Harry Potter and the Third Way

Jeremy Gilbert
29 November 2001

Perhaps it is cruel to torture a phenomenon like Harry Potter into yielding up political significance. It is also irresistible. After all, there are not too many youthful, male, public-school educated British characters with an inflated world-wide reputation left. More precisely, the demise of Hugh Grant after an inglorious L.A. encounter has left just two to share the limelight. And if the bespectacled hero of J.K. Rowling’s series (and now film) is one, the other is the domestically tarnished but still gleamingly ambitious British prime minister, Tony Blair.

However far is the journey from Hogwarts to No. 10 Downing Street, Harry Potter is a representative figure of the Blairite age that began with the election of New Labour to power in 1997. That is not to decry the straightforward enjoyability that derives from the books’ clever employment of every narrative cliché imaginable, nor to deny that their huge success is itself an important cultural phenomenon. Rather, it is to propose that the books can be read as both commentary and exemplification of the distinct political moment of Tony Blair’s core aspiration: the creation of a “Third Way” in which a new combination of social concern and commercial entrepreneurship underpins the social order (or keeps the show on the road, as the more sceptical would see it).

The world of the Third Way (or whatever other name we want to give to the political strategy of parties formerly known as socialist), is governed by a clearly technocratic agenda. Think tanks and policy units develop technical solutions to social problems, in consultation with focus groups and press secretaries: the processes of political democracy are bypassed entirely by the rule of the “techno-managerial elite”. All this bears a striking resemblance to the world of adult wizards and witches in which the Harry Potter stories are set. The parallel society inhabited by wizards in Rowling’s world is a perfect Blairite technocracy, governed by a “ministry of magic” (i.e. a ministry of pure science, of techne as such) in which almost every adult who is not engaged in either teaching or commerce is employed, and which seems to administer without any formal process of consultation.

The multicultural embrace…

There are two other elements of Harry Potter that chime in well with the British experience of Blairism. The first and perhaps the most pressing contemporary concern in the books is that of cultural difference. In J.K. Rowling’s universe, witches and wizards occupy an alternative society, inhabiting the same chronology and geographical space as non-magical people (“muggles”) but sharing a very different history. Muggle technology, and even more muggle politics and economics, is as mysterious and irrelevant to wizards as magic is to muggles. However, the boundaries between the two communities are not entirely clear. Magical ability appears to be genetic, such that the children of witches and wizards will almost always possess it, where the children of muggles very rarely will (when they do, they are invited to enrol at a magical academy and thereby to enter into magical society). This encourages most magicals to marry only within the community, and gives rise to a degree of prejudice amongst its less enlightened members towards those born partly or entirely of muggle parentage. “Mudblood” is the name given to the latter, but it is only the evil characters in the book who will use such racist language.

By the same token, Harry Potter’s muggle family – his uncle, aunt and cousin – hate, fear and despise his magical life and friends. These characters are drawn as identikit Roald Dahl villains: over-fed, over-privileged conformists whose hatred of difference is inseparable from their sadism towards the long-suffering Harry. In either case, intolerance and ethnic purism are presented as inherent evils in a clear allegory of contemporary multiculturalism.

…and the neo-liberal gloss

Roald Dahl villains his tormentors may be, but Harry Potter is no Charlie Bucket. This good-hearted orphan boy turns out to be a messianic figure in the wizard world, and a very rich one to boot. However, he never uses the ample supply of gold stashed in the wizard bank, Gringotts, to do anything so radical as to help his best friend and surrogate family. While the poverty of Ron Weasley and his kin is a constant theme of the books, the possibility of Harry sharing his inherited fortune with them is raised only to be dismissed on the grounds that they would never accept it. Yet Ron’s elder brothers do accept a business start-up grant from Harry ( a gift of 1000 coins to start a joke shop).

Now, if Harry were a character from an earlier generation of children’s fiction he would probably have spent, say, half of the second book devising a way of giving away his money without the recipients knowing. Such gratuitous generosity has no place in Harry’s new world. This is a “community” in which even wizards still need currency – and where the character who works for the bank is the only adult described as “cool”. In his pony tail and dragon-hide boots, Bill Weasley assures his fretful mother that “no-one at the bank gives a damn how I dress as long as I bring home plenty of treasure”. Thus, multicultural tolerance and individualist liberalism co-exist happily with finance capital and gross inequalities of wealth, which should only be overcome to the extent that all are enabled to take part in the adventure of business. Welcome to Blair’s world.

Education, education, specialisation

Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s imaginary school for young wizards, is not simply an old-fashioned boarding school – open to anyone from the right class – with magic on the curriculum. Nor, obviously, is it a comprehensive. More appropriately, the books’ eponymous hero attends a school which is selective and specialised: choosing students for their talent and training them intensively in their assigned vocation. Here again, Harry is presented to us as a boy for our times, even a mythical embodiment of all the priorities and prejudices which constitute the New Labour ‘structure of feeling’: a truly Blairite hero.

Where there is direct ‘political’ intervention in the books, it follows the script perfectly. When Hermione, the muggle-born feminist swot of the school tries to organise the long-suffering house-elves to resist their condition of perpetual enslavement, her campaign is met with mockery and indifference; even the house-elves themselves don’t want to be free. What actually happens is that one elf, the quasi-heroic Dobby (having learned to live with freedom and to demand wages for his work) comes to stay at Hogwarts. Hermione gives up on her campaign to organise the elves or her class mates, but resigns herself to the possibility that Dobby’s example may slowly raise their consciousness. It is a perfect allegory of incremental, Blairite centrism.

But what is perhaps most significant about Harry Potter is the particular elements of older types of tale which it chooses to retain for contemporary consumption. What is emphasised again and again in the books is not simply the ordinariness of Harry’s aspirations, but his historical uniqueness. It is true that Harry’s is a world in which the echoes of older value systems – ones favouring community, justice, sharing, democracy, as well as conformism, elitism, aristocracy and racism – can still be strongly heard. Nonetheless, it is also a world in which the way to succeed is to exploit one’s talents, engage in specialised training, and bring home plenty of treasure. Other paths to fulfilment are almost certainly blocked; but in Harry’s world as in Tony’s, as long as you don’t go making trouble with the house elves, at least no-one will care what you wear.

Be yourself – and trust your teachers

It would be unfair to pretend that this was the whole story. Hermione, the activist, is a sympathetic character who very rarely turns out to be wrong, in a world where errors of judgement pave the way to damnation. What’s more, the books are clearly written from a boy’s perspective, and the boys’ gradual realisation that Hermione is not just a swotty mate to be called on when library research is needed (one of the series’ more interesting literary aspects) may yet come to encompass a more sympathetic attitude to her political radicalism in later volumes.

The only character who turns out more often to be right is the saintly Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts. It is Dumbeldore who runs his school as he sees fit, ignoring the disapproval of the ministry when he hires non-conformists to teach in their own ways. It is Dumbledore who volunteers to employ Dobby the house-elf on a living wage, with full holiday rights. It is Dumbledore who regards any official complicity with aristocratic or racist prejudice as insupportable. If any moral message comes home strongly from the Harry Potter books, it is not just “be yourself” (the classic exhortation of liberal individualism), but “trust your teachers (more than the government, more than your family, more even than your mates)”.

There are still three Harry Potter books to come, and if they are each as long as the last one then the series is not yet half over. If the government continues to mistrust teachers and other such servants of the public good, if Dumbledore looks less and less like Tony, then it is quite conceivable that this series will look less like an advert for Blairite values, and more like a critique of them. If, like Hermione, we are sceptical about the art of divination, then we can only wait and see.

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