290. "Tony Blair: A Communitarian in the Making?" The Times (London), (June 21, 1997), p. 20.
In every conversation I have had on my visit to Britain since the general election, one question has been repeated: what will Tony Blair do for the country? Will he be a gentler Tory, show his true old Labour colours, or will he strike in a new, perhaps communitarian, direction?
Given Mr Blair's sizeable victory, the special powers he has as a British Prime Minister (vastly superior to a French one, not to mention an American President) and his energetic start, the question is understandable. However, in view of the sharp limits that global economic forces set on national governments, we must face a communitarian reworking of President Kennedy's famous challenge: do not ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for yourself, your close ones and your community. My idea of community is broadly conceived: it includes the nation, Europe if you feel expansive, and one day the world.
Long before the election, much was made of Mr Blair's changes in Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution. In examining the change, most observers focused on the fact that the old Labour preference for big government was ditched. Much less attention has been accorded to the new Clause Four - one that recognises the importance of community, of a society in which "the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe". And an important motto of the election campaign was "responsibility for all, responsibility from all" - as communitarian a notion as they come.
Mr Blair has called for a "culture of responsibility" in welfare recipients. (Though it remains to be seen if, when a unit trust, a pension scheme or a major workplace comes unstuck, he calls on others in the same industry to come to the victims' aid, or uses the Government to bail them out.) These ideas, and the public philosophy and images they evoke, played a significant role in Mr Blair's victory. They now provide criteria against which his communitarianism may be measured.
The most important implication of the new Clause Four is that new Labour recognises that a communitarian society entails much more than nurturing local residential communities, or building on small platoons; it is necessary to change the culture and structure of society. Communitarian culture is needed to replace the welfare state notion of entitlement - that once one pays one's taxes, the State will attend to one's needs from cradle to grave - with the realisation that for the ship of state to progress, everyone must pull the oars.
Communitarian culture rejects the Thatcherite notion that maximising self-interest benefits society as a whole. While there is a need for more self-reliance, communitarian culture stresses the need for reciprocity; for members of a community to help one another, not as an act of charity, but as an act of mutuality - one for all and all for one. Communitarian culture also entails moving much closer to the people, devolving power to the council or parish level, using democratic reforms to reverse Thatcherite centralism.
Early tests of Blair's communitarian colours may be seen in small measures to help change the culture. Will he, for example, promote parents' co-operatives in which fathers and mothers share childcare duties? In Germany's Kinderladen, or playgroups, each parent is required to contribute some time. This reduces public costs, helps bond the parents to one another, and provides built-in inspection. Communitarian mutuality is also advanced when neighbours attend to one another if one is discharged from hospital, ever earlier, as is increasingly the practice.
Communitarians are often asked how folks could do more for one another, or for stricken members of their families, when both parents often work outside the home - and in all too many there is only one parent serving both as breadwinner and homemaker. Part of the answer might lie in devoting, say, two of the dozens of hours a week people spend watching television to social endeavours.
More of the answer lies in drawing on the growing class of senior citizens. Here, too, the notion that one is entitled needs to be replaced with the idea that one needs to give something back, not out of altruism but to make the system work, and because people who serve good causes feel ennobled rather than coerced. Centres for senior citizens find that older folks greatly enjoy spending time with one another. People with cancer, HIV, alcoholism, Alzheimer's and some forms of mental illness do much better (and cost the public less) when they join mutual support groups.
The communitarian paradigm does not call for closing down the welfare state and replacing it with armies of volunteers. It envisages a triumvirate, in which the State, the private sector and various institutions of the community co-operate to shoulder social burdens.
Welfare reform is a case in point. Mr Blair is following the American example in tackling unemployment. As many of those on welfare have children, it is suggested that the Government will use public funds to pro vide childcare for those wishing to work. However, given that it is desirable for a parent of infants to stay at home, these people could discharge their communitarian duties by providing childcare for other claimants who wish to work outside the household.
Moreover, in an economy that still has considerable unemployment, pushing welfare clients to work is likely to push others into unemployment and ultimately on to welfare. A communitarian solution lies in assigning claimants to community work which would otherwise not be carried out; cleaning up parks, for instance. This requires boards, which exist in America, of unions and government representatives, to ensure that those who do community service will do only work that truly would not be carried out otherwise.
How might the culture be changed to become more communitarian? Mr. Blair can continue to issue exhortations, using what Americans call the "bully pulpit". But speeches, however well crafted, go only part of the way. Referendums can focus a nation's attention, so long as there are no more than two or three a year. Serious public dialogue is necessary if he seeks broad support for policies that seek to address complex and value-laden issues such as Europe, inequality, or protecting the NHS.
Tony Blair needs such a public dialogue if he is to persuade people that they must change their habits, and if he is to reduce the scope of government while deepening support for what the State will continue to have to do.
Professor Etzioni is the founding president of the Communitarian Network. He has just returned to his chair at George Washington University after teaching briefly at the London School of Economics. His book The New Golden Rule: Morality in a Free Society is published next week by Profile.