This phrase is far from new, having in modern times been used as the title of a variety of movements, organisations and political parties. One application has been as a name for systems which blend the best features of planned and market economies within a broadly liberal democratic political framework — Sweden was at one time the country that came nearest to this model. Its most recent manifestation derives from US politics. President Clinton said in a “State of the Union” message: “We have moved past the sterile debate between those who say government is the enemy and those who say government is the answer. My fellow Americans, we have found a third way”. This has been picked up by the British Labour government and threatens to replace Cool Britannia as its current favourite buzz phrase. It is now firmly part of the government’s long-term policy, and is frequently capitalised. A campaign to publicise it was launched by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, in a major speech in mid-April, which was long on rhetoric but rather short on specifics, though it focused on the need to improve society, limit the impact of ideologies, and empower individuals, rather than imposing progress from the top down. The phrase itself is of considerable antiquity, traceable back to Thomas Aquinas’ Third Way, which itself echoes classical authors.
Last night ... the former home secretary, Michael Howard, led an Opposition attack on the Third Way campaign, recalling in the New Statesman that the phrase was used by inter-war fascists, pan-Arabists and Euro-communists in the 60s.
The Guardian, April 1998
In truth, it is hard to find much that is concrete, let alone distinct and consistent, in the principles on which Mr Cook says New Labour’s “third way” is built.
Economist, May 1998