Wayne O'Leary

The Sun Sets on Britain's Third Way

In the internal skirmishing that marks center-left politics worldwide, the left, broadly defined, may have stolen a march on its centrist competition. Britain's longtime Prime Minister Tony Blair, avatar of the Third Way and the Labour party leader beloved by American conservatives, has stepped down. As of June 27, he was succeeded by his finance minister and intra-party rival Gordon Brown.

The leadership shift is tantamount to a George W. Bush being replaced by, say, a Colin Powell; it's a change not of party, but certainly of temperament and very possibly of ideology as well. Tony Blair was another Bill Clinton, a political chameleon with no fixed philosophical lodestar. British critics say he was neither socialist, nor liberal, nor conservative, but willing to adopt whatever protective coloration momentary expediency demanded. This characteristic kept Blair in power for 10 years, yet it left his party, like the post-Clinton Democrats, with a blurred image and an identity crisis.

Gordon Brown, Blair's replacement, appears committed to correcting that deficiency. While Blair was an outsider without deep roots in Labour, someone who co-opted the party for his own ambitions rather than being truly of it in an emotional sense, Brown is the mirror opposite. He is a party activist going back to the early 1980s, a strong supporter of organized labor who wrote a university thesis on the beginnings of democratic socialism and actually joined the British Transport and General Workers Union early in his career, a politician who (unlike Blair) has cultivated strong ties with his party's traditional grassroots. Where Blair represented what has become known as "middle England," the Scottish Brown is more in tune with the "Celtic periphery" that is the heartland of Labour's core political support.

Brown is no Aneurin Bevan or Michael Foot; he does not stand for a return to the doctrinaire British socialism of the past, upon which the Labour party was founded and upon which it continued to be based through the end of the 1980s. He was a willing partner, with Tony Blair, in the "New Labour" movement of the following decade, which transformed Labour from a hard-left party into a softer, center-left organization that abandoned such enduring party planks as the nationalization of industry, in order to broaden its electoral appeal. At the same time, Brown was never as enthusiastic as Blair when it came to an all-out embrace of deregulation, privatization, and market-based economic reforms. And he never cultivated Blair's fondness for wealthy entrepreneurs. Even their American friends were a study in contrasts: Blair hobnobbed with Clinton and Bush, Brown with summertime neighbor Ted Kennedy.

The two Labour leaders were an odd couple for 10 uneasy years in office. Brown, in charge at last, is now free to implement his own policy priorities, which are based -- he is the son of a Presbyterian minister -- on Britain's version of the social gospel. His disagreements with Blair over the years have essentially been on issues where he perceived an insufficient commitment to fairness and equality on the part of the government.

A case in point was the finance chief's opposition to Blair's controversial 2004 scheme to allow Britain's famously low-cost public universities to charge sharply higher tuition fees offset by student loans. Brown instead favored addressing university funding woes through a tax on graduates scaled so that higher income earners paid more. Another dispute arose from Blair's plans to partially privatize the nation's socialized National Health Service by setting up semiautonomous "foundation" hospitals. In this instance, Brown's opposition caused the prime minister to back down.

Gordon Brown's resistance to his superior's attempted rollback of socialized medicine was set forth in a 2003 address in which the then chancellor of the exchequer outlined the limits of a market economy. "The free market position," he declared, "which would lead us to privatized hospitals and some system of vouchers and extra payments for treatments, starts by viewing health care as a commodity to be bought and sold like any other through the price mechanism. But in health care we know that the consumer is not sovereign." This speech drew the line on any inner-party acquiescence to Tony Blair's third-way reforms of public services. In a contest between equity and efficiency, Brown implied, he would always err on the side of equity.

On a more positive level, Brown has been responsible for pushing the Blair government to introduce the few truly progressive programs it has initiated. These include a minimum wage, a plan to help the unemployed return to work called the New Deal, an early childhood education program similar to America's Head Start, and a redistributive Working Families Tax Credit inspired by the US Earned-Income Tax Credit. Most unique was Brown's imaginative answer to the UK's housing crisis, a program called Shared Ownership introduced in 2003 to increase the number of British home owners by having the government pick up between 25 and 50 percent of new mortgage costs.

Where Brown will go on foreign policy is less clear than his obviously interventionist course on domestic matters. He inherits Tony Blair's junior partnership in George W. Bush's Iraq war, a war most Britons have long since rejected. If anything, Brown will probably speed up the British withdrawal already under way. Beyond that, the most that can be said about his pending approach to the outside world is that it will be based less on the quasi-religious, good-versus-evil mindset of Blair and Bush. Students of Brown's thinking detect an economic determinism to his stance on Middle Eastern policy, in particular, and the Third World, in general: the notion that disease, poverty, debt, and disparity are responsible for much, perhaps most, contemporary global upheaval. If so, he will reflect a refreshing change of attitude.

It is apparent that Gordon Brown brings to his job qualities different from the departing Blair's bonhomie, glibness and penchant for market solutions to all manner of problems. He's a classically dour Scot, but that dourness conceals a formidable intellect, a steely determination and a passion for social justice. His rise should allow the Labour party to rediscover its roots for the first time in over a decade and in the process provide an object lesson to progressive politicians on this side of the Atlantic.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2007

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