The communitarian ‘philosophy’ of New Labour
in The Third Way and beyond

The development and academic study of the 'Third Way' since the mid-1990s represents the most consistent and durable attempt to develop those overt beliefs on behalf of the 'Centre-Left' in general and New Labour in particular. Five names crop up when communitarian philosophy is cited by Third Way commentators: Alasdair MacIntyre; Michael Sandel; Charles Taylor; Michael Walzer and John Macmurray. These philosophers are the subject of this chapter. The obvious connection between Tony Blair and Macmurray is the importance for both of them of the idea of community. For Macmurray, individualism is an expression of fear, while society is an expression of mutual need, and community an expression of love. Sandel's approach has been seen as epitomising a communitarianism in which justice and community are in conflict. MacIntyre's criticism of liberalism is far broader than Sandel's.

When, in February 2002, Tony McWalter, an obscure Labour backbencher,1 asked Tony Blair, at Prime Minister’s Questions, to ‘provide the House with a brief characterisation of the political philosophy that he espouses and which underlies his policies’,2 it was in the apparent belief that he was asking his leader an easy question. However, Blair’s evident confusion and his eventual reply, that ‘the best example I can give is the rebuilding of the national health service under this Government – extra investment’, led to a few days’ ridicule in the broad-sheets’ parliamentary sketch columns. ‘Tony Blair with a philosophy?’ Simon Hoggart asked incredulously in the Guardian. ‘You might as well . . . inquire of Vinnie Jones3 whether dualism was an apt response to pre-Cartesian thought’. In a more serious response, Roy Hattersley suggested that ‘[u]ntil Tony Blair came along, Labour had an implied philosophy’ based around egalitarianism and support for ‘the bottom dog’, but that once this implied philosophy ‘was formally renounced by the prophets of “the project” it needed replacing with a set of overt beliefs’.4

The development and academic study of the ‘Third Way’ since the mid-1990s represents the most consistent and durable attempt to develop those overt beliefs on behalf of the ‘Centre-Left’ in general and New Labour in particular. The wording of McWalter’s question made explicit the idea that a politician’s guiding idea is expected to be a political philosophy. Yet the oft-cited ‘gurus’ of the Third Way – Anthony Giddens way out in front, with Amitai Etzioni leading the pack following a good distance behind – are not political philosophers, but sociologists. When Blair said, at the launch of the Social Exclusion Unit, ‘My political philosophy is simple. Individuals prosper in a strong and active community of citizens. But Britain cannot be a strong community, cannot be one nation, when there are so many families experiencing a third generation of unemployment’, he was making an empirical claim about ‘the dangers of a society that is falling apart’,5 not a philosophical point. It is nonetheless hard to imagine any politician, friendly or otherwise, asking Tony Blair about the sociology underlying his policies, even though beliefs about the dynamics of society are more easily discernible in policy than is any political philosophy.

However, farther down the field, the names of philosophers have been mentioned in connection with New Labour, and these philosophers are the subject of this chapter. The philosophy in question is communitarianism –a term popularised by Etzioni and generally – often misleadingly – associated with him. Etzioni’s communitarianism is not a political philosophy but, as Simon Prideaux shows in chapter 7, a sociology, and a sociology of a particularly narrow and unsatisfactory kind. Five names crop up when communitarian philosophy is cited by Third Way commentators: Alasdair MacIntyre; Michael Sandel; Charles Taylor; Michael Walzer and John Macmurray. The first four are a well-known quartet who, although very diverse, were brought together under the communitarian label in the 1980s as all of them were seen to offer a critical response to an inherent individualism in liberal political philosophy since Rawls. They have all, with varying degrees of vehemence, objected to being called communitarian. When these four names come up in relation to New Labour, it tends to be simply because of this label. If we look a little more closely at communitarian political philosophy we find not only great variety and diversity in the writers’ approaches, concerns and starting-points, but a range of philosophical positions which, insofar as they can be related to it, are inherently opposed to – rather than supportive of – New Labour’s approach. The fifth philosopher linked with the party, John Macmurray, was not known in his lifetime as a communitarian (the term’s current use in political philosophy dates only from the early 1980s and Macmurray died in 1976); he thought of himself as a Christian socialist. Nonetheless, because of his stress on the idea of community he has been closely linked with ‘New Labour’s communitarianism’ and that of Etzioni. He is also cited as an influence by Blair himself. More surprisingly, perhaps, in the light of this, a closer examination of his philosophy again reveals much that is the antithesis of what New Labour believes and does.

The Third Way and contemporary communitarian philosophy

The development of communitarian political philosophy was characterised at the time as a debate with liberalism, with the communitarian side identified most closely with books by four writers, published during the 1980s: Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981); Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982); Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice (1983); and Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self (1989). These are not the only works of the four writers which are significantly communitarian: in particular, Taylor’s 1985 article ‘Atomism’ does much to set out what is recognisably communitarian in his approach; but the publication of four books within a clearly defined decade usually proves too neat a boundary to resist. Although After Virtue had been published a year earlier, ‘it was Sandel’s book that first elicited the label “communitarian” and brought about the retrospective recruitment of other writers to that flag’.6 Even as political philosophy has moved in recent years beyond this ‘debate’, its terminology has crept into political discourse.

Although these academic philosophers do not have a high profile, their names do crop up in relation to ‘communitarian politics’ and New Labour, frequently via an assumed connection with Etzioni. Anthony Giddens, in a review of Etzioni’s New Golden Rule, has suggested that Charles Taylor is Etzioni’s ‘illustrious predecessor’, and that Etzioni takes the former’s work to a greater level of detail.7 Etzioni himself promotes the idea of a link, comparing his ‘responsive communitarianism’ with the work of ‘old communitarians’ – Taylor, Sandel and Walzer, and the sociologists Philip Selznick and Robert Bellah.8 Philip Collins, writing in Renewal, calls communitarianism ‘a loose set of ideas . . . usually associated with’ Etzioni, but goes on to say that the ‘more substantive body of communitarian thought was named and given its most eloquent advocacy in Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. It includes in the canon Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer and Joseph Raz.’ Other commentators, whether academics or journalists, suggest a direct link between contemporary communitarian philosophy and New Labour. Driver and Martell include MacIntyre and Sandel (along with Macmurray, Tawney, Hobhouse and T. H. Green) as ‘communitarian influences [which] are clearly apparent among Labour modernizers’.9 Writing in the Independent, Demos director Geoff Mulgan suggests that the communitarian philosophy of the four writers is one of ‘several diverse currents’ upon which the party’s ‘shift, towards what can loosely be termed communitarianism, has drawn’ and has given ‘intellectual backbone’ to a backlash against both individualism and the insecurity engendered by rapid social change. Melanie Phillips, herself sometimes considered a populariser of communitarian thought, introduces MacIntyre’s name in an article which examines ‘what the talk of morality and community really means’. Although she conceives of communitarianism in terms very similar to Etzioni’s – it ‘attempts to forge a new equilibrium between rights and responsibilities’ – she does not see Etzioni as a direct influence on New Labour or Blair, although she does believe that MacIntyre’s thought feeds directly into Etzioni’s. Rather, she suggests that ‘[i]t was Gordon Brown who brought the MacIntyre position into the Labour Party’, and that this ‘chimed with his own Scottish ethical tradition, as it did with Blair’s particular Christian perspective’.

These claims tend to give the impression, firstly, that there is a continuum between communitarian philosophy and the political communitarianism of Etzioni, through which it has filtered into the ideas of the Third Way; and, secondly, that communitarian philosophy has been a direct source of ideas for New Labour. A closer look at communitarian philosophy and New Labour policy suggests this to be far from the case.10

What, then, do these communitarian philosophers have to say? It is impossible here to give more than a very brief and superficial account of each writer’s position where it has relevance to New Labour’s policies and attitudes – and that with two caveats: firstly, this area of philosophy does not on the whole concern itself with the quotidian business of politics, making direct comparisons problematical; and, secondly, although the same terms occur (for example, community, contract, person), they frequently carry different meanings, which can be a trap for the unwary.

Michael Sandel

While some commentators11 tend to define communitarianism in relation to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, Sandel is one of only two (the other being Walzer) of the four philosophers under consideration who specifically take it as their starting-point. Sandel’s approach has been seen as epitomising a communitarianism in which justice and community are in conflict.12 He questions Rawls’s assertion that ‘justice is the first virtue of social institutions’,13 claiming instead that it is a ‘remedial’ virtue, necessary only when other social virtues, such as benevolence or solidarity, are lacking. Too great a reliance on Rawlsian justice is likely to cause these communal virtues to atrophy still further – or, at the very least, to ‘reflect a lessening of the moral situation, rather than a moral improvement’.14

While Tony Blair has shown no sign of familiarity with communitarian philosophers like Sandel, he has referred to Rawls – suggesting that A Theory of Justice epitomises a highly individualistic model of human behaviour which began to take root in the 1960s and, by implication, led to the excesses of selfishness and greed widely perceived to characterise the 1980s. According to Blair, ‘the Left was captured by the elegance and power’ of Rawls’s work. His comment on it is intriguing: ‘[Rawls’s] manifesto for an egalitarian society is a brilliant exposition of the argument that an equal society is in the interests of anyone who does not know which position in that society they would occupy. But it is derived from a highly individualistic view of the world.’15 That derivation is apparently sufficient to condemn the theory in Blair’s eyes, but this reflects a confusion between the theory’s ‘philosophical anthropology’ – ‘its general account of the human person’ and other background factors – and its ‘prescriptive principles’.16 Rawls’s theory may be implicitly individualist at the anthropological level, but the political and social arrangements yielded by its explicit prescriptive principles are anything but. There is one obvious point on which Rawls and New Labour clash: Blair’s avowed support for meritocracy is at odds with Rawls’s view that people should not benefit17 from ‘arbitrary’ attributes like talents which happen to be marketable. However, in that respect it is Rawls’s egalitarianism rather than his individualism which Blair is rejecting; and the egalitarian principle is one which many communitarians, including Sandel, share with Rawls.

Alasdair MacIntyre

MacIntyre describes After Virtue as having arisen from his ‘negative view of late twentieth century bureaucratised consumer capitalism and the liberal individualism which is its dominant ideology’, and concludes that

the moral philosophy which informs that ideology had been generated by the fragmentation of an older moral tradition concerning human goods, virtues and the social relationships in and through which goods can be pursued, of which the classical expression is the ethics of Aristotle.18

MacIntyre’s criticism of liberalism is thus far broader than Sandel’s. His objections are to the entire post-enlightenment liberal tradition, rather than to any specific work, and he expresses concerns about liberalism’s substantive moral implications, in addition to questioning its conceptual coherence. His thesis is that liberal societies are in a state of confusion, clinging to the vestiges of traditions destroyed by liberalism itself, which thus no longer make sense. Liberal societies are beset by effectively irresolvable moral arguments – irresolvable because there is no one set of basic premisses, shared by the whole society, on which to base moral judgements. Instead, there is a plurality of incommensurable moral assertions,19 which must ultimately be arbitrary, but are cloaked in the antiquated language of moral authority – vestiges of a tradition of which only the language remains.

True human morality, destroyed by the enlightenment project of seeking its rational justification, must, for MacIntyre, be teleological, directed towards the end that is the good life, and this, for any individual, cannot be separated from the social roles which that individual holds and which prescribe what is ‘good’ for a person who inhabits those roles. MacIntyre uses the analogy of a watch: we cannot judge whether a watch is a good watch or not unless we know what it is that a watch is meant to do – what its role is, in other words. Human potential cannot be realised, nor human ends fulfilled, in isolation from such communal, social and moral roles.

To illustrate how we are to understand these roles and the ends they offer, MacIntyre introduces the concepts of ‘tradition’ and ‘practice’. Inherent to the concept of practice is the notion of an ‘internal good’: a good which can be realised only through (or, rather, within) that practice.20 These then provide an internal standard against which to make moral judgements about human action, and which itself, unlike liberal moral assertions, is not arbitrary. It is because such practices and traditions are realisable only in society that the concept of community is vital to MacIntyre’s thought, and this is one of the reasons why his criticism of liberalism is a communitarian one, although it is also neo-Aristotelian and, in subsequent work,21 neo-Thomistic.

A third aspect of MacIntyre’s communitarianism is his insistence on the ‘narrative unity’ of a human life.22 What this means, in part, is that people make choices not in the vacuum of the moment but in the context of a whole life, and thus, again, in terms of their ultimate human ends.23 For MacIntyre, therefore, the possibility of attaining, or even identifying, any kind of good, but particularly the good life for human beings and the possibility of moral behaviour, is dependent on the standards given by traditions and practices, which are, in turn, social phenomena, requiring membership of a community.

The virtues whose loss MacIntyre laments are again those of Aristotle’s political ideal.

The notion of the political community as a common project is alien to the modern liberal individualist world. This is how we sometimes at least think of schools, hospitals or philanthropic organizations; but we have no conception of such a form of community concerned, as Aristotle says the polis is concerned, with the whole of life, not with this or that good, but with man’s good as such.24

Although in appeals to the ideas of ‘one nation’ and ‘national community’25 it might appear that New Labour is pursuing this ideal, it is not, on two counts. While New Labour does have a clear view of the good citizen – one who works for a living and brings children up properly – this only reflects its narrow view of citizenship, which is defined in those very terms. It does not reflect a conception of what is good for ‘man as such’, or of the human telos. Rather, it reflects a view of what is good for the British nation or society – economic competitiveness and social order. People’s human fulfilment, on the other hand, is to be sought on the basis of individual choice, sometimes in the public sphere but equally possibly in the private, and subject only to the liberal constraints of not impinging on others’ ability likewise to seek fulfilment: ‘We seek’, Blair says, ‘a diverse but inclusive society, promoting tolerance within agreed norms.’26

Government and politics simply do not concern themselves with what is good for man as such, i.e. as an entity with given ends. MacIntyre is right to say that we no longer think of people in this way. In the terms of MacIntyre’s particular brand of communitarianism (although we must not forget that he himself has eschewed the label) New Labour, like every other major Western political party and polity, is irredeemably and inescapably liberal; they are among his ‘barbarians’.27

In the same way that New Labour’s invoking of the idea of citizenship super-ficially but misleadingly suggests congruence with MacIntyre’s communitarianism, so too might Blair’s frequent appeals to ‘tradition’, a key anchor for the modernisation of the party in the early years of his leadership. However, in a very significant sense New Labour understands this concept also in a different way from MacIntyre, because, for Blair, tradition (and its continuation) is something which is consciously chosen – impossible on MacIntyre’s conception of it. Furthermore, Blair suggests that we can chose rationally between different traditions, or between ‘values’ and ‘attitudes’:

When I think of the values and attitudes of my parents’ generation, I distinguish between the genuine values that underpinned the best of Britain and the attitudes we can safely and rightly leave behind. Old-fashioned values are good values. Old-fashioned attitudes or practices may simply be barriers that hold our values back.28

‘Values’ worth keeping here include good manners, respect for others, courtesy, rejection of crime, respect and support for teachers, and doing voluntary work, while ‘other things from the past’ which Blair chooses ‘to leave behind’ include opposition to women working, to wearing jeans in church and failure to be ‘fairminded to gay people’.29 Nowhere does Blair give any basis – other than personal preference or an intuition of the spirit of the age – for these distinctions: they are essentially arbitrary. In this, Blair is actually exhibiting what MacIntyre condemns as one of the manifestations of the modern age. In addition, in suggesting that it is possible rationally to chose to keep some traditions and reject others Blair is utilising a conception of ‘tradition’ wholly different from MacIntyre’s.

Charles Taylor

In Sources of the Self, Taylor sets out to ‘define the modern identity in describing its genesis’.30 This modern identity, the ways in which we understand ourselves, is central to any understanding of ‘modernity’ in general. Taylor’s approach is a historical one, because he believes that this question of identity can be understood only in the context of past conceptions. A central issue is where we find apparently objective standards of right and wrong – those standards which go beyond mere preference and enable us to undertake what Taylor calls ‘strong evaluation’.31 Morality, or ‘the good’, is strongly intertwined with the idea of ‘selfhood’, but, Taylor claims, modern moral theory focuses on ‘what it is right to do’ rather than what it is ‘good to be’.32 Ideas about the good, and strongly evaluative standards, must come from a social or communal context. This context provides ‘frameworks’ which enable us to judge by standards that are above and beyond our own immediate reactions and that can give us something to which to aspire. We can recognise such standards without necessarily being able to articulate why we subscribe to those particular ones. The kinds of communities which give such meaning to our lives, and which here mark Taylor out as a communitarian, are far broader and deeper – encompassing history, culture, religion and, above all, language – than what is generally understood by the term ‘community’, and the conception of it employed by New Labour.

A key feature of modernity, in Taylor’s thesis, is the elevation of ‘ordinary life’. In the past, ordinary life was not an end in itself, but a necessary prerequisite for the pursuit of ‘the good life’: a life which is fully human (compared to the life of a slave, in the classical model). In ancient Greece, or under the Italian republican revival, this was epitomised by a ‘citizen ethic’: to be a good citizen was to aspire to far more than the domestic necessities of ordinary life33 – but in New Labour’s conception, being a good citizen is identified very closely with the two most fundamental activities of ordinary life: working for a living; and taking care of one’s family. This identification is made explicit in Blair’s announcement to his party conference that once given the ‘chance’ to join the labour market, single parents, ‘no longer the butt of Tory propaganda, [. . .] will be the citizens of New Britain who can earn a wage and look after the children they love.’34

Taylor claims that in modern societies ‘the individual has been taken out of a rich community life and now enters instead into a series of mobile, changing, revocable associations, often designed merely for highly specific ends’.35 Taylor clearly considers this a matter for regret, but when those ‘revocable associations’ take the form of short-term employment contracts and other manifestations of the ‘flexible’ employment market that is the Third Way response to its perception of globalisation, this is a model of society endorsed by – or at least acceptable to – New Labour. For Blair, community is not the framework which provides us with our bearings, but is itself a means to an end; for example, helping people in ‘the struggle of balancing work and a family’ and in the adjustment to a global economy: ‘to become the masters of change, not its victims, we need an active community’.36 Taylor notes that ‘a society of self-fulfillers, whose affiliations are seen as more and more revocable, cannot sustain the strong identification with political community which public freedom needs’.37 This means that two aspects of what New Labour wish to achieve are, in communitarian terms, in conflict with each other. Moreover, Taylor continues in a direct reference to policy,

the atomist outlook which instrumentalism fosters makes people unaware of these conditions [i.e. the conditions ‘for the public health of self-governing societies’], so that they happily support policies which undermine them – as in . . . neo-conservative measures in Britain and the US, which cut welfare programmes and regressively redistribute income, thus eroding the bases of community identification.38

Taylor wrote that in 1989, but policies of this sort have been implemented to increasing degrees since then on both sides of the Atlantic; New Labour in government has, for example, implemented cuts in lone-parent benefits and increased (regressive) indirect taxation. The Labour Government has more recently put into place a range of measures – among them the 2002 budget – which have redistributed resources to the least well-off. Nonetheless, that was not the case in the party’s first years in office – when claims about its communitarianism were at a height. Furthermore, help for the worse-off has been in the form of the minimum wage, child-care provision and tax credits, all of which are available only to those in work, thus underscoring the conception of citizenship and inclusion rejected by Taylor. Neither Taylor’s theory in general nor his specific allusions to policy offer any comfort to New Labour, and his communitarianism is not one with which the party could identify.

Michael Walzer

Like Sandel, and unlike MacIntyre and Taylor, Walzer writes in direct response to A Theory of Justice. According to Walzer, the way in which different social goods are distributed, and by whom, depends on particular cultural understandings of those goods, and the ‘idea that principles of justice must be culture-specific entails a hostility to any political theory that embodies claims to universality’, such as Rawls’s theory of justice and many other liberal positions. The next stage of Walzer’s argument is that different criteria for distribution are appropriate in different ‘spheres’ – injustice arises when, say, a criterion for the distribution of goods in one sphere intrudes into another:

Every social good or set of goods constitutes, as it were, a distributive sphere within which only certain criteria or arrangements are appropriate. Money is inappropriate in the sphere of ecclesiastical office; it is an intrusion from another sphere. And piety should make for no advantage in the marketplace . . .39

By keeping the spheres separate, Walzer seeks ‘complex equality’, by which, although simple inequalities of wealth and all sorts of social goods will remain, they will lose their capacity to ‘dominate’. (A dominant good is one which reinforces inequality by commanding goods from other spheres.40) What kinds of goods belong to which sphere, and what principles of distribution are then appropriate, can be the product only of shared cultural understandings, which will vary across cultures. It is this ‘radically particularist’41 view, as well as the cultural particularity of his principles of justice and his concomitant rejection of universalism, rather than any substantive objections to liberalism, that mark Walzer out as a communitarian.

Even a society as diverse as Britain’s was in the late twentieth century has a stock of shared understandings, in Walzer’s terms. These are socially constructed meanings and ways of understanding things that depend as much on history and tradition as on current agreement; they govern what feels natural and right. These shared understandings can be, and are, called upon to decide which criteria are appropriate for the distribution of certain goods, and the criteria which those understandings yield are sometimes in conflict with the potential outcomes (intended or otherwise) of government policies. In a booklet published by Demos in 1996 John Gray explores some of the implications for policy of Walzer’s account. For example, he notes:

In Britain most people think it unfair that access to decent medical care should be restricted by income rather than need, or that the provision of such care should be distorted by market forces. This common understanding condemns the neoliberal commercialisation of the NHS, if – as available evidence strongly suggests – the introduction of market mechanisms within it has partly decoupled patient care from medical need and made access to care to a significant degree and accident of the policies of the NHS trust currently in force in one’s locality. Moreover, it demands the reversal of these policies, insofar as they have effects which violate it.42

Written in 1996, this clearly refers to the policies of the Conservative administration, but while Labour in government have amended the internal market in the health service, market mechanisms play an increasing and more direct role, through the Private Finance Initiative (PFI; see below) and the increasing use of private health facilities for NHS patients.

Another policy in which New Labour itself has arguably violated the shared understandings of the society it governs is by its extension of the PFI and ‘public–private partnerships’ (PPP) in the NHS and other areas of public provision (the London Underground being a recent high-profile example), under which profit-making companies operate public services. This suggestion is borne out by the widespread unease and opposition which the proposals have met from the public. It is seen as simply wrong – or inappropriate – that public services should be run for private profit, even if this would result in the cheaper delivery of those services (which, as Eric Shaw points out in chapter 4, is often not the case).

This is illustrated by the case of prison policy. In opposition, Jack Straw opposed private prisons on the grounds that it is morally wrong for anyone to profit from people’s incarceration. A 1995 policy document unequivocally stated that the ‘Labour Party is opposed in principle to the privatisation of prisons . . . It is not appropriate for people to profit out of incarceration.’43 In government, however, this was outweighed by economic considerations, and existing prisons continued to be in effect privatised while considerable amounts of new prison building were undertaken by the private sector. Inspectors’ reports suggest that, in at least some cases, the private prisons, as well as being cheaper, provide better facilities and conditions for inmates. None of this, however, assuages public unease at the idea of making profits from public services.

In everyday terms, this might be described as a case of the Government ‘moving too fast’, in introducing policies for which the public are not yet ready. While there is often a case to be made for governments doing this, any government so doing is failing in that instance to legislate according to our shared understandings, and is thus not communitarian in Walzer’s terms.

While abstract political philosophy may not offer much in the way of concrete policy proposals, the ideas expressed by these four writers do offer different ways of understanding the problems facing politics in the modern age; a far broader range of understandings than that of which politicians avail themselves. However, even a very superficial examination is sufficient to show that contemporary communitarian philosophy has contributed little to the development of Third Way thinking and New Labour’s understanding of politics.

John Macmurray

John Macmurray was until recently unremarked upon and unremembered, being already unfashionable by the time of Tony Blair’s interest in him. Yet from the 1930s to the 1950s he was widely known as a populariser of moral philosophy through radio appearances and lecture series, collections of which were being published into the 1960s,44 and pamphlets/short volumes on a number of topics.45 As well as this relatively popular work, he wrote more academic volumes46 and held chairs at London and Edinburgh, and in South Africa and Canada. The publishers of the 1968 edition of Freedom in the Modern World (first published in 1932) claim that the work ‘has probably had a deeper and more lasting effect than any other book of a philosophical character published this century’.47 Even allowing for publishers’ tendency to hyperbole, Macmurray was clearly considered a very important figure in mid-twentieth-century Britain.

Tony Blair himself has referred to Macmurray as an influence, and these few comments have been picked up on by commentators and have led to a minor revival of interest in his work. According to Blair’s biographer, John Rentoul, Macmurray is Blair’s ‘philosophical mentor’,48 and ‘Blair’s idea of community, which is perhaps his most distinctive theme as a politician, derives directly from Macmurray’.49 This claim is repeated and reinforced by Driver and Martell, who note that ‘Blair read and discussed the communitarian philosophy of John Macmurray’50 while at Oxford, and, elsewhere, they refer to Macmurray as ‘the Scottish philosopher who influenced Tony Blair’.51 In another biography, Jon Sopel notes that Blair ‘became fascinated by [Macmurray’s] work [which] introduced him to an idea that would later become central to his political thinking, the notion of ‘community’.52 Sopel also refers to Macmurray as ‘the Scottish philosopher... whom Blair was so influenced by when he was an undergraduate at Oxford’.53 Elizabeth Frazer states, similarly, that ‘Tony Blair’s communitarianism was influenced by the philosophy of John MacMurray’.54 More recently, the Observer has described Macmurray as ‘an important influence on the Prime Minister’.55

At Oxford, Blair’s interest in Macmurray came about via Peter Thomson, an Australian theology student some years older than Blair and his contemporaries. Blair was an enthusiastic contributor to an informal Christian discussion group which coalesced around Thomson, and it is from this period and this friendship that Blair’s own Christianity dates. Thomson was an enthusiast for Macmurray’s particular brand of active Christian socialism. Legend has it that Blair and Thomson made a pilgrimage to Edinburgh to visit Macmurray in 1974, shortly before his death, although in the event only Thomson went into his home and met him.56

Blair’s own references to Macmurray date from July 1994, just days after Blair’s election to the party leadership, and before the modernisation project had got underway. ‘If you really want to understand what I’m all about’, he is quoted as saying, ‘you have to take a look at a guy called John Macmurray’,57 going on to say that ‘he was influential – very influential. Not in the details, but in the general concept.’58 Blair also mentions Macmurray as one of many writers to have influenced his ‘interest in religion and philosophy’, alongside Kierkegaard, Jung and Kant, saying: ‘One of the best things I have read on the subject of Christian duty was an essay by the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, a socialist thinker whose writings I was introduced to as a student at Oxford.’ What Blair understood Macmurray to mean in this (unidentified) essay was that ‘there is a human impulse within, which can be fulfilled only through duty’.59


The obvious connection between Blair and Macmurray is the importance for both of them of the idea of community. The problem lies in that ‘the general concept’ cited by Blair – which most commentators understand as referring to community – is notorious for the broad range of interpretations which it invites. Blair himself employs a number of different conceptions, evident in this single paragraph:

At the heart of my beliefs is the idea of community. I don’t just mean the villages, towns and cities in which we live. I mean that our fulfilment as individuals lies in a decent society of others. My argument to you today is that the renewal of community is the answer to the challenges of a changing world.60

Nonetheless, throughout discussions of Macmurray’s perceived influence on Blair ‘community’ is treated as if it is an uncontested, unambiguous term.

The main thrust of Macmurray’s work is his assertion that people’s humanity and human potential are realised only through their relations with others – but only through certain kinds of relationships. Relations, according to Macmurray, may be either social or communal. Where people come together to co-operate for common ends, a social relationship is formed. In this, we

associate with others in order to achieve some purpose that we all share. Out of this there springs a life of social co-operation through which we can provide for our common needs, and achieve common ends. We may define this social life in terms of purposes. That is its great characteristic.61

Social relationships are, in other words, instrumental. The definition of society is that it is founded upon, and composed of, instrumental relationships. This is highly necessary to human survival, but it is not the form of relationship which expresses and realises humanity itself.

The satisfactory working of social life depends upon entering into relationships with other people, not with the whole of ourselves, but only with part of ourselves. It depends upon suppressing . . . the fullness and wholeness of our natures.62

The ‘personal life’, in contrast,

demands a relationship with one another in which we can be our whole selves and have complete freedom to express everything that makes us what we are. It demands a relationship with one another in which suppression and inhibition are unnecessary.63

The personal life is in contrast to both the social life and the individual life.64 Whatever we call this kind of relationship (and Macmurray points out that all the possible terms, such as ‘friendship’, ‘fellowship’, ‘communion’ and ‘love’, have taken on partial meanings too specific to that purpose), at the heart of it

is the idea of a relationship between us which has no purpose beyond itself; in which we associate because it is natural to human beings to share their experience, to understand one another, to find joy and satisfaction in living together; in expressing and revealing themselves to one another.65

This is Macmurray’s highly specific conception of community. Certainly, in Macmurray’s view, society and community are two very different things, defined in opposition to each other. Society arises through external pressures and needs; community from internal human impulses, and ‘the difference between a community and a mere society is . . . clear cut’.66

Society is built on interdependence, but any kind of dependence is, for Macmurray, corrosively destructive of community. If we are dependent on other people – however much it may be mutual – we cannot be in true fellowship with them, but only in an instrumental relationship which diminishes our humanity.67 For Blair, on the other hand, community is a recognition of interdependence: ‘The idea of community resolves the paradox of the modern world: it acknowledges our interdependence; it recognises our individual worth’,68 while Gordon Brown ‘think[s] of Britain . . . as a community of citizens with common needs, mutual interests, shared objectives, related goals. . .’.69

The entire point of Macmurray’s advocacy of community is as a contrast and necessary complement to social relations. His work cannot be used to confer the value that he ascribes to his conception of community on what he calls ‘mere society’. However, New Labour tends to conflate the two concepts and use the terms ‘community’ and ‘society’ interchangeably – as, for example, in: ‘At the heart of my beliefs is the idea of community . . . that our fulfilment as individuals lies in a decent society of others’.70 In doing this, New Labour rejects the distinction which is at the very heart of Macmurray’s work, and thus negates everything he has to say about the desirability of community.71


Many of the themes and ideas attributed to Macmurray, most explicitly by Rentoul, and by Driver and Martell,72 are closer to modern communitarian philosophy than to Macmurray’s own work. For example, Rentoul claims that

Macmurray saw his purpose as being to challenge the starting point of modern philosophy, the idea that people are individuals first who then choose how to relate to others. He insisted that people exist only in relation to others . . . he argued that the liberal self was incomplete, because people’s personalities are created by their relationships to their families and communities.73

Driver and Martell also present Macmurray’s position as ‘a direct attack on liberalism’,74 although nowhere does Macmurray overtly attack liberalism. Indeed, in The Self as Agent, he defends liberalism against communism.75 Macmurray’s attacks are directed primarily towards capitalism and tradition, and generally towards those forces which suppress the individual human impulse.

Communitarian politics is often presented as an antidote to the selfish individualism perceived to have been engendered under Thatcherism. For Macmurray, however, individualism – which he perceived in his own time – was not the cause of social ills, but a symptom of them, and of insecurity in particular, in a world dominated by fear rather than love.

Fear accomplishes [the] destruction of life by turning us in upon ourselves and so isolating us from the world around us. That sense of individual isolation which is so common in the modern world, which is often called ‘individualism’ is one of the inevitable expressions of fear.76

For Macmurray, individualism is an expression of fear, while society is an expression of mutual need, and community an expression of love.77

Duty, responsibility and rights

Blair is frequently labelled communitarian because of his continual emphasis on duties and responsibilities and the prioritising of these over rights. The idea of ‘no rights without responsibilities’ is also one of the defining ‘values’ of Giddens’s Third Way.78 Recent examples from New Labour include Blair’s assertions: ‘If we invest so as to give the unemployed person the chance of a job, they have a responsibility to take it or lose benefit’;79 and ‘For every new opportunity we offer, we demand responsibility in return.’80 These reflect Blair’s view that ‘a decent society is not based on rights. It is based on duty.’81 However, this finds few echoes in Macmurray, who talks about rights far more than about duties, and whose references to responsibilities show a very different understanding from Blair’s.

Peter Thomson is quoted by Rentoul as saying that Macmurray

was onto a concept of community. He used to say that the noblest form of human existence is friendship and that instead of being on a debit and credit ledger idea of ‘If you do this for me, then I’ll do that for you,’ we ought to develop a sense of community where people were committed to the welfare of one another.82

This is a long way away from New Labour policy, in which the language of rights in exchange for duties; opportunity in exchange for responsibility, and ‘contracts’, ‘compacts’ and ‘covenants’83 strongly reflects the ‘debit and credit ledger idea’ rejected by Macmurray in his advocacy of the spontaneous generosity of truly human relations. For Macmurray, the provisions of the welfare state are unconditional rights, which he compares here with charitable provision:

[G]etting rid of unemployment, providing hospitals and recreation grounds and better schools for the poor and so on . . . is a matter of bare justice, and it has got to be done . . . What the unemployed need is not pity from a distance, but their bare rights as members of an astonishingly wealthy community. We have to see that they get their rights, and not pat ourselves on the back for our benevolence when we are merely being honest and decent.84

While duty is a term which occurs only rarely in Macmurray’s work, responsibility for oneself does play a part in his thought, but one different from the Third Way’s understanding of it. For Macmurray, the ability to take responsibility for oneself is a privilege; even, perhaps, in an ideal world, a right, but certainly not a burden. For example, in a discussion of democracy, Macmurray says that ‘[democracy] opposes privilege and social distinction, because these mean that some people or some classes of people are cornering freedom and responsibility for themselves at the expense of others’.85 Responsibility is a precondition of freedom,86 and people will grasp it if only given the opportunity; it is not something which has to be imposed on them by, say, New Deal-type conditions. It might be argued that this reflects an overly optimistic view of human nature. But it cannot be argued that New Labour’s conception of responsibility is anything like Macmurray’s.

‘Active community’

One aspect of the Government’s brand of communitarianism is the attempt to foster community by encouraging people to serve others. This ethos underlies the notion of ‘active community’, which encompasses voluntary work and charitable giving, and is a key plank in the proposals for the teaching of citizenship in schools. It is also widely promoted and practised by Christianity of a traditional kind. For Blair and his Government, ‘[v]olunteering and community activities are central to the concept of citizenship and are the key to restoring our communities’.87 Such a sentiment reflects, almost word for word, pre-election Labour Party policy documents.88 The idea that ‘[c]learer expectations need to be set about the importance of people participating in their communities . . . Children should grow up with these expectations’, and the proposal that ‘by 2010 all first degree courses should provide for a small element of credit towards the degree for approved community activity; and all universities and colleges should use community involvement as part of the criteria for entrance’,89 appear to bring us a little nearer to the compulsory community service advocated by contemporary communitarians like Etzioni.90 Macmurray scathingly condemns such an ethos of service to others, and in doing so unambiguously rejects the accepted communitarian conception of the individual’s relationship to the rest of society. To understand why, we must return to Macmurray’s philosophy.

Macmurray describes three kinds of morality: mechanical; social (or organic); and human.91 The second of these, social morality, is very close to the communitarian morality endorsed by Etzioni and promoted by New Labour. Macmurray sets out what social morality says. For example, social morality

will talk a great deal about purpose. Each of us ought to have a purpose in life and to work for its achievement, it will say. Then whatever draws us aside from out purpose will be bad and whatever advances it will be good . . . If human life is to be good, it must not forget that the purpose which it serves is not its own purpose but the purpose of life as a whole.92

Macmurray outlines ideas behind this morality which bear some resemblance to aspects of modern communitarianism:

Each of us is born into a society and our lives are bound up with the community to which we belong . . . We owe all we have and all we are to the community to which we belong. The community is our real environment and we live only in it and through it. Therefore the purpose which ought to control our lives is not our own selfish purpose, but the social purpose. We are part of a community of social life, and the goodness of our individual lives depends upon our devoting them to the common good . . . The good man is the man who serves his country, serves his generation, identifies himself with the good of the community and devotes his life to the accomplishment of the social purpose.93

However, this morality is being set out by Macmurray only to be condemned. Such a ‘morality of service . . . is a false morality. It is false because it thinks of human life in biological terms, as if we were animals, not persons.’94 Furthermore, it is ‘a denial of human reality. It treats everybody as a means to an end’ and ‘subordinates human beings to organization.’95 In sum: ‘The first thing we have to stop is the false idea that it is a good thing to serve society and its institutions. It isn’t. It is an evil thing.’96 Thus Macmurray unambiguously rejects a morality and a view of the individual’s relationship with his or her society which has been at the heart of New Labour thinking.

This is not to say that Tony Blair was lying when he claimed, in 1994, to have been influenced by Macmurray’s ideas; nor even to suggest that he misunderstood the writer. After all, it was Blair who said that,

at its best, socialism corresponds most closely to an existence that is both rational and moral. It stands for co-operation, not confrontation; for fellowship, not fear. It stands for equality . . . because only through equality in our economic circumstances can our individuality develop properly.97

But he said that in 1983, as a newly elected Labour MP. Such sentiments – strongly evocative of Macmurray – may once have been Blair’s, but they are not those of New Labour or the Third Way.

This, perhaps, provides a clue to the more general lack of influence of communitarian philosophy: maybe there is simply no room in government, or even in the serious politics of opposition, for the precision which political philosophy demands and the abstraction by which it is attained. As Adam Swift points out, while politicians are happy to employ, in a strategic way, philosophical concepts like ‘community’ or ‘freedom’, ‘the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of votes are very different enterprises’ requiring ‘not just different but incompatible virtues’.98 The real question is why we expect politicians to espouse ‘a philosophy’ – why McWalter, himself formerly a philosophy lecturer,99 thought his question to be even reasonable, let alone helpful.


1 Tony McWalter, MP for Hemel Hempstead.
2 Hansard for 27 February 2002: col. 698.
3 British footballer turned film actor, renowned in both contexts for violence rather than intellect.
4 Hattersley 2002.
5 Blair 1997a.
6 Mulhall and Swift 1992: 40.
7 Giddens 1997: 11.
8 Etzioni 1998: x.
9 Driver and Martell 1997: 28.
10 Some commentators do mention communitarian philosophy while acknowledging its distance from politics - an example is Bowring 1997: 96.
11 Mulhall and Swift 1992 explicitly do this.
12 By Kymlicka 1993: 367.
13 Rawls 1972: 3.
14 Kymlicka 1993: 367.
15 Blair 1996a: 299.
16 This distinction is made by David Miller (1999: 172), who suggests that any political theory ‘contains two analytically separable elements’: a ‘philosophical anthropology’, and a ‘set of prescriptive principles’. The philosophical anthropology, which may be explicit or implicit, but is always present, is ‘a general account of the human person, of the conditions of moral agency, of the nature of human relationships and so forth’, while the prescriptive principles ‘specifying how social relationships are to be ordered, how the state is to be constituted and so on’. The relationship between the two is one of support rather than entailment, so one kind of anthropology could be associated with a number of different sets of principles (and vice versa).
17 Unless allowing them to do so will benefit the worst off.
18 MacIntyre 1997: 332.
19 Mulhall and Swift 1992: 72.
20 MacIntyre 1985: chapter 15.
21 MacIntyre (1997: 332) has ‘continued the project initiated in After Virtue . . . in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988) and in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990)’.
22 Mulhall and Swift 1992: 86.
23 Ibid., p. 88.
24 MacIntyre 1985: 156.
25 See e.g. Blair 1996a: 298: ‘To recover national purpose we need to start thinking and acting as one nation, one community again.’
26 Blair 1998.
27 MacIntyre 1985: 263.
28 Blair 2000a.
29 Ibid.
30 Taylor 1989: x.
31 Ibid., p. 4.
32 Ibid., p. 3.
33 Ibid., p. 213.
34 Blair 1995.
35 Taylor 1989: 502.
36 Blair 2000a. This is just one of many possible examples.
37 Taylor 1989: 508.
38 Taylor 1989: 505.
39 Walzer 1983: 10.
40 Ibid., chapter 1.
41 Ibid., p. xiv.
42 Gray 1996: 45.
43 Labour Party 1995.
44 Collections of Macmurray’s lectures include Reason and Emotion (1962) and Freedom in the Modern World (1968).
45 Including Challenge to the Churches (1941) and Conditions of Freedom (1949).
46 Including The Self as Agent (1957).
47 Macmurray 1968: inside front cover.
48 Rentoul 1996: 479.
49 Ibid., p. 42.
50 Driver and Martell 1998: 27.
51 Driver and Martell 1997: 28.
52 Sopel 1995: 34.
53 Ibid., p. 144.
54 Frazer 1999: 25.
55 Ahmed and Staunton 2000.
56 This is reported by Rentoul (1996: 51) who has Thomson going in alone; Sopel (1995: 34) says that ‘a group’ of Thomson’s friends ‘travelled to Scotland . . . and met John Macmurray’.
57 Quoted by Rentoul (1996: 42) who sources it to Scotland on Sunday, 24 July 1994.
58 Rentoul 1996: 44.
59 Ibid .
60 Blair 2000a: this paragraph alone covers community as location, as synonymous with society, as a means to individual fulfilment, as renewable, and as the solution to the problems of modernity.
61 Macmurray 1962: 97.
62 Ibid., pp. 96–7.
63 Ibid., p. 97.
64 Ibid., p. 94.
65 Ibid., p. 98.
66 Macmurray 1941: 23–4.
67 Macmurray 1968: 160–2.
68 Blair 2000b.
69 Brown 2000.
70 Blair 2000a. The terms are used interchangeably throughout this speech, and are also confused in Gordon Brown’s speech (2000) to the NCVO.
71 The same distinction is made by Macmurray 1935: 97.
72 Driver and Martell 1998: 28–9.
73 Rentoul 1996: 42–3 (original emphasis).
74 Driver and Martell 1998: 27.
75 Macmurray 1957: 30.
76 Macmurray 1968: 59.
77 Ibid.
78 Giddens 1998: 66. Giddens does say in passing that the principle ‘must apply not only to welfare recipients, but to everyone’ – a point easily lost in New Labour politics.
79 Blair 2000b.
80 Blair 2000a. Both these examples in fact demonstrate a shift in which responsibilities are no longer exchanged for rights, but for mere ‘opportunities’.
81 Blair 1997b.
82 Rentoul 1996: 42.
83 For example, in his speech to the Global Ethics Foundation, Blair (2000b) says that a ‘covenant of opportunities and responsibilities’ is a necessary condition of ‘spending taxpayers’ money on public services or social exclusion’.
84 Macmurray 1968: 215–16.
85 Macmurray 1941: 9.
86 Macmurray 1968: 48.
87 Active Community Unit 1999: 9.
88 See e.g. Labour Party 1997: 1, 4 and 6.
89 Active Community Unit 1999: 13.
90 Etzioni 1995: 113–15.
91 Macmurray 1968: chapter 9.
92 Ibid., pp. 195–6.
93 Ibid., p. 196.
94 Ibid., p. 198.
95 Ibid. This ties in with Simon Prideaux’s criticism of Etzioni’s communitarianism in chapter 7 of this volume.
96 Macmurray 1968: 200–1 (emphasis added).
97 Tony Blair’s maiden speech to the House of Commons, quoted in Blair 1996: 11.
98 Swift 2001: 40.
99 Hoggart 2002.


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The Third Way and beyond

Criticisms, futures, alternatives



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