The ‘Third Way’ of 1998 and the ‘New Politics’ of Today

This article was first published in New View magazine Issue 56 July-Sept 2010

Broadly speaking, one could say that the three main historical political parties in Britain – Liberal, Conservative and Labour  – correspond to three key factors that have played a great role in British history since the seventeenth century. Respectively, these three aspects are: the Liberal concern for the liberty of the individual; the Conservative will to uphold the laws and customs of the land, and thirdly, the socialist yearning for just cooperation in the economic life. The defeat of the Labour Party and the emergence of a real coalition government (of the Liberal-Democrats and the Conservatives) in Britain following the General Election of May 2010 has reignited a number of questions that have been dormant since the immediate post-war years, when it seemed that the old Liberal Party would soon die away and a new two party system emerge: Socialists vs Conservatives. These questions include: what actually is the point of political parties in the modern world? Do we need them? What social needs do they correspond to? This raises questions of governance and the ideas behind governance in today’s world.

It is commonplace today to say that we live in the era of internationalism, globalism, cosmopolitanism and that nation states and national concepts no longer amount to much. Writing in The Independent (21.5.2010), arch-insider and veteran writer on economics Hamish Mcrae opined that “when politics and markets clash, markets win in the end.” This has been the received wisdom for most of the last 100 years in the West, and especially since the days of Thatcher and Reagan, when international finance was extensively liberalised and deregulated. But what does Macrae’s statement actually mean?

It signifies the apparent victory of one group in a struggle that wise politicians were already well aware of 200 years ago. In 1816 in a letter to Pennsylvania legislator George Logan, former US President Thomas Jefferson wrote: I hope we shall… crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.  By “politics” Macrae means, in the capitalist context, ‘governments’, that is, democratically elected governments, who represent the wishes of tens of millions of citizens. By contrast, who are ‘the markets’? Investors, financial market traders, consultants, investment banks, hedge funds and so on around the world and of course, especially in the richest countries. The media like to give the impression that ‘the markets’ operate ‘spontaneously’ and ‘organically’, like the force of nature that ‘the philosopher of capitalism’ Adam Smith conceived of two hundred years ago in his concept of ‘the invisible hand’, according to which the economy is said to operate organically as the result of countless individual financial decisions made every day which lurch this way then that in a ‘natural’ process that is said to constitute the ‘wisdom’ of the market and to   ‘test out’ the weaknesses in national, international, or private economic institutions and organisations, as well as national economies, in order to help them become more ‘robust’. Those with insight and knowledge of the history of financial crises have long known this to be a ‘finessed’ view of reality, to say the least, as they are aware that ‘markets’ and their operations are invariably led by ‘market leaders’ and by a select group of central and merchant bankers  -  a very small group of individuals, and that the many thousands of people involved in ‘market dealings’ have tended to follow the signals and respond to the stimuli inserted into the market maelstrom by this small group. The events of the past fifteen years or so, and especially since the ‘credit crunch’ in 2007, have pointed up this fact again and again. One only had to look at the instant responses of ‘the market’ around the world to just a few carefully placed words during the years when so-called ‘financial wizard’ Alan Greenspan held the office of Chairman of the Federal Reserve in New York (1987-2006),  or when George Soros’s speculative operations in 1993 undermined the pound sterling in the European exchange rate mechanism crisis. (1)

Democracy and Finance
Exactly one hundred years ago, in 1910, the French social scientist, journalist  and writer Francois Delaisi (1873-1947) wrote a book titled La democratie et les financiers (Democracy and the Financiers) in which he detailed how France in his day, despite its claims to being a ‘democracy’, was in fact controlled by 55 individuals, who he said, ‘governed’ and exploited it. Delaisi points to a member of the French parliament and asks: “Which side should the poor man support? The people pay him 3000 francs a year, and the shareholders pay him 30,000 francs!” and goes on to ask how far a socialist deputy, in this case Alexandre Millerand, who was earning 30,000 francs (this was 1910!) representing insurance companies, could be independent. Large-scale capitalism, he wrote,

had succeeded in making  democracy into the most marvellous, flexible and effective tool for exploiting the whole population. Financiers were usually imagined to be the enemies of democracy….but this was a fundamental error. On the contrary, they run democracy and encourage it, for it provides a screen behind which they can hide their method of exploitation, and they find it their best defence against any objections which the populace may raise.” (2)

Delaisi was here pointing to the highly ‘undemocratic’ reality, already existing in his time, that Hamish Mcrae was unabashedly indicating a hundred years later when he wrote that “when politics and markets clash, markets win in the end”, that is, the interests of the few invariably triumph over those of the representatives of the many. In the modern age, democracy is largely a sham; for the most part it is mere theatre and entertainment for the masses. It ought not to be so, but it is. The powers that be are economic, for the nature of our modern civilisation is fundamentally concerned with material goals. In this sense at least, communism and capitalism have coalesced, for materialism is the philosophy that underpins both of them, and both pay homage to the primacy of economic activity.

A year after the publication of La Democratie et les Financiers, Delaisi, a man of real insight,  wrote La Guerre qui vient (1911)(The Coming War) in which he foresaw the imminent catastrophe of the Great War, unlike the British economic journalist Norman Angell (1872-1967), whose book The Great Illusion, published only a year earlier than Delaisi’s (1910) (3) argued that modern economic interdependence and integration made war between the Great Powers obsolete and unlikely. But Delaisi’s view proved the more insightful, for just a few short years after the publications of the books by him and Angell, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo, and what Angell had in effect declared to be a modern impossibility  – war between the Great Powers – then actually occurred.

We can see here how Delaisi a hundred years ago already saw what Macrae was implying in 2010  – that economics trumps politics in the modern world and that the will of a few powerful people in the financial world in a ‘democratic’ state can prevail over the wills of millions as represented by their members of parliament. Yet some might argue that in the great financial crisis of 2007-2009, the men and women of finance had to be saved by the men and women of politics. National governments had to step in and bail out the banks. Does this not show that, despite all the hype about globalisation and the internationalisation of the economy, in the end it is the will of a nation, expressed through its politicians and working through the machinery of State, in which power is really finally to be found? Well, yes and no. Yes: because ultimately the real buck stops with nations and peoples, which do not disappear when they go bankrupt, unlike corporations, banks, and hedge funds, which do, the legal concept of corporate personhood notwithstanding. (4) No: because the bankers actually did get the national States to bail them out and did not have to pay any great personal price (apart from a few severely bruised egos such as that of Richard S. Fuld Jnr., former boss of Lehman Bros. in the USA). And neither have the politicians yet put really solid measures in place which will guarantee that the bankers and financiers do not return to their profligate ways. This strongly suggests that the financial community do indeed invariably get their way in the modern world, as Macrae claimed. Both the British and American governments have resisted calls to reinstate legislation such as that of the American Glass-Steagall Act (1933) which made it illegal for savings banks to get involved in investment bank-style ‘gambling’ operations. This legislation was repealed in the US in 1999 by the Clinton government after a decade or more of pressure  by sections of the financial community, pressure led by Alan Greenspan himself. The repeal of the legislation, which had worked well for 66 years, was swiftly followed by the bubble and then the property bubble.(5)

Three parties – three functions
In The Three Spheres of Society, a remarkably insightful book on British politics published in 1946, Charles Waterman showed what profound historical reasons lay behind the emergence of the three main British political parties. The oldest stream was that of conservatism, the supporters of ‘throne and altar’, of divine order, one might say, the natural and organic order of things that is held to be greater than the individual. This was the political stream that was most concerned with the law, with themes of equality and inequality, especially the latter, and with the responsibilities or obligations of individuals to the community or society. This stream of thought gave birth to the Tories and then to the modern Conservative Party. The second stream was that of liberalism. Liberals were those most concerned to uphold and affirm the rights of the individual against the community or society if need be. This stream led to the emergence of the Whigs in the 18th century who became the modern Liberal Party in Britain in the 19th century.  Tories and Whigs had their origins in the differing attitudes to Crown and Parliament in the English Civil War of the 17th century, Tories upholding the traditional rights of the Crown as the essential glue binding society and the responsibilities of subjects to the Crown, while Whigs were those more modern minds who sought to affirm their own rights against the Crown and to diminish the privileges of the Crown. Finally, in the early 20th century (1906) emerged the third force, the modern Labour Party, the champion of socialism, which was rooted not so much in the assertion of individual freedom or in the desire to uphold and maintain respect for law and Crown, but in the facts of economic cooperation and fraternity in modern society that was based on industrialism. Court (in both the royal and judicial senses of that word), market and factory, or to put it another way, freedom, rights and fraternity – these, Charles Waterman argued convincingly, were the three origins of the British political parties.

 In the 19th century, Britain had a two party system (Liberals vs Conservatives) that broadly reflected class interests – middle class Liberals, with a sprinkling of upper class supporters, and upper class Conservatives, with a  number of middle class supporters -  but both these two parties were united in their defence of property rights for their respective class interests. Gradually, and in the face of increasing demands for a widening of the franchise and for universal suffrage, they began to make appeals to members of each other’s natural constituencies, so that by the end of the 19th century there were upper and middle class supporters of both parties. Nevertheless, those of a more ‘progressive’ and ‘anti-establishment’ frame of mind still tended to vote Liberal. With the emergence after 1906 of the Labour Party, the industrial working class, who previously had largely voted Liberal, gradually moved over to the Labour Party, the party that had been formed to support trade unions in Parliament. By the mid-1920s there had been a collapse of the Liberal vote, and the Liberal Party declined to an ever smaller rump until the 1980s. In 1979, a group of rightwing members of the Labour Party split off to form the Social Democrats, which in 1988 merged with the Liberal Party to create the Liberal Democrat Party. What now happened was that as the Labour Party moved in the 1980s to divest itself of its trade union links and to move more to the centre-right in order to develop the mass support needed to defeat Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives, progressive-minded and socially liberal voters were increasingly attracted to the Lib-Dems, as they came to be called. The Lib-Dem vote gradually grew through the 1990s to the point where in the General Election of 2010, the party, though still a good deal smaller than the other two, held the balance of power and opted to enter government in a coalition with the Conservatives, the Labour Party government having been clearly rejected by the electorate. It was the first real coalition government since Winston Churchill’s wartime government of 1940, seventy years before.

Nick Clegg (43), the British Deputy Prime Minister, and leader of the Liberal Democrats in the new Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition headed by Conservative Party leader David Cameron that resulted from the General Election of May 2010, declared in unveiling the new government’s main policy document, that it signified the most radical transformation of British politics since the Great Reform Act of 1832.(6) One might be excused for thinking that that is just the hyperbole of a politician who has suddenly found himself in government when he probably never expected to be, and in any case, the Great Reform Act was not as transformative as he implied. But something has certainly happened with the election of 2010. Significant change of a kind is indeed in the air. Concern has been growing for some time that the British people were becoming seriously disinterested in what had become the superficial sham of modern party politics. Party membership was at an all time-low, which meant not only less money in the party coffers, but also far fewer activists and campaigners on the streets to garner support for candidates. The political machines that had been built up over many decades had been atrophying through the 1990s. The crushing disappointment of so many in the performance and behaviour of the New Labour government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the shock over the obvious way the people had been fooled over the reasons why Britain went to war in Iraq in 2003, the nation’s sense of disgust and the realisation that it had been seriously cheated in financial crisis and bank bailouts of 2008-09, the amazement as the scale of British politicians’ corruption unravelled week by week in the revelations in the media in the spring of 2009 – all these things had greatly  undermined people’s trust in the party political system and indeed in the system of governance that has existed in Britain since the 18th century.

Before the Great Reform Act, Britain’s rulers had also been concerned about widespread popular disaffection in the post-Napoleonic War period 1815-32, which is why they made their limited accommodation to the demands of the reformers in 1832. During the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009, there were even a few voices heard in the media  – not so much from media people themselves but more from members of the public -  that began to ask: why do we need political parties at all? Why not have a parliament of completely independent MPs? They would then be free of the party ‘whips’, whose job it is to get MPs to toe the party line by threatening to withdraw the Prime Minister’s patronage unless MPs conform.(7) Now that would have been a truly radical change! But the media, those gatekeepers of the national discourse, soon put a lid on such bold notions, and no more was heard of them after a week or so.

A ‘hung parliament (8) turned out to be what the nation decided it wanted in the general election of 6 May. Again and again, media presenters, unused to the concept of coalition government at national level (9), sceptically questioned whether it would work, forgetting the fact that such deals and coalitions had been going on between the parties at local level in town councils for decades and forgetting also the fact that coalition government of some kind had been the norm in Britain from the mid-1880s until 1945. It was only since the end of the war that the familiar alternation of Tories and Labour in office had become the norm. This was ended by the result of the recent general election. Nevertheless, “How can a coalition lead to strong, stable government?” the media asked interminably, and “How soon will this coalition fall apart?”, seemingly oblivious to the fact that most continental governments had been used to such national arrangements for many decades. But then the British media has got used to paying little heed to what the Continentals did, so fixed has  been their attention for decades on events in the US.

‘The Third Way’
In fact, a generational change of sorts had occurred. With the departure of the defeated Gordon Brown, the politics of the mid-late 20th century, and arguably, of the last 200 years, had finally come to an end in Britain. Brown had, with Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, been part of the bold and brash New Labour project that had swept to victory in 1997, the last election of the 20th century. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the accompanying decline in the status of Marxism and the intellectual current of hard socialist thought, New Labour had needed a new story to replace the trade unions and ‘the defence of the working class against capitalist exploitation’ that had been the reason why the Labour Party had been created in 1906. So the Labour Party was, to use the argot fashionable at the time, ‘rebranded’ as ‘the New Labour project’, with its own ‘brand new’ philosophy, called ‘communitarianism’, or the Third Way, a supposed harmonising of the best of what the State and the market could offer. This “Third Way” was itself largely copied in Britain from American models. President Clinton sermonised on it in his Jan.1998 State of the Union address : “We have moved past the sterile debate between those who say government is the enemy and those who say government is the answer. My fellow Americans, we have found a third way.” (10) Clinton went on to preach this doctrine energetically to European leaders. Writing in “New Democrat” Magazine, Al From, a member of the influential Democratic Leadership Council of the Democratic Party did not feel that  Third Way thinking needed to be embodied in a third political party in the US but rather it could emerge within the existing Democratic Party:

Our national debate is still framed as it has been for most of the past quarter century by liberals steadfastly defending big, centralised, bureaucratic government and conservatives trying to repeal it (11)….What’s missing is a nobler calling for our politics – a sense of rising to a higher ground; of embracing goals that speak to people’s aspirations and their need for purpose and accomplishment in their lives; of building a government that’s accountable and effective. That’s why we need a different approach to politics, a third way. The credo of this new politics should rest on three pillars:

  •    The Jefferson-Jackson ideal of equal opportunity for all, special  privilege for none;
  •     An ethic of mutual responsibility, under which government has a responsibility to create opportunities for its citizens, but citizens have responsibilities too; and
  •     A new, enabling role for government, in which government equips people to solve their own problems instead of a government that assumes it knows best or one that abandons public responsibility altogether.

Our goal should be to develop solutions to the most perplexing problems facing America as it moves from the Industrial to the
Information Age.

Absent the words ‘Third Way’, ‘Jefferson-Jackson’ and ‘America’, and such sentiments could have been repeated almost word for word by Messrs Cameron and Clegg 17 years later when they announced their coalition in the rose garden at No. Downing St. In his speech there, Cameron referred to his own version of From’s ‘three pillars’ when he said the new coalition’s policies would be based on “freedom, fairness, and responsibility”.

The ‘Third Way’ advocates of the late 1990s, Blair and Clinton, Straw and From, wished to get round the dualism of a market economy vs. state control merely by contracting the polarity into a mish-mash, a false unity. They sought to unite the old division between left and right, managers and workers on the basis of a new national sense of purpose. In the post-Cold War age, when governments were no longer recognised as fit to direct economies, the Third Way advocates saw government’s new role as a visionary one of setting national goals and dictating ‘missions’. From’s seemingly fine-sounding statement above still places government, with its ‘enabling’, ‘developing’, ‘equipping’ and ‘opportunity-creating’ at the centre of national life. For all the talk of these so-called ‘enabling’ functions in a ‘new (Information) age’, government, and not the citizens, was still seen as society’s pilot.

In a key speech of 3rd July 1998 Jack Straw, then Home Secretary in the New Labour government extolled his party’s new social philosophy of the Third Way:

“political theory really does matter.  However secular our society may have become, people cannot live by bread alone.  They need a framework of belief.  Those who govern in their name, in Parliament and the executive need to share that framework – indeed to have marked it out…. in responding to the changing economic and social challenges of our age we have to craft a new social philosophy.  Our approach must be to use social intervention to produce greater social cohesion, social order and social inclusion.  It turns its back on the first and second ways – the free market individualism of the 1980s and the statism that went before it and to which it was an extreme reaction.”(12)

Straw thus says here that people need a “framework of belief” because they “cannot live by bread alone” but that that framework is to be devised, ‘crafted’ or ‘marked out’, as he puts it, not by citizens themselves nor even by specialists in the spiritual and cultural realms of society, but rather, by politicians. And this involves the  use of ‘social intervention’, for which, read ‘central government directives’, targets, tick-boxes, ‘delivery outcomes’ and the like – in other words, the modern form of early 20th century central planning, command and control. The concept of the Third Way was a product of the early 1990s and the end of Cold War bipolarity, but it was at the end of that decade, in the later Clinton and early Blair administrations and especially in the year 1998, when it really came to the forefront.

The ‘Red Tories’
During the years of the boom economy (1995-2007) everything became expansive; everything became ‘New’ and ‘Big’. So David Cameron has to have his own ‘Big Idea’ which he calls the ‘Big Society’, and with it, he means to end the decades of ‘Big Government’ and the idea that government and politicians can improve the people’s lives by what Jack Straw and the Third Way proponents called ‘social intervention’. While retaining some elements of the era of Big Government,(13) Cameron proposes to withdraw the central government from its recent increasingly intrusive presence in people’s lives. In its stead, he wishes to activate and reinvigorate private, local community and charity-based initiatives.

Cameron, a man of a different generation (he is 43),  speaks a more inclusive, more tolerant, more environmentally conscious language. This is to a large extent  the language of so-called ‘Red Toryism’, the brainchild of Phillip Blond, political thinker, Anglican theologian, philosopher and director of the thinktank ResPublica. Blond rose rapidly to prominence after the February 2009 publication of a seminal article in Prospect magazine titled Rise of the Red Tories, advocating a “‘red Tory’ communitarianism, socially conservative but anti-big business”. Red may seem paradoxical here because red has traditionally been the colour of communist and socialist movements whereas in Britain the Conservative Party has always been denoted by the colour blue. Here we should mention that Blond pointed to the deaths of the two post-war paradigms of Keynesian economics (1945-79) in which the State is an active economic agent, and the neo-liberal approach to economics (1979-2008) which seeks to privatise and de-regulate as much as possible. He argued that both these worldviews had their origin in the late 18th century liberal critique of absolute monarchy, by which he meant that the all-controlling centralised governments of the twentieth century had arisen as a response to what he saw as the selfish anarchy of liberalism. This selfish liberalism, he claimed, was based on no reality because the liberal idea of the self “is a fiction”. The individual, he argued, is formed by ‘human community’; there is no pre-existing autonomous self: The liberal idea of man is then first of all an idea of nothing: not family, not ethnicity, not society or nation. But real people are formed by the society of others. What this view amounts to in effect is a flat denial of the intrinsic individuality of the human being.

Blond’s view would seem to be a combination of two old strands of English political thought from the 17th century, that of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704) – Hobbes who so feared the selfishness of man that he felt a strong central authority, a Leviathan, was required to maintain order and prevent anarchy, and Locke, who saw the newborn infant as a blank page upon whom the world wrote. Domination of the economy by a few huge corporations, according to Blond, is just as damaging as State control of the economy; the way forward is on the basis of “a new localism” that empowers communities and a civic spirit.

This reflects an old strand of Tory thinking that reaches back to the time of Adam Smith (14) and Edmund Burke in the late 18th century – the desire for a vigorous but small scale capitalism that eschews both State planning and monopoly and huge corporate enterprises. This was felt to be ‘organic’ and ‘natural’, reflecting ‘custom’, the ‘competitive order of Nature’ and the anti-rationalist strain of British social and philosophical thinking in that period.

Blond proposed four broad areas for ‘red Tories’ to reform: re-localising our banking system, developing local capital, helping normal people gain new assets, and breaking up big business monopolies. He rejects the ‘New Labour ideology’ of social mobility which, according to him,  says that “unless you are in the golden circle of the top 10 to 15 percent of top rate taxpayers you are essentially insecure, unsuccessful and without merit or value”. He therefore proposes to restore capital to the poorer sections of society. The Tories, he says, should therefore not only break with big business and break up the supermarket monopolies, they should “exempt the savings of the low-paid and pensioners from tax, extend employee share ownership, workers’ buyouts” and the promotion of guilds, cooperatives and other such associative organisations.

All this, Blond calls the Tory ‘distributive state’ and the philosophy behind it, one of ‘distributism’. Now, this concept has a long history behind it, and in his influential article, Blond refers approvingly to names such as G.K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc and Conservative MP Noel Skelton as antecedents (15). These three men are especially associated with the idea of ‘distributism’, and what they  have in common is their Roman Catholic faith and their energetic support for the Catholic social teaching as developed by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum and by Pius IX’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesima Anno. Under Leo XIII (1878-1903), the Vatican effected a major change in its social teaching in that it sought to reorient itself away from automatic support from ‘throne and altar conservatives’ with whom it had been associated for two centuries. The German historian Renate Riemeck wrote:

Leo XIII, one of the sharpest, most “politically-minded” Popes of modern times, had clearly recognised that the age of the aristocratic order was incontrovertibly over. He had therefore decided to approve of democracy, which the Roman Church had since 1789 repeatedly judged to be damned. …From now on, it would not be the liberal bourgeoisie but revolutionary socialism which would be confronted with the ban of the Church. In several encyclicals Leo XIII directed his attention to “the enemies of public order”, the Socialists,  and took care that with the help of the Jesuit Order and the great army of the Catholic priesthood, all kinds of Christian Social movements would emerge which would be carried by the broad strata of the lower middle classes. The Pope was therefore pursuing a far-sighted politics: ….What may have seemed unthinkable in the last third of the 19th century in view of the strong liberal forces then prevailing in politics, was to become reality in the second half of the 20th century: the “christian democratic” state, guided by Catholic politicians in some countries in western Europe. It was Leo XIII who laid the foundations of this development. (16)

It was this vision of ‘a new European politics’ that leading British Catholics such as Chesterton, Belloc and Skelton took their cue from in advocating ‘distributism’ and the ‘distributive state’, and these ideas, Catholic in origin, worked their way into the thinking of people on both right and left. In his pamphlet entitled The Alternative (1940) Hilaire Belloc summarised the key features of distributism, which for him were as opposed to capitalism as they were to socialism and harked back to an imagined more organic social order in the Middle Ages, when land was held in common, guilds regulated trade and society was guided by a common moral, and of course Catholic, authority.

It is common knowledge that Social Democrats and the Labour Party have long been in favour of another kind of ‘distributism’  – in the form of the welfare state’, but it is not so well-known that the far right British National Party – regarded with lofty contempt by the mainstream media in Britain -  also espouses a form of distributism in its socio-economic policy, which draws on these early 20th century models of Chesterton and Belloc. BNP Chairman Nick Griffin has written a lengthy article titled The Deadly Twins in which he both lauds distributism and identifies its Catholic and papal origins. The Distributist vision, writes Griffin, is now the only possible challenge to the global victory of capitalism… Its time has come at last. (17)

We have the irony then, that both the Conservative Party’s latest modish ideologue, Phillip Blond, and the ‘bête blanche’ of British politics, the BNP, are in fact both advancing a political cause that, in its essentials, was seeded by the Vatican a hundred years ago. No doubt, some Tories today would prefer to hark back to the supposed ‘One Nation Toryism’ of their illustrious forebear, Benjamin Disraeli (18), who was certainly no friend either of revolutionary socialists or capitalist Whigs and liberals. This ‘One Nation Toryism’ is often said to be a harmonious view of politics that seeks to overcome class divisions. But Disraeli’s supposed ‘One Nationism’ is in fact a complete misnomer, because his goal was to ally those at the top and bottom of society – the landed gentry, the traditional rulers, with the artisans and farmers -  against those in the middle, the commercial and professional classes. By splitting the middle class/working class alliance of the 1830s, he sought to continue the traditional patriarchal rule of the aristocracy – noblesse oblige (19). This same spirit, which seeks to mollify some of the material hardships and demands of the lower classes, while keeping them securely in their place at the bottom of the pile, informed the Catholic social teaching of Leo XIII and appears also to inform that of Phillip Blond, who calls for

“a considered rejection of social mobility, meritocracy and the statist and neoliberal language of opportunity, education and choice.”…. The Tories….should leave this bankrupt ideology to New Labour and embrace instead an organic communitarianism that graces every level of society with merit, security, wealth and  worth.”(20) (emphasis – TMB)

The ‘big new idea of the 1990s,  the (left of centre) Third Way, sought to define and maintain a central and directing role for government as the nation’s visionary and ‘enabling’ pilot that would  ‘combine the meritocratic market economy with state intervention and social justice’. By contrast, the big new idea of the last few years – Philip Blond’s (right of centre) ‘Distributist’ ‘Red Toryism’ looks to downsizing the State and handing over many of its functions to private and local interests in the name of a more vigorous localised capitalism, while downplaying social mobility and effectively maintaining a hierarchical social order in which the poor stay in their place even if they are rather better off than they were previously.  

The Emerging Paradigm
This shift from the big new idea of the 1990s to that of the 2000s is a symptom of a much deeper historical movement. When something new emerges in the world, it often does so from, or between, two sides. As the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) recognised, a synthesis emerges between a thesis and an antithesis. This new synthesis has a life, and as it develops, it leaves behind the original thesis and antithesis and grows beyond them, so that they lose their own vitality and fade away. The Industrial Revolution presented western humanity with a new social thesis – modern capitalism – which generated its own antithesis – socialism and its various offshoots and developments. For two hundred years the West has thus seen the struggle between a thesis which emphasises personal liberty (also extended, via corporate personhood, to the ‘personal’ liberty of organisations) and an antithesis, which emphasises collectivist living and forced equality. (21) What we have seen in recent years is that the antithesis (socialism) has collapsed and now its counterpart, capitalism, is collapsing. The political structure that accompanied them, as it has existed for most of the last 180 years, is also passing. The party political system, British political and judicial institutions, one by one, the Union itself – all are ending, or tottering. Why is this?

As Robert Gilman wrote in 1993, modern political developments have to be seen in the context of larger historical shifts: Understanding these trends can enable us to work with history, rather than struggling against it, and thus be much more effective in contributing to the development of a humane and sustainable world.” Gilman’s ‘Big Picture’, “from the Tribal Era to the Age of Empire 5000 years ago, and today, from the Age of Empire to the Planetary Era” is rather simplistic. He sees things merely in terms of the increasing size of social units – from tribe to empire to planet. But there is nevertheless truth in that picture, in that it moves from genetics (tribe) to politics (empire) to ideology (planetary consciousness). This very broadly corresponds to the threefold picture of historical evolution indicated by Rudolf Steiner 90 years ago, who traced the development of social rulership from divine rulers  to political rulers to today’s economic rulers.(22) (23) The Tribal consciousness was local and very much bound up with nature and the spiritual forces, the multitude of gods working in nature. This gave way to urban development, civic strife and conflicting parties, which generated political life and eventually kingdoms and empires. Super-rulers and super-Gods emerged in this phase. We are now moving out of this long second phase into the third phase of planetary consciousness, which relies on the conscience and sense of responsibility of each individual to understand his or her place on the Earth as a whole and to choose to put his free activity at the service of the whole, rather than being compelled to do so, as in previous ages. This free choice of the individual to serve his fellows on the basis of an understanding of the whole and one’s place within it is a key characteristic of the modern age.

The British election of 2010 can be seen as a particular symptom of a deep-rooted change that is occurring in modern society. Yes, there have been many coalitions before in British national politics, but they occurred within a different historical context, when western societies were still structured within a binary conflict between classes, economic interests and systems that were part of the great historical wave that resulted from the Industrial Revolution. This was itself a reflection of the drive for personal autonomy of the modern individual, who was emancipating himself, at first in a largely self-centred way (e.g. the capitalist entrepreneur) from the mediaeval collectivist world, in which all were in their prescribed places in society and guided by received ‘wisdom’ from the political and ecclesiastical authorities. Because previous British coalition governments occurred within this phase of binary, sectional conflicts when a self-centred individualism was inevitably rife, their effect was minimal, and the age of partisan politics and party machines continued. This new coalition and the harmony between Cameron and Clegg is a reflection of, not the prime stimulus for, a major sea change within modern society: the recognition that in a pluralist society of autonomous individuals, those individuals can work together despite their differences, which can be discussed, negotiated and compromised on where necessary in a civilised manner.

We may well now be witnessing the beginning of the end of the political party. In previous articles in New View, I have indicated the relationship between the years of post-pubescent adolescence in the life of the individual and the period of the 14th -21st centuries. Political parties emerged in the late 1600s in Britain because they reflected the spiritual and psychological states of culture at that time, which was one in which the individual was both struggling to free himself from the collective (cf. teenage peer group) while yet remaining within that collective; this twofold, in/out aspect is a characteristic of adolescent  consciousness. In our 21st century, this consciousness is coming to an end, and so support for the old political structures that reflected that consciousness falls away.  What will replace the ‘tribalist’ political  party? We cannot yet be sure; it will certainly have to do with the reconciling of differences, the willingness to listen and compromise (which is actually the very stuff of any real political life) and the willing cooperation of autonomous individuals. We shall need to remain on our guard against the tendency of old socio-political habits with ancient elitist pedigrees (such as ‘distributism’ and ‘red Toryism’) to reinvent and reinsert themselves into the new dispensation in new guises, like old wine in new bottles, but we can look for the positive in what this new coalition arrangement can signify. We can place our trust in both the cooperative wisdom and our long shared political experience, the fruits of the past, and in what the younger generations will bring, indeed are bringing, as social imaginations for the future.


(1)  This refers to “the events of 16 September 1992 when the Conservative government was forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) after they were unable to keep sterling above its agreed lower limit. George Soros, the most high profile of the currency market investors, made over US$1 billion profit by short selling sterling. In 1997 the UK Treasury estimated the cost of Black Wednesday at £3.4 billion, with the actual cost being £3.3 billion which was revealed in 2005 under the Freedom of Information Act
(2) quoted in R.Steiner, lecture of 28.10.1917, titled Into the Future
(3) Angell was then Paris editor of the Daily Mail, England’s first mass national daily newspaper, founded 1896.
(4) “In the United States, corporations were recognized as having rights to contract, and to have those contracts honored the same as contracts entered into by natural persons, in Dartmouth College v. Woodward, decided in 1819. In the 1886 case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, 118 U.S. 394, the Supreme Court recognized that corporations were recognized as persons for purposes of the 14th Amendment. Some critics of corporate personhood, however, such as author Thom Hartmann in his book Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights, claim that this was an intentional misinterpretation of the case inserted into the Court record by reporter J.C. Bancroft Davis. Bancroft Davis had previously served as president of Newburgh and New York Railway Co.”
(5) A speculative bubble 1995–2000 which peaked on 10 March, 2000. Equity value in advanced economies’ stock markets rose rapidly due to huge growth in the Internet sector.
Yale economist Robert Shiller 2005: “Once stocks fell, real estate became the primary outlet for the speculative frenzy that the stock market had unleashed. Where else could plungers apply their newly acquired trading talents? The materialistic display of the big house also has become a salve to bruised egos of disappointed stock investors. These days, the only thing that comes close to real estate as a national obsession is poker.”
Economist magazine, 16 June, 2005 : “the worldwide rise in house prices is the biggest bubble in history”   
(6) That was certainly a major milestone in British social and political history, as it signalled the recognition by those who had been in power in Britain since the days of Henry VIII – the landowning class of  rich magnates – that they would have to cede a measure of power to the commercial middle classes – allowing for  seats in Parliament for members of the professional middle classes not just landowners -  in order to split the (from their perspective) dangerous alliance of the middle and lower classes. From this time on, the old Whig vs Tories  party divide, which had been based on one’s attitude to the rights of the Crown, began to give way to a new  bipolarity of Liberals vs Conservatives in which all three classes (upper, middle, lower) were divided.
(7) Pressure is exerted on politicians in the UK by such threats from the Cabinet’s  instruments, the Whips, to block, or promises to advance, a politician’s career; in the US it is more likely to come from private local economic interests lobbying Congress members to vote for certain issues – the so-called practice of ‘pork barrel politics’.
(8) A parliament in which no one party has a clear-cut majority – incidentally, this too is an American concept, from the phrase  ‘hung jury’ that started being used in the US some 40 years ago.
(9) In fact coalition government of some kind had been the norm from the mid-1880s until 1945. It was only since the end of the war that the familiar alternation of Tories and Labour in office had become the norm. This was now ended.
(11)  In the USA, ‘liberals’ usually denotes  those left of centre who favour stronger central government and ‘socially progressive’ legislation, usually but not always Democrats, while ‘conservatives’ denotes those further to the right, usually but not always Republicans, who  favour smaller government and more traditional social ideas. In the UK by contrast, ‘liberals’ traditionally referred to advocates of ‘socially progressive’ legislation but small, pro-business government, while ‘conservatives’ were supporters of traditional social values associated with the countryside, landownership, the Crown and the Church of England.
(12) Jack Straw to the Nexus Conference, London 3rd July1998
(13) E.g. as the National Health Service, of which Cameron is personally fond, and national postal services, and of course, the national security state with its centrally controlled nuclear defence capability,
(14) Adam Smith (1723-1790), Scottish philosopher and economist, author of The Wealth of Nations (1776), arguably ‘the sacred text’ of modern capitalism. Edmund Burke (1729-1797), parliamentarian; commonly regarded as the philosophical godfather of British conservative political thinking.
(15) Chesterton 1874-1936 – writer; Belloc 1870-1953 – writer and historian; Skelton 1880-1935 – politician and journalist

(16) Renate Riemeck, Mitteleuropa – Bilanz eines Jahrhunderts, (Fischer, 1986) p.20
(18) Benjamin Disraeli, 1804-1881, British Conservative parliamentarian and Prime Minister 1868 and 1874-1880,  created Earl of Beaconsfield 1876
(19) for David Cameron’s own aristocratic background, see
(20) See Rise of the Red Tories, Prospect magazine, Feb 2009
(21) In his various writings and lectures on history and socio-cultural development, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) indicated how the principle of personal liberty came to be mistakenly applied in the West to the economic realm, where it does not in fact belong, the economic sphere being the one where cooperation and brotherhood are in fact the ruling principle.
(22) lecture of 20.2.1920 in Steiner, Collected Works GA 196 Ideas For A New Europe (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1992); Hegel had expressed this by saying that in the age of the ancient orient only one, the ruler, was ‘free’, and in the Mediterranean world and the mediaeval world a few (the aristocrats) were free, whereas in the modern democratic world all (the citizenry) could be free.

© Terry Boardman

First uploaded 16.7.2010 Last updated 12 7. 2012