Image: Flickr, PRODominic Hargreaves
Image: Flickr, PRODominic Hargreaves

The outcomes of this year’s general elections in Britain could set in motion a trend that may erode the progressive core of Britain’s foreign policy.

They could also signal the death of social democratic ideals in Europe. After 13 years in power, Gordon Brown’s Labour Party has been dealt a crushing blow, and its ‘Third Way’ governing philosophy has reached the end of the road.

David Cameron’s Conservative Party will be crowned Britain’s Prime Minister. The Labour Party will, in the bigger scheme of things, be cast into the political wilderness.

In light of this development, what new ideas will give content to the Conservative’s governing programme and foreign policy? And what will Africa’s place be in its calculus? When Labour came to power in 1997, under the premiership of Tony Blair, it triumphed on the strength of a coherent set of ideas that were predicated on a commitment to renew social democracy and propound progressive ideas at home and abroad.

This social democratic promise was expressed in a governing agenda aimed at balancing the achievement of social justice, public interest, and building a sense of community. The Labour Party deemed these values achievable in an atmosphere characterised by a competitive, but responsible market mechanism. It shunned both extremes of state interventionism and unregulated markets, and placed society where the state and the economy meet. This ideological narrative was packaged and sold as ‘Third Way’ politics.

The Labour Party accepted that in the context of globalisation, social justice had to be realised within a framework that recognises the critical role of markets in creating opportunities, wealth and stimulating competition. This is how Labour managed to capture the soul of British politics, going on to win elections successively for three terms. The outcomes of the elections have ruptured this consensus.

The ‘Third Way’ initiative was a brainchild of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and then German’s Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the late 1990s. It aimed at reviving social democracy in Europe, and to spread progressive ideas throughout the world. It is a project whose wheels were oiled by the brains of such thinkers as Anthony Giddens, and sought to enlist the backing of like-minded leaders from other parts of the world. Other ‘Third Way’ disciples included Bill Clinton from the U.S., Lionel Jospin of France, Goran Persson in Sweden, Henrique Fernando Cardoso of Brazil (and later Lula Da Silva), and Thabo Mbeki here at home.

The ambition of this group was to exert a far-reaching influence on the ideas that would shape governance at the domestic level, and also remap the outlines of emerging global governance. These ideas were engineered to supersede the Washington consensus, which glorifies unregulated markets and calls for domestic economic policy management to dance to tunes sung by Wall Street, IMF and U.S. Treasury.

Since assuming power, the Labour government has consistently emphasised a multilateralist approach to international relations, and has been a vocal critique of protectionism and neo-mercantilism in Europe. It sought consistency between concern for social justice at home, and the plight of the poor in Africa – something that marks it out to be distinct from the New Right, whose concern is only the domestic sphere. It is for this reason that the waning star of the Labour Party raises concerns about the future of social democratic ideals and the prospects for developing countries in the emergent global order.

Indeed, the decline of the British Centre-left is not an unforeseen phenomenon in Europe. It became evident as early as 2001, reinforced by the perceptions of social risks generated by globalisation. The powerful symbolism of this shift was marked by the declining support of the Centre-left in Scandinavian countries, long regarded as the bastion of progressive politics in Europe, in 2001.

When Labour Party in Britain came to power in 1997, Centre-left parties were in charge in12 out of 15 European countries. Currently, Centre-left parties hold a mere 25 percent of the seats in the European Parliament. The New Right is on the rise.

The populist and narrowly nationalistic impulses of the significant sections of the electorate provide the substance for the governing agenda in much of Europe. The outcomes of the recent British elections and clamour for tighter anti-immigration laws suggest that Britain could soon be joining this bandwagon. As Anthony Giddens points out in his book, Third Way, the universal themes of this “populist revolt” are anxieties about immigration, multiculturalism and crime. The target of this revolt is, of course, Muslims, North African and eastern European immigrants.

The baldest expression of this counter-enlightenment tendency was on display during the 2007 elections in Switzerland, when the threat of immigrants was cast in the vulgar image of ‘a black sheep’ on campaign posters.

Elites from the New Right dress their nationalistic zeal in a sophisticated language of fairness. This is done to create an illusion of difference with the far Right. The conservative anti-globalisation rhetoric is essentially a disguised backlash against Asia’s industrial rise and a rebellion against the perceived threat posed by immigrants.

Ironically, threats of declining standards of living and growing joblessness in Europe, presumably due to Asia’s manufacturing competitiveness, are now associated with globalisation with no hint of sensitivity towards the bottom billion trapped in poverty in the developing world.

At its most menacing, this populist reaction recently reared its ugly head when Gordon Brown was forced to beat a hasty retreat for remarks he made on the campaign trail when he characterised anti-immigration sentiments as bigoted. Labour’s electoral decline is not entirely unrelated to the rising anti-immigration wave. The progressive social democratic agenda is clearly waning, and Britain is no exception. This is a far cry from the politics of hope that marked the beginning of the 21st Century.

Apart from the intensifying risks of globalisation and declining competitiveness in Europe, one of the factors that accounts for the decline of Centre-left parties – and the appropriation of its space by the New Right – is the fact that the former has been deeply wedded to trade unions as their core constituency.

The trouble with a trade-union-dependent political project is that, as a constituency, labour is sectoral and fickle; it is concerned more with narrow interests and immediate economic gains than with the long-term stability of the economy and collective interests of society. This constituency shares the same narrow nationalistic commitments with the middle classes who are increasingly apprehensive about the possible dilution of national identity by immigrants.

The Left in much of Europe has also failed to sufficiently create a secure bridge between the interests of the middle-classes and the dreams of the socially vulnerable in society. It seems content with reclining to the comfort zone of reinforcing constructed binary tensions: middle classes versus the poor; working class versus capital; and globalisation versus national prosperity, ad infinitum.

As an actor within the community of nations, South Africa may be interested in the question: are there cautionary signs that the progressive dimensions of Britain’s foreign policy can also be undermined? During the past decade, Britain has shown greater sensitivity to the plurality of actors and the diffused nature of power in the global system. It cast itself as a standard bearer in promoting multiculturalism in Europe.

The idealistic elements of Labour’s foreign policy thinking were initially set out in the speech delivered by Blair in Chicago in 1999, where he articulated the doctrine of international community. The pillars of his new foreign policy thinking entailed embracing global interdependence and cooperation among the nations of the world; underscoring the importance of human rights; prioritising environment and climate change; restructuring global governance mechanism; and pushing for developing nations’ debt forgiveness.

Blair also drew attention to Africa’s plight as an important international concern, characterising it as ‘a scar on the conscience of the world’. This became the rallying theme for creating a sense of urgency in addressing Africa’s development challenges, culminating in the Gleneagles Summit of the G8 in 2005, where poverty reduction was a focal point.

The imminent collapse of the ‘Third Way’, occasioned by Labour’s electoral defeat, should therefore be of concern for South Africa. It should be recalled that South Africa is one of the few developing countries that participated actively in the ‘Third Way’ network called the Progressive Governance Summit, and was the first developing country to play host to this eminent group in February 2006 in Hammanskraal.

While the ideas that will define the centre of British politics post Labour are yet to be clear, it would be in the interest of humanity to preserve the progressive core of the values embodied by the ‘Third Way’ project. These are values South Africans are all too familiar with: multilateralism, human rights, social justice, and development.

19 May 2010
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