The Politics of Globalisation after ‘The Third Way’

For those actively involved in party politics, the temptation to frame any analysis of unfolding events as a story consisting only of national and domestic concerns is constant. However, at moments of widespread crisis in the international economic and state system, questions well outside these constraints can no longer be avoided and indeed, may help to explain the underlying currents we are dealing with.

Along with a growing number of international relations commentators, I have argued for some time that there have been two identifiable ‘eras of globalisation’. The first was at the end of the 19th and into the early years of the 20th century and gave rise to a range of political movements including socialism and of course, the New Liberalism. The second era began in the mid-to late 1980s and continues through to the present day. It also created a move to ‘progressivism’ for British political parties, including the Third Way.

I have suggested that, by posing the Third Way as a reaction to wider systemic change and the process of globalisation, one begins to see recurring and persistent cycles that only become apparent when looked at from a different level of analysis. Effectively I have argued that, as we are now coming to the close of this second period, we have much to learn in terms of our domestic politics from these wider trends of state development.

For example, as party activists, we tend to look at the creation of the New Liberalism as a philosophical response to the practical problem of the extension of the franchise and the birth of socialism. In this view, we generally overlook the importance of changes in the role of the state as an entity, the economic system as a whole and the international system of states. Through this lens, political parties were forced to adapt their ideology to a newly ‘global’ world and forces outside their control which affected all countries – but particularly those that were western/developed/advanced. This process resulted in a internationalist/progressive/shift in the basic political debate of the country but was unfortunately, short-lived as a corresponding rise of internal tension and a crisis of legitimacy ended in global conflict and economic crisis.

The Labour Party’s Third Way, whatever is said of it now, was like New Liberalism in that it was developed as a deliberate response to the process of globalisation. It was a self-conscious call for the reconciliation between the forces of the left and a progressive century as the defence against a ‘newly’ globalised world. As the economic system and the state itself evolved, so too did the domestic policies of progressive parties around the world. And in that larger frame, the Liberal Democrats stood on the same side as the Labour Party against the ‘forces of conservatism’.

If we understand the Third Way as part of a wider and much deeper process of development in the international system, its history, development – and demise – has much to tell us about our current situation. Although I researched and wrote my book on this topic long before the ongoing global problems, it all but predicted the closing of opportunities for progressive politics and the issues that all political parties would face at the end of this second era of globalisation.

As the self-same agenda that consumed parties and countries at the end of the first era: protectionism, immigration, failing economies, and economic nationalism increasingly dominate our current headlines, the question for political parties will be whether or not they can identity these wider trends in time to stave off the conflict that followed the end of the first era.

In the heyday of the Third Way, progressive political leaders offered a positive view of the opportunities of globalisation. Some, like Ashdown and arguably less often Blair or Clinton, did warn there would be perils in this process, but to those problems they proposed remedies that could and would be sought under their leadership. Over a decade of ‘progressive’ government has not been able to shore up the system or deliver on those promises. Today, the door to that progressive century is closing, and no party or political leader has been able, thus far, to identify let alone deal with these deeper systemic shifts.

It will be difficult times for the leader who, in trying to deal effectively with these wider trends, will be forced to take decisions that look electorally dangerous or tactically risky. The domestic electoral imperative of all politicians makes them ill-suited to face down the pressures that they will face to take the ‘right’ policy decisions for the good of the system when it appears it will damage their own short term interests and those of their constituents.

We are living in dangerous times but they could become more dangerous still if we do not heed the lessons of history; lessons that Liberal Democrats, as inheritors of the mantle of New Liberalism and true internationalists, are perhaps best placed to understand – but only if we can articulate them more clearly to the electorate.

Alison Holmes is the Pierre Keller Post-doctoral Fellow in Transatlantic Politics at Yale University’s Macmillan Center for International and Area Studies. She worked for the Liberal Democrats from 1987-1997 and was Manager of the 1992 and 1997 General Election Campaigns for the Party. Her book, The Third Way: Globalisation’s Legacy has been published this month.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.
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