Social Contract or Paternalism?


With the exception of the ever-vigilant politics bureau at The Guardian, it passed largely unnoticed, but late last month, it emerged that UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is planning a new ‘social contract’ to redefine British citizenship.

Papers from Downing Street’s Strategy Unit  (the PM’s in-house think tank) have outlined plans for a more explicit statement of what the British State expects from its citizens.


The proposed regime would cover key areas including health care, schooling, policing and family support. For example, a local health authority might only offer a hip replacement if the patient undertakes to keep their weight down. Or State schools might be given the power to ask parents to sign agreements about their responsibilities at home to improve their child’s education.

The plan part of the first instalment of a comprehensive policy review commissioned by Blair one month ago came in the same week after the Government announced that ‘super-nannies’ would be introduced to address parenting problems in areas with high levels of anti-social behaviour.

For critics of the Blair Government, this latest talk about a new social contract will no doubt be criticised as a further escalation of New Labour paternalism as government verging on the authoritarian.

It’s interesting, though, that the Blair Government isn’t the only one at the moment taking a hard line on rights and responsibilities. Australia’s very own Federal Government is a case in point. A couple of weeks ago, the Federal Family Services Minister Mal Brough also announced  that the Government would deliver some family welfare benefits as vouchers for food or rent where parents were not acting responsibly or neglecting their children.

So then, is this all part of what some would say is a broader paternalistic, Rightwing turn in Anglosphere social policy?

It’s true that ever since Bill Clinton declared in 1992 that he would ‘end welfare as we know it’ Parties on the Centre-Left have been ready to take on the cause of welfare reform. Where once unconditional access to welfare benefits was seen as a social right of citizenship in a liberal Welfare State, the Centre-Left have started to accept that rights might also entail obligations on the part of citizens and there would be few in the Australian Labor Party who would wince at talk about how receipt of welfare benefits should be accompanied by a person’s responsibility to find work, or at least be willing to work. (Indeed, for the kind of hardcore Welfare State sentimentalism that would deny this, you’d have to talk to the Greens.)

Nowhere, however, has a Centre-Left Party been more systematic in adopting an agenda based on ‘rights and responsibilities’ than New Labour in Britain.

A citizenship quiz, part of an education package rolled out by Prime Minister Blair

The idea of a social contract based on a balance of rights and responsibilities has actually been there right from the start of New Labour’s period in government. As stated in a Blair Government Green Paper from 1998: ‘At the heart of the modern Welfare State will be a new contract between the citizen and the government, based on responsibilities and rights.’

This New Labour contractualism was a central plank of the Third Way project that was the Blair Government’s dominant motif during its first term. And while no one in New Labour talks about the Third Way anymore, much of its ideas nonetheless remain embedded within its policies. There’s a continuity between Blair’s dalliance with the Third Way (most concretely realised in his stance on welfare reform) and the current ‘respect’ agenda   that has guided New Labour’s attempts to address anti-social behaviour in Britain.

Yet despite all this, there are three reasons why progressives shouldn’t consider Blair’s New Labour as just conservative paternalism disguised as social democracy:

Firstly, the idea of unconditional social rights is based on a historical illusion. It’s wrong to think that Blair’s notions of a social contract represent a betrayal of some sacred social-democratic ideal of a modern Welfare State. Even TH Marshall, the pre-eminent post-war theorist of the Welfare State, believed that ‘If citizenship is invoked in the defence of rights, the corresponding duties of citizenship cannot be ignored.’

Secondly, a liberal Welfare State demands reciprocity. It’s a fallacy to believe that the obligations of citizens in a liberal State extend merely to paying taxes and obeying laws. Perhaps they do in a minimalist, night-watchman liberal State. But a liberal State that’s interested in redistributing income and providing a wide array of benefits can only function if there’s a sense of reciprocity and solidarity among citizens. Where citizens don’t feel that they need to provide a reasonable effort to contribute to the shared common good, the free-riding effects can undermine the whole redistributive venture.

Thirdly, we wouldn’t need paternalism in a perfect world, but the world isn’t perfect. Progressives need to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable forms of paternalism. While we should be suspicious when governments tell us that they know what is in our best interests, we should also accept there may be times when individuals can suffer from a failure of autonomy. Granted, interventions which impose unreasonable burdens or demands on citizens should be ruled out. But it’s not absurd to suggest that (say) parents with failing students educated at the taxpayer’s expense shouldn’t be doing all they can to help their children get better results.

But if Blair’s policies aren’t a form of conservative paternalism, what are they?

We might say that the Blair Government’s signalled move to a ‘new’ social contract isn’t new at all. Rather it represents a more explicit and ambitious recognition of the ideological underpinning of the New Labour project namely, an ethos of hard realism that doesn’t surrender Labour politics to old socialist idealism, but instead realises the limits to pursuing social justice in a liberal State.

It’s through this realism that New Labour has achieved a significant realignment of the British political landscape.

The double blow struck by Blair is that this realignment has led the Tories in Britain down a path to ideological bankruptcy. The temptation for Tory Leader David Cameron at the moment is to believe that winning an election can just be about positioning one’s Party in the political centre about stripping away the ideology (a move already criticised by some senior figures within the Conservative Party).

But if we look beneath the surface of all of Blair’s and New Labour’s spin, we find that ideology isn’t dead.

What the language of rights and responsibilities shows is not so much a conservative paternalistic reincarnation of the British Labour Party, but rather a Centre-Left Party that has articulated a social democratic ideology addressed to contemporary circum
stances. There remains that core social democratic belief the commitment to the State as an active vehicle for social justice and progress.

What will trouble many progressives is that all this is being married to a very muscular form of contractualism. Their question is whether this love triangle between social democracy, paternalism and New Labour might end up with social democracy being dumped by the wayside.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.