to over 40 per cent of GDP), yet the pension system approaches insolvency.

Disaster has also struck public health care. New Labourites read Adam Smith and were determined to bring market mechanisms into public monopolies. But their reforms have gone wrong. Spending is up from £55.8 billion in 2002-2003 to a projected £90.2 billion in 2007-2008. Yet hospitals cancel non-urgent surgery to hit budget targets and turn away high-risk patients to protect quality “ratings,” while harried doctors whisk patients through quick “assessments,” then park them in corridors for long secondary waits because the state penalizes hospitals who don’t see 98 per cent of ER cases within four hours. Labour’s wonks turn out not to have grasped that market planning is all plan and no market.

Blair has also been beaten on school reform, even though the system spends four times as much per student as in 1950 to leave a quarter functionally illiterate after 11 years’ compulsory schooling, while a quarter who make it to university think 1066 is when the Romans invaded Britain. Yet the government plans to run schools from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. as a daycare system, impose a national curriculum on kids under three, weigh primary school kids and possibly give them compulsory sex-ed too.

Socially, the third way has been an even bigger bust. Britain is awash in antisocial behaviour; satirical police pamphlets advise women to shave their legs so they’ll look good when they pass out drunk and disheveled, while posh London districts stink of urine. Blair feels people’s pain, but you can’t stop binge drinking, rioting and littering when you are so viscerally hostile to stuffy old stiff-upper-lip/just-isn’t-done Britain that you squander dwindling political capital attacking fox hunting.

Worse, with violent crime way up since 1950, the director of Britain’s Civitas think-tank wrote this June, “We are a high-crime society with a complacent government.” Famously, after Labour confiscated handguns, Tony Martin, a farmer who’d been robbed dozens of times, shot and killed a burglar with 29 prior convictions and got a life sentence (later reduced to five years), and the crook’s relatives tried to sue him. A press release this July 20 started, “Home Secretary John Reid today set out plans to make sure the law is on the side of the decent, law-abiding majority.” But after 10 years it’s no longer credible. Especially after the Home Office admitted it accidentally freed over a thousand foreign criminals, including murderers, rapists and pedophiles, it was meant to consider deporting instead, and has no idea where they went.

Conservatives think one bright spot is foreign policy. The left generally agrees, calling Blair “Bush’s poodle.” His response to 9/11 was magnificent; he’s been there in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he has failed in five significant ways. First, he has not persuaded Britons to share his enthusiasm for the “special relationship” with America. Second, he’s under-funded the military and just abolished the oldest active unit in the world, the Royal Scots. Third, his politically correct instincts expose combat soldiers to the hazards of rampant human rights law; Col. Tim Collins, whose inspirational speech to his Royal Irish Regiment battalion before the second Iraq war reportedly hangs in the White House (“We go to liberate, not to conquer” ), was harassed over unsubstantiated allegations of pistol-whipping a Baath party official. Cleared, promoted and honoured, Collins quit in disgust. Fourth, John O’Sullivan notes, Blair has quietly pushed British doctrine and procurement away from compatibility with the U.S. military toward the European Defence Force. Fifth, he never attempts to explain or justify policy with reference to Britain’s national interest.

Like most postmoderns, Blair is not a loyal man. His Cool Britannia campaign was driven by visceral embarrassment at the parochial traditions that made Britain great. “When did he ever praise Britain?” O’Sullivan asks. “He doesn’t like the country.” He adds that Blair balanced economical moderation with radicalism in other areas, including creating “a real dog’s breakfast” constitutionally that inflamed Scottish/English antagonism. Meanwhile, Blair sneakily persists in submerging British sovereignty in the EU, despite occasional outrage when Eurodirectives ban New Zealand’s famous Anchor butter from British tables or London’s double-deckers are phased out to meet an EU deadline for wheelchair-accessible buses by 2016. And through a snobbish, rather than intellectual, persuasion that whatever offends old insular John Bull must be good, while fighting terror abroad, New Labour pursued multicultural policies that created “Londonistan” at home.

Distressing to conservatives, the third way is simply uninteresting to the left. Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove says it means “forgetting about the values and the principles that the Labour party was built on” and instead “just seek power for the sake of power and float with the opinion polls,” including that Blair “hasn’t rolled back any of the anti-union laws that Maggie Thatcher brought in.” To his dismay, Hargrove thinks this approach has tainted progressive politics here: “The NDP in Canada has followed that route since Blair got elected, moving more and more to watch the polls and respond to whatever the centre of the political spectrum is,” instead of trying to move voters left. For instance, he says, in the last election, Jack Layton endorsed mandatory minimum sentences “in response to what people around Jack were saying the polls were showing,” instead of arguing for “support and mentoring” alternatives because jail turns vulnerable young people into hardened criminals. Meanwhile the recent Euston Manifesto ( signed in London by an international group of democratic progressives makes no mention of Blair or his philosophy.

There is, in short, no third way. Blair managed to destroy much that was valuable, but put nothing in its place. The Blair years were as fictional as the West Wing, and when he goes, it goes.

[First published in Western Standard]

ColumnsJohn Robson