The Third Way: Sacred or Secular?
Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach/11/1999
The Third Way has become the fashionable political idea of the moment. In this country it is associated with Mr. Blair and New Labour, in Germany with Chancellor Schroder's die Neue Mitte, in the US with President Clinton and in Brazil with the sociology professor President Cardoso. It is about the renewal of centre-left politics. It proposes a political programme which goes beyond both the Old Left, which has been discredited by the collapse of communism, and the New Right, which, so its opponents claim, failed because of its emphasis on individualism, neglect of community, insecurity of employment and its lack of investment in public services. The Third Way attempts to create a balance between the creation of wealth through a market economy and greater social cohesion. It suggests that such a balance is achievable by political reform which includes the extension of democracy, the revival of civil society, greater inclusiveness and a reformed welfare state.
At first sight it might appear that there is only one Third Way. For example, in major statements by two leading proponents of the Third Way, namely Tony Blair in his Fabian pamphlet The Third Way: New Politics for the New Century and Professor Anthony Giddens in his book The Third Way: the Renewal of Social Democracy, there appears to be a great deal in common. Both start by accepting the failure of communism and setting out, as they see it, the failure of market economies to provide social cohesion. Both are seeking a political way forward which is more than simply a middle way between the Old Left and the New Right. Both accept that the market economy is by far the most effective way to create wealth. Both make a great deal of the enormous changes of recent decades; the process of globalisation, the decline in tradition and custom, the dramatic changes in personal lifestyles and the new concern over ecological issues. Both lay claim to the traditional values of the Left - democracy, liberty, justice based on equality, mutual obligation and internationalism - and are seeking to apply them to the changed circumstances of today's world, hence the emphasis on modernization.
And finally in the context of the UK both advocate similar policies for a distinctive Third Way programme:
(1) the extension of democracy through devolution, decentralisation and other constitutional reforms;
(2) the renewal of civil society through government actively encouraging, supporting, regulating and, if need be, financing the intermediating structures of civil society;
(3) redefining welfare from being something negative to something positive and repackaging welfare as social investment;
(4) accepting the effectiveness of the market economy in creating wealth but taming 'market fundamentalism' through regulation, and strengthening the supply side of the economy through improved education and public investment;
(5) a commitment to protecting the environment and supporting sustainable development;
(6) a commitment to internationalism not isolationism.
The Giddens' Third Way
Despite different emphases both approaches have much in common, except in one crucial respect. Giddens' approach is totally secular while that of Mr Blair is not. Giddens rarely, if ever, mentions God. Religion is subsumed in tradition and custom, then written off because of its irrelevance in the modern world. The distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil, this world and the next are irrelevant. The belief that certain institutions and practices should be labelled sacred and venerated is foreign to this world view. The significance which the sacred has traditionally given to birth and death, marriage and the sexes, work and stewardship, war and peace, culture and nationhood is absent. The moral order has no absolutes save for tolerance. Morality has no relationship to belief in God or an after life.
There is an extraordinary conceit in the potential of human reason to solve any problem. The new individualism, carefully distinguished from egoism, is applauded. Authority resides in democracy, so that the only sacrosanct institutions are those with a claim to democratic credentials. There is a fundamental belief in human goodness. There is an extraordinary optimism over the renewal of society in a progressive, inclusive and cosmopolitan direction. For Giddens the Third Way is a project in the great rationalist tradition of post-Renaissance politics.
Tony Blair's Third Way
It is possible in the statements of Mr Blair to discover a very different approach from Giddens. Mr Blair is clear that he has rejected the narrow view of self-interest which underlies modern conservatism because of his Christian values. He opposed a purely libertarian ethos because "... unless boundaries are set and agreed, and judgements of good and bad are made, society cannot function well or fairly." Christian values are closely linked to those of democratic socialism.
Christianity he says "is a very tough religion... It is not utilitarian... It is judgemental. There is right and wrong. There is good and bad. We all know this of course but it has become fashionable to be uncomfortable about such language." This view is distinctly anti-secular. Society is best safeguarded when under the sacred canopy of religion. The existence of God confronts us as a reality outside ourselves, to which the response of the believer is one of awe, reverence and accountability. The sacred gives meaning to life and significance to institutions such as the family, church and state. It provides a moral order and sets boundaries within which individuals and society can function effectively and fairly.
A Third Way which recognizes the significance of the sacred is, as I suggested earlier, not something new. In this respect I believe that Mr Blair is in the great tradition of Anglican social thought from F.D. Maurice in the mid-nineteenth century, through Bishops Westcott and Gore, and Scott-Holland who launched the Christian social Union towards the end of the last century, Professor Tawney and Archbishop Temple in the twenties and thirties to contemporary bishops and theologians, all of whom have believed in some form of ethical socialism. It is a tradition which placed great emphasis on the Incarnation and the coming of the Kingdom of God as the basis for social involvement and a renewed social order. Archbishop Temple in his book Christianity and the Social Order set out to show the relevance of the Christian faith to society by outlining three Christian principles relevant to social life which can be derived from Christian teaching: freedom, social fellowship and service.
Implications of the Secular and the Sacred
Ideas have consequences and nowhere more so than in this distinction between the secular and sacred. One of those consequences has to do with the concept of the human person. Underlying the secular view of the Third Way is a conception of the human person who can be explained primarily, if not entirely, by their environment of language, family, upbringing, schooling, class and community. By extending democracy, improving education, pursuing inclusiveness, reforming welfare and creating the cosmopolitan society individuals can be changed. This is a world of fundamentally good people which cannot make sense of the notion of evil.
This concept of the person has one important implication for personal responsibility. It may be true that personal responsibility is more likely to be fostered within a strong and free society which places great value on its communities. But, the emphasis on the community can easily lead to a reduction of the sense of personal responsibility. Without a strong sense of the uniqueness of the individual, accountable to someone or something outside of themselves, such a person becomes indistinguishable from the society which shapes him and therefore not responsible. It is society which is responsible.
A second aspect of the secular version of the Third Way is its idolatry of politics and especially of democracy. The life of politics is the all-consuming passion of Third Way society. Its object is to establish the new democratic state. In a post-traditional world the authority which institutions possess can only be established by their democratic credentials. Hence the advocacy not only of wholesale constitutional reforms such as devolution in Scotland, Wales and the regions of England, the reforms of the House of Lords, and the introduction of new systems of voting, but also local, direct democracy, electronic referenda, citizens juries and other possibilities.
This passionate belief in the extension of participatory democracy elevates democracy to a status equivalent to religious worship: as one reads Giddens one cannot help feeling that the practice of democracy becomes the religious rite of the secular state. One interesting question is what limits might conceivably be attached to the deepening and widening of democracy. If the logic of democratic reform is to endow institutions with legitimacy, it is not all clear that the reform process can so easily be brought to an end simply by some Minister making the statement "It is not our intention to reform this or that institution." The quest for legitimacy may turn out to be a very demanding mistress.
A third aspect of this secular version of the Third Way is that it is totally devoid of any sense of history. As Mr Blair said recently "no one is interested in what we were, except for nostalgia". It is as if history began in May 1997. The neglect of history in political life is serious. It is not simply that history contains lessons which we neglect at our peril; or that it confronts ideology with awkward questions based on concrete detail; but that it is only through the study of our history with its legend and myth as well as its chronicling of events that we begin to understand who as a people we really are. We should take to heart the words of the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski that "The Muse of history is gentle, learned and unassuming, but when neglected and deserted she takes her revenge: she blinds those who scorn her." The two conceptions of the Third Way have important implications for the content of policy and for the character of our society. I would like to consider three areas.
The Third Sector and the Little Platoons
According to Giddens, "The fostering of an active civil society is a basic part of the politics of the Third Way". Mr Blair has consistently emphasised that one of his key objectives is the creation of a healthy civil society, in which citizens accept responsibilities as well as exercise rights, and in which there are thriving voluntary organisations, local initiatives and public private partnerships.
At first glance this approach seems like a classic Burkean emphasis on the importance of civil society and yet another case of the Third Way stealing the clothes of a conservative philosophy. But it turns out that in important but subtle ways the third sector advocated by Giddens is quite different from a Burkean approach.
The alarm bells are set ringing by two key statements in Giddens' book: one is that "there are no permanent boundaries between government and civil society"; and the other that "civil society is not as some fondly imagine, a source of spontaneous order and harmony". This is followed by emphasising the critical role government has to play in the renewal of civil society, which is variously described as enabling, forging, promoting, complementing, partnering, protecting and encouraging the third sector. Then in a very telling statement Giddens argues that "state and civil society should act in partnership, each to facilitate, but also to act as a control upon the other".
For the Third Way an energetic and pro-active government is indispensable to the vitality of civil society; indeed the picture which emerges is of civil society weakened by the continual assaults of globalisation, seemingly in permanent decline, and needing the help which only a progressive and enlightened government can give.
Giddens is right to emphasise the importance of civil society to a well functioning democracy. It is something which has long been emphasised in political thought and sociology. Edmund Burke in castigating the French revolutionaries for destroying the traditions and institutions of French society spoke approvingly of the attachment people have to "the subdivisions" of society, "the little platoons", out of which grows an affection for something greater than themselves and is the first step in the development of a love of country and of mankind in general.
Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the strength of democracy in America depended on its being held together by the "habits of association" which in turn depended on the strength of "the science of association". Emile Durkheim argued that the check on individualism came from the authority which existed in the corps intermediaires, and which included the family, local community, professions, church, school, guild, profession and trade union; and that it was in these "little aggregations" that people found the strength of community to resist the tempest of change. Tonnies, the nineteenth German sociologist, contrasted the associations of Gemeinschaft which found their ideal in the family embodying the elements of blood, place and neighbourhood, to those of Gesellschaft typified by the modern corporation, which is based on rationality and calculation.
Fostering the little platoons
For the little platoons to thrive they need a fence drawn around their boundaries to preserve their freedom. Without this security they find themselves unable to perform the functions for which they were established. This separation of spheres is important and the rights associated with it is critical to the well being of the various spheres. One can go further and say that when governments transgress these boundaries and start meddling in areas which should legitimately be left to the little platoons, they destroy their vitality. Even though it may be unintended, government can destroy the little platoons by competing with them, regulating them and corrupting them with offers of money. It may be subtle and gradual but for the little platoons it will be a fatal embrace.
Let me give an example. Typically a charitable organisation starts, not infrequently with a religious affiliation, with a small number of highly committed individuals who are prepared to devote their time, skills and money to a cause. The organisation is then "discovered" by government and politicians are eager that they are seen to support it through public funding. Full time staff are hired to make the programme more professional, then new members are added to the board who lend credibility because of their experience on other government bodies. Certain of the original objectives are downgraded because of their more controversial character and because of this decision significant amounts of public funding are obtained.
Volunteers however begin to feel their support is now unnecessary and drop out. Some of the founding members of the board begin to leave because of disillusion. Eventually the whole character of the organisation has so changed that it has become virtually indistinguishable from an arm of government. Time and again this is a process which I have observed personally and which has been documented in both this country and America. The problem facing the Third Way can now be stated very simply. The renewal of civil society requires a vitality in the life of little platoons, which in turn allows them a spontaneity and an operating freedom which provides the space in which the voluntary organisations can develop. Government is best placed to encourage this by doing as little damage as possible to these fledgling organisations, by imposing on them as little regulation as possible and by refraining from setting up publicly financed rival organisations which will drive them out of business.
In the secular view, not only is the restoring of the traditional family a non-starter but the traditional definition of the family itself is an anachronism. Many would endorse this view of the National Council for One Parent Families that "no single model for the family is always right". In a world offering choice the only future for the family is as a thoroughly democratic institution which involves formal equality between the sexes, individual rights for the partners, mutual respect, authority which is negotiated rather than given by tradition, and all of this not just for heterosexual but also same sex relationships: in other words, the democratic family.
Giddens proposes that there should be life long legally binding parental contracts with children drawn up independent of marriage, so that unmarried and married fathers have the same obligations to their children, that the authority of parents over children should be negotiated with the children themselves, that children should have legal obligations to parents, and that there should be an increase in co-parenting so that fathers assume greater responsibility for child care. In this world the family has been reduced to a bundle of rights and contracts; but what is lacking is any basis for lifelong commitment and most of all the absence of any soul to family life.
This approach is rooted in the prediction of social trends, which are deeply pessimistic. Indeed the projections by the Government Actuary of divorce and co-habitation indicate that married couples will in the near future be a minority in the population. But these trends have occurred over a period of years and during governments of all colours. Divorce has been made increasingly easier for example and fiscal policy has actively discriminated against the traditional family. Such trends are partly the result of these changes themselves.
A world which respects the sacred has a different starting point. The institution of marriage is part of God's created order and therefore deeply rooted in our social instincts. It is the means by which we understand the meaning of love. The commitment and discipline which marriage requires have behind them the full force of divine authority. Through marriage a unit of society is created which is greater than the sum of the parts and enables people to make a contribution to society. The weakening of marriage thus has serious implications for the strength of community and practical care in society.
In its White Paper on Supporting Families the government states that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships and that marriage provides the most reliable foundation for raising children. This supports the overwhelming conclusion of research in this field: namely that judged by almost any indicator you care to mention - the state of mental and physical health, the emotional and intellectual development of children, the frequency of violence and child abuse, care for the elderly, and the likelihood of the relationship breaking up, marriage scores consistently ahead of other family forms.
But then it goes on to undermine the institution of marriage by arguing that "there was never a golden age of the family" (which of course is true), but more importantly that "many lone parents and unmarried couples raise their children every bit as successfully as married parents" which runs counter to the evidence, even though particular individuals may prove exceptions.
As Gordon Brown has observed, the tax system sends critical signals about those activities a society wishes to promote or alter and the values they wish to see entrenched in society. In the last budget the Chancellor abolished the married couples allowance and at the same time introducing subsidies to child care which further penalise those parents (usually mothers) who chose to be full-time parents. If Mr Blair would will the revival of the family, then he must will the means as well.
The stakeholder company
A secular view of business will view it in purely utilitarian terms, a process for creating jobs, output and shareholder wealth, which can then be taxed and redistributed by government for the common good. Even from a centre-left perspective this view places emphasis on property rights, contracts, the structure of governance, the extent and kind of regulation.
Once again this view of business and the market economy is strong on the anatomy of its institutions, the definition of rights and the nature of regulation but weak on how to create a corporate culture based on an explicit set of values which is at the heart of a successful company. When viewed in the context of the sacred the picture is very different. The practice of business and the process of wealth creation have a moral legitimacy because they are part of the created order. A market economy which values creativity and in which property rights are protected is important in recognising the dignity of individuals and families and providing a basis for democracy - as well as ladders for those able and interested to climb them.
I believe that this poses a real choice for the Third Way in its approach to the business corporation. It can either allow companies the freedom to flourish within an environment of transparency, to be somewhat sceptical over the value of increased regulation and to lend its support and public recognition to those companies concerned with shaping a responsible culture or it can impose increasing regulation on companies, in the knowledge that it will add to their costs so as to force them to conform to some notion of the responsible corporation.
I have tried to show that there is a major fault line running through the Third Way, between those who hold a sacred and those who hold a secular world view. This fault line is not restricted to centre left politics. It is clearly visible on the right of the political spectrum, in the different philosophies of libertarianism and conservatism. The need for a sacred canopy which is a source of virtues and authority as well as a reason for hope is important to the vitality of civil society, to responsible families and to companies which respect the dignity of people and create communities in which they can develop.
If I am right in suggesting that the concept of the Third Way only makes sense through the language of the sacred and the profane then rediscovering the value of the sacred is indispensable for the success of the Third Way. "Unless the Lord build the house, its builders labour in vain." The sceptics will say, but the sacred is a thing of the past which we cannot recover. To me the example of Nehemiah in building the walls of Jerusalem against all the odds is not simply an interesting lesson in the history of Israel but an example of a person of vision, compassion and energy, who combined the practical with the sacred for the restoration of his society and the good of his people.