I'll never forget Friday May 2nd 1997 because in some ways it was a catalyst for me politically. You see, I hadn't voted the previous day. I was a second year politics and philosophy undergraduate in London and - as a result of smoking far too much pot - had failed to fill the electoral register form in time (the Sony PlayStation should take some blame too I think). However, the sight of Tony Blair walking into Downing Street with a wide-mouthed frog sent a shot of adrenalin through me.
You see, I didn't really know what to make of it all. I was so busy getting stoned at the time that I’d no idea who the man was, or what he stood for. In fact, I was convinced that the Tories were going to pull off another 1992. I just didn't believe that the country could trust Labour. True, I was hopelessly wrong, but I blame my upbringing in Buckinghamshire on that. When you're brought up in a constituency that was created in 1554 and has been Tory/Whig forever you tend to become blind to reality (obviously the fact I smoked back then didn't help either).
So there I was, May 2nd, shell-shocked. Shell-shocked that the British public had elected a Labour government. Not only that, the silly sods had given them a landslide! It was this that triggered in me the desire to find out exactly what it was these people had voted for. True I was late off the blocks, but I needed to find out anyway. And so I began a journey into the world of New Labour to find out what was actually new about it.
As I began to read lots of very dry pamphlets, and one truly appalling book called The Blair Revolution (a reprint with updates is available here if you're truly twisted), I kept finding references to something going by the name of the Third Way. According to the "thinkers" of New Labour (a certain David Milliband's name appeared many times in online discussions), Labour's platform was based upon this new, groundbreaking philosophy, and it was known as the Third Way.
The New Labour proponents of the Third Way, like sociologist Anthony Giddens, cited Pope Pius XI’s call for "a third way between socialism and capitalism" at the end of the nineteenth century as their starting point. This was, of course, completely different to the Third Position between socialism and capitalism that Mussolini argued for just a few years later.
I discovered that the Third Way was – apparently - a transcendental Hegelian dialectic of the political order (the Italian philosopher Norbeto Bobbio is cited by Giddens on this point as well (can you spot a nationality theme here?)). For Bobbio and Giddens there was no longer Left and Right, but instead some sort of Hegelian Other. A synthesis born of the natural opposition of the two positions that preceded it. Left and Right were no longer significant. Neither the planned economy, nor the liberal economy was correct. What we needed was planned-liberal economy, or, as the German economists called it, Ordoliberalism.
Now, putting aside the issue that such a term is actually an oxymoron, the implications of the Third Way became clear. The "philosophy" (and I use the term very loosely), was founded on an acquiescence towards the Thatcherite consensus of free markets and liberalism. Whilst, simultaneously seeking to shoehorn in what it could of the command structure inherent in the Keynesian economic model.
The result was not a genuine philosophy of substance but instead a rhetoric that could use the language of the Right to portray essentially Left wing positions whilst simultaneously appearing to use the language of the Left to mask its Rightist concepts. It was a double dog-whistle which appealed to natural Tory voters whilst simultaneously appeasing its own side. It was a genius piece of marketing without a doubt, the only problem was policy. How could you have a policy that was genuinely both Left and Right? Oxymorons are oxymorons for a very good reason. You cannot, by definition, order liberalism, nor can you liberalise order.
However, for those that are paying attention you may have noticed that the title of this post asked what the Third Way was? I deliberately chose the past tense because today no one talks about the Third Way. I've been wondering why that might be, and the only thing I can think is that the Third Way was never really more than a Machiavellian by-product in a much wider strategy for gaining and, importantly, maintaining power. In some respects, many of the academics that provided the philosophical langauge we're as much victims of the ruse as the electorate has been.