“But don’t forget to swing by political party central (aka Politico’s bookshop) for the launch of the Social Democratic Dilemma, by Stuart Thomson. I bet that will be in everyone’s stocking this Christmas.”
– Nicholas Foulkes, ‘Fast Forward’, The Financial Times, 21 October 2000
‘Until very recently, much of the published work on the Third Way’s attempt to reinvent social democracy, has been polemical. It has been an attempt by protagonists to argue a line and win the case. Tony Giddens’ The Third Way (1998) was the most notable example in the UK, and it led to a host of analyses, few of which were entirely complementary.
From a Liberal Democrat perspective, the Centre for Reform’s Liberal Democrats and the Third Way, written largely by William Wallace and Neil Stockley, offered a particularly critical view. It highlighted an agenda that the Third Way failed to deliver on, based around social citizenship, liberty, internationalisation, and environmentalism.
Stuart Thomson’s book, The Social Democratic Dilemma, is a valuable contribution to the debate. Containing analyses of developments in social democracy across into new social democracy – equality becomes fairness, state action becomes market action, and an ethic of co-operation being replaced by the language of community.
Thomson highlights the failure of new social democracy to develop an idea of the state that can challenge the neoliberal belief in the market, and argues that neoliberalism has in this area engulfed the mainstream social democratic left in Europe. A similar case is made with regard to taxation, where new social democracy has surrendered much ground. On both points, the author’s well-argued perspective will no doubt be shared by many Liberal Democrats.
The author’s main conclusion is that ‘new’ social democracy is failing to prove itself to be distinctive enough from neoliberalism. Thomson would accept that in many areas the jury is still out on many aspects of the government’s programme, but there is no doubt that, ultimately, it will be judged by the questions he asks.
Packed full of graphs and charts, containing invaluable social and economic information, Thomson’s book also contains otherwise unavailable translations of Jospin’s programme.
It is a much-valued contribution to the Third Way debate.’
– Dr Richard Grayson, Liberal Democrat News, 18th August 2000
“When I met the author of this book at the book launch at Politico’s bookstore, we exchanged publications. I gave Dr Thomson a copy of my new Fabian pamphlet, The Case for Socialism. He gave me a copy of The Social Democratic Dilemma. Having read his work, I know who got the better deal. This is a masterly survey of socialist and social-democratic parties and their changing beliefs across Europe, written in a concise and accessible manner. It does not match the scale and scope of Sassoon’s One Hundred Years of Socialism, or the analysis of Marquand, Giddens or our own Tony Wright, but it does provide an impressive survey of New Labour in the context of the European left-of-centre parties and their development. Thomson’s book is a useful way of taking time out from the pre-election fun and games, and seeing Labour’s place in the bigger picture of geography and time. Like the often over-looked ‘British Politics in the Global Age-can social democracy survive?’ by American Joel Kreiger which I thought was superb but no-one else seems to have discovered yet, The Social Democratic Dilemma provides a helicopter view of the political terrain, which most of us only ever see from our small corners of it. The point is that socialists around the world are dealing with the same dilemmas-the breakdown of voter loyalty, the decline of class as a determinate of voting behaviour, the end of national economies, post-industrialism, enhanced public aspiration, the rise of globalisation-that the Labour Party is. New Labour is not unique. Socialists are grappling with these tricky problems the world over. Thomson belies his academic background by deploying a wealth of supporting tables, graphs and evidence from the world of political science in support of his narrative. Some tell the story of democratic decline and mounting voter apathy far better than the text. The comparison of falling voter turnout in parliamentary elections in nine European countries is a depressing read. I don’t know what the sales of this book will be in Preston, Glasgow, Anniesland or West Bromwich West-not huge I imagine. But the apathy which characterised the recent by-elections, with Labour MPs being elected with just nine thousand votes, proves that Thomson is right to identify the dilemmas for socialists as deeper and more culturally engrained than some local difficulties over pensions or fuel escalators.’
– Paul Richards, Fabian Review, Volume 112, No 4, Winter 2000