Steering the country along a changing course;Blair's vision;Opinion

26th June 1998 at 01:00
When Professor David Marquand, the principal of Mansfield College, attended Tony Blair's seminar at 10 Downing Street where policy advisers, academics and others tried to get to grips with what a Third Way in politics might mean, his impression was that the Government's understanding of this term was, as yet, inchoate and very exploratory.

"I do not get the impression that the PM has a precise notion of exactly what he thinks this is. Once or twice he said things like 'Well, what I really want to do is to stimulate a debate. Maybe the Third Way is not a very good term but let's not worry about that, let's get a debate going about direction and maybe we could call it something else.' "Something came up about cool Britannia and he said something like `Well, I never actually used the term, but I am not sorry it's been thrown into the discussion because it helps to stimulate a debate about what sort of country we want to be.' Almost: 'Let a 1,000 flowers bloom and I do not know what it will all end up as.' Well, if he really means that, I think this is extremely encouraging and by definition it is rather fluid."

David Marquand says that several discernible strands of a possible Third Way can be picked out. One is that the nature of the economy has changed and is changing so rapidly that it can no longer be managed in the ways that previous Thatcherite and left-of-centre governments have managed it.

Another is the relationship of the state to the market. His impression is that the Government wants markets to create wealth, but believes that they need to be steered, especially in relation to maximising the potential of human resources. To this extent, the Government believes it has a role in trying to ensure equality of opportunity.

It is David Marquand's impression that the Government is to some degree improvising policy in the wake of continuing open-ended, bottom upwards discussion and consultation.

"In one sense, this is very odd. You can be cynical and you can say it's all hype, it's all just public relations. It does not mean anything at all. It's a way to camouflage the fact that the Government is pursuing actually a rather cautious and right-wing agenda and pretending that it is doing something new.

"I am not cynical. I do not say that. I think that is a mistake.

"I think what is interesting about all this is that since the war we have been used to a model of politics which is really based on the 1945 government, which is that you have a party which has an ideology, which then devises a programme based on this ideology. It puts this programme to the electorate, wins power and carries out the programme.

"That is actually not the only way in which politics can operate. This reflection struck me in the Downing Street seminar.

"The Liberals in 1906 won power with an enormous majority and they did not have an ideology except free trade. All they knew was what they were against. When in government they then started to grope around for an ideology and it took them a while to do it."

It remains to be seen whether this Government's Third Way is indeed a new pluralistic conception of the political process. "It may be that the Government will come unstuck and they will not find a famous third way - it may turn out to lead nowhere."

David Marquand, however, is clearly hoping that something novel and radical is happening.

Nobl-way5 the problem with simplistic sound bites, such as the Third Way, is that they often distract attention from, rather than focus on, quite complex issues, says Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

"Few people in developed economies now believe that the public services, including the National Health Service, education and public utilities, can be financed wholly from taxation or indirect taxation," he says. "That immediately gets one into creative or imaginative partnerships, which can be public-private partnerships where there is clearly a profit element for the private partner or they can be arrangements which lawyers would call pro bono publico.

"And I do detect a change of mood in big business - a willingness to be philanthropic and conscious of their responsibilities to the community which I don't think was there five or 10 years ago."

One example of such partnerships is education action zones. "Partnerships of that kind are very mature and understood in higher and further education, but have come very, very late to schools, which I think is one of the reasons they are causing such shock waves," says Peter Smith.

"Another way of looking at the Third Way is to take the difficult issue of selection. Interestingly, I have just had a letter from CASE (the Campaign for State Education) asking us to sign up to a campaign to end selection. I think the specialist schools movement which this government inherited from the last government gives a very different sense to what selection could mean - child-centred selection rather school-centred selection, if it can be got to work.

"I think the comprehensive versus grammar schools debate has been sterile for a long time, but to say a comprehensive will provide the best kind of education for all children is, I think, a concept which is rightly up for scrutiny.

"The whole issue of how we manage, in terms of the consumer or user, and how we manage and achieve better value for money is a powerful influence on the debate as well.

"Where I think the jury is out is on whether it is likely to foster the kind of employer-employee partnerships which is, at least in part, what the Social Chapter was all about, and not just because it's cosy and nice but because it's good business.

"As far as the education service is concerned, I do not think that Ministers have taken on board what you need to do to change culture, which the private sector could tell them.

"We need very much a can-do culture and a restoration of teachers' corporate professional self-confidence, by which I do not mean complacency. I think this is a huge problem and I do not think it falls to any one person or organisation to solve it. It's something that everybody has got to work very hard at, including the unions."

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