The hollow promise of social fairness

Editorial by Tapani Lausti

Where do new political ideas come from? This question was very much in the air during my recent stay in Helsinki, both in private conversations and public meetings.

The question was addressed directly at a book-launch by one of the country’s leading politicians, Pertti Paasio of the Social Democratic Party. In his book, Brysselin baanalla (On the road to Brussels), Paasio complains that in Finland it is civil servants who have taken on the role of political and social thinkers. They seem to be behind new initiatives even when these carry ideological value judgments. The choices which are made in this way tend to become practical political decisions. In the end, however, politicians have to take responsibility for them.

One can interpret this observation in two ways. Either the civil servants have surreptitiously usurped the right to make social choices because they are keen to have an impact on the nations’ life. Or they have occupied a vacuum left by politicians who have run out of ideas.

There is probably some truth in both analyses. Maybe civil servants put more time into cultivating contacts with social thinkers than do politicians.

Politicians often come up with bland declarations of conviction. The Third Way has been trumpeted as a new way forward in European (and American) politics. But there is something strangely vacuous in the statements connected with this supposedly modern political tendency. More spin than substance, one could say in the currently fashionable parlance.

In a recent long statement (“What the left has to offer the new world of global economics”, The Independent, 6 September 2000), four European political leaders — connected in varying degrees with the Third Way — Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, Wim Kok and Göran Persson, declared that they “believe there is an emerging consensus on the right framework to build a global order based on equal worth and social fairness”. They continued: “Our challenge is to implement what we already know to be right, as well as to develop new solutions.”

The language used here is interesting. The triumphant tone is typical of a politician’s way of creating an image of thought-through policies. Yet, the long statement fails to even mention what to many is one of key problems of our time. This could be described in different ways — some call it total lack of economic democracy.

Many current grievances — including the fuel tax conflict — can be traced back to ordinary citizens’ total lack of power in questions which relate to everyday life. National politics in our countries have absolutely nothing to say about this. Happiness is supposed to be having a job, however meaningless or boring. This way of thinking is stronger in Britain than in some other European countries.

The leaders who signed the statement quoted above promise falling unemployment. But the really urgent question of modernity, what creates a good life, isn’t even posed.

This question is being looked at by various citizens’ movements, academics, think tanks and — civil servants. Here in Britain, I am told by people who know about these things, there are elements in government circles who are trying to look seriously at human motivation. Also, we know that education is taken seriously by Tony Blair. Too often, however, education is seen openly in terms of offering employers a good workforce. The excitement of human endeavour, independent of the need to earn an income, seems to be a non-question to modern politicians.

Perhaps the gap between national politics and non-governmental social initiatives is widest in questions of social fairness, mentioned triumphantly by Blair and his European colleagues. Our societies are light years away from the social fairness promised by politicians. It is an abuse of language as we know it to claim otherwise. Yet, this is what we are promised daily.

It is impossible to even begin a journey towards social fairness unless one understands that life can be more than a stressful struggle for income. This is why the debates raging about citizen’s income, local economic initiatives, life-long learning and ways of increasing human freedom are so exciting.

A few months ago I listened to James Robertson’s “Alternative Mansion House Speech” in London. Robertson — an ex-civil servant, now an independent thinker — pointed out that growing numbers of people “share a vision of a more people-centred and earth-centred society — less business-centred, state-centred and employer-centred than the society we have today”.

Robertson summed up well the sort of society that perhaps can never be delivered by politicians because it would be based on citizens’ own initiatives. Let me quote:

“As citizens of such a society, we will be more equal in esteem, capability and material conditions of life than we are now. We will find it easier to get paid work. But we will no longer be so dependent on employers to organise it and provide our incomes.

“The industrial-age class division between employers and employees will continue to fade — as the old master/slave and lord/serf relationships of ancient and medieval societies have faded. It will become normal to work for ourselves and one another. Public policies will enable us to manage our own working lives.

“In exchange for our right to share in the value of the ‘commons’, we will expect to take greater responsibility for ourselves and for the wellbeing of our families, neighbourhoods and society.”

This, to me, seems like a real political debate.

15 September 2000

In the Winter issue of our Focus section (published in December 2000), Anthony Barnett will discuss some aspects of Third Way politics, in conjuncton with the publication of Blairism – a Beacon for Europe? edited by Keijo Rahkonen and Tapani Lausti.

Barnett was the founding Director of Charter 88, the influential movement for the constitutional reform of the United Kingdom. He is the author of the classic Iron Britannia, editor of Power and the Throne and the author of This Time : Our Constitutional Revolution.

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