A new way for British government?

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the co-founder of openDemocracy.

On 11 July 2003, heads of government from Brazil’s President Lula to Germany’s Chancellor Schröder will gather in London for a ‘progressive summit’. The summit’s aim – according to the host, British prime minister Tony Blair – is to set out the policies needed for ‘centre-left parties to win, use and retain power’, which, he asserts is the ‘ultimate test of a progressive political project’.

The summit is a continuation of meetings in New York, Florence, Berlin and Stockholm, which date back to the time when Bill Clinton was in the White House, France had a socialist prime minister and ‘The Third Way’ was the phrase of the moment.

As openDemocracy’s opening contribution to a discussion that coincides with the summit, we publish an essay by Geoff Mulgan on how governments can learn.

It is a more deeply radical document than it appears. Behind its calm survey of the way better policies can be developed is a step-change in the role and character of the public sphere. What appears as a mere description is a new direction chosen and advocated.

In the 1990s Mulgan set up the inventive think-tank Demos. He was recruited into 10 Downing Street by Blair as a political advisor in 1997, and then became a member of the British government’s permanent civil service as head of its Performance and Innovation Unit (now merged with the Forward Strategy Unit in a new body with the pithy title, the Strategy Unit, to which he was recruited on the basis of merit.

Whitehall knows best

Victorian Britain pioneered the creation of a merit-based ‘permanent’ civil service whose senior officers could not be replaced by politicians holding executive power. Without a written constitution to ensure checks and balances, they developed an informal check to ensure that the running of the country was protected from the risk of takeover by a populist majority in parliament that exploited the discontents of ‘the unwashed’.

The feared prospect did not occur in the United Kingdom, but the rise of parliament-sanctioned fascism across Europe in the 1930s showed it was not beyond possibility.

Instead, the British civil service recruited widely and freely during the 1939-45 war, and emerged into the era of the European welfare state full of self-confidence in its ability to deliver from above. A famous phrase uttered in 1947 by Douglas Jay, a young Labour treasury minister as his party took over from Winston Churchill’s, summed up the attitude: “The gentleman in Whitehall” – the administrative heart of the British state, in central London – “really does know better what is good for the people than the people know themselves”.

Paternalistic and patronising, anti-market without being pro-democratic, it was a proconsular perspective that sought to look after the natives. The phrase became the symbol of all that the Thatcher revolution despised when it came to power in 1979. Her neo-liberal political assault on the ‘consensus politics’ of the welfare state swept away the unbearable avuncularism of old Labour. The state and its mandarins did not know best. She shredded them, emancipating the country from their suffocating complacency and lack of enterprise.

Between mandarins and the market

In his calm and judicious manner, Mulgan comments on the rise of neo-liberal influence. Its impact on public administration was reinforced in 1992 by the arguments most famously brought together by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler in Reinventing Government: how the entrepreneurial spirit is transforming the public sector. This opens with a meditation on why the market (supposedly a machine for exploiting consumers) is a pleasure to deal with as a customer, while government services (which exist to serve the people) oppress those who need them. Osborne and Gaebler called for the introduction of market-style competition and accountability into public administration.

‘Third Way’ thinking under Clinton and Blair drew in part on the experience of ‘reinventing government’. The issues it sought to address, such as how to develop the delivery of public services so that aspirations are encouraged not stifled, and welfare dependency is diminished not reinforced, were and are real ones. But the manner of delivering the ‘new’ approach bore all the signs of positioning masquerading as thought.

Take the very term, ‘The Third Way’. When Blair appropriated it as his own, it was met in Britain especially with considerable derision, most memorably by journalist and wit Francis Wheen who wondered if its whereabouts were not to be found somewhere between the Second Coming and the Fourth Dimension.

Anthony Giddens, whose book The Third Way became an international bestseller, later responded to critics of the term by saying that the term is beside the point and any other name would smell as sweet. Whatever you call it, he observed, the only argument that matters now is how to run societies in a way which neither gives free rein to the market nor relies upon the central direction of the state.

In Britain, however, the search for better government under the flag of the Third Way was inextricably linked to Blair’s ‘ultimate test’ – staying in power. What, in Blairite terms, is the most important word in the formulation? Is it ‘Way’ with its sense of an endless path, or is it ‘Third’ lying in the wide lands between market and state? The answer is neither. The most important word is ‘The’. It’s the definite article which does the work.

Blair: the UK’s own definite article?

You might have thought that the search for a new politics associated with a much richer definition of the public sphere than the state would have been open to experimentation and pluralism. Whatever ‘The Third Way’ debate may have engaged with elsewhere around the world, in British Labour politics it was singular not pluralist from the beginning. Who, then, ‘knows’ the way? Clearly, the leader – perhaps he should be known as the United Kingdom’s very own Definite Article. What should have been a stimulation to debate and disagreement became an instrument for controlling new thinking.

The problem with Third Way politics in Britain, therefore, is not just that it concedes too much to the marketplace as the main source of positive change and efficiency; it also returned to a tradition of presumed top-down authority, only here more personalised and ‘presidentialised’ as befits the age of the media torrent.

This is one reason why the approach Geoff Mulgan is now exploring has special interest. Or rather why it contains two elements of considerable merit.

First, it seeks out forms of good government as such. Its starting-point and assumption is that government is a necessary good and benefit in its own right, not an integument upon a marketplace seen as the only source of creating wealth – upon which any public levy or activity apart from basic legal regulation is a wealth-sucking parasite.

In brief, the Mulgan argument is not just an attempt to tame, limit or internalise the best of the free market, it re-establishes the notion that good government believes in itself as a public good.

Second, its vision of what form of government is best is inherently open, exploratory and seeking change and improvement. There is no ‘The’ about it.

Or is there? Mulgan’s emphasis on ‘judgment’ in his conclusion has a twang of the old self-confidence, the presumption of Whitehall man. Here, however, the claim is no longer that he knows best, only strives to learn best, an admirable ambition that should be applauded and supported – not least because the need for learning implies a recognition of imperfection, error and the need to improve – a rhetoric still beyond contemporary politics.

And what about democracy in all this? Precisely. Tom Bentley, now Mulgan’s successor at the helm of Demos will be responding to him, posing the question of how public democratic processes need to be part of any learning government.