The excitable state of politics at the moment includes much talk of ‘centrism’. Social media aches with longing for a British Macron. Sections of the mainstream media went weak-kneed last night at the sight of Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry announcing their cross-party cooperation to ameliorate (defeat?) Brexit. The nation’s steady, sensible middle classes have had enough of extremisms, whether Brexity, or Corbynite.
Oh dear. We’ve been here before. In the 1980s, when Thatcherism embodied the catnip destructionism now manifested as Brexit, and Labour was being eaten from within by the Militant Tendency, the Social Democratic Party appeared as a beacon of cool-headed pragmatism. Founded in 1981, it quickly topped opinion polls and started winning by-elections. It was dead before the decade was out.
There is a very good case to be made for a realignment in British politics. Parties need a clear social base from which to draw voters and members, and to whom they owe a responsibility to represent. It’s pretty plain that the current party configuration is not a good match for today’s population.
It is also clear that without major constitutional reform, party realignment will be difficult. That’s partly what killed off the SDP – the inherent conservatism of our electoral system. But that’s not an argument against centrism.
The problem with centrism is that it is a chimera. The first question is – where is the centre of politics?
Pollsters regularly ask voters to place the parties on a left-right spectrum. They mostly place their preferred party just a little to the left, or right of the centre, and place the party they most dislike further out towards the extreme. Asked then to locate themselves on the spectrum, they usually place themselves near to their preferred party, but marginally closer to the centre. We all think our opinions put us somewhere bang in the middle.
Yet any relatively objective examination of political history, or comparative politics, shows that the ‘centre’ is a constantly shifting place. The 2017 Labour Manifesto is a pathetic, right-wing thing compared to 1945 – or even 1964. Today’s Liberals are well to the right of the Macmillanite Tories of the 1950s (and so are Labour on many things, including social housing and the NHS).
At the level of political philosophy, centrism is even more difficult to locate. If the right is motivated by a belief in the natural selfishness of humans, and the need for politics to regulate and constrain that selfishness a little, in order to benefit from the dynamism of self-interest; and the left believes in altruism and social solidarity for mutual benefit, the best I can come up with for centrism is that it believes that it is rational and pragmatic. The trouble is, both right and left also believe that their political creed is a pragmatic and rational response to human nature. Try to touch centrism, and it evaporates.
Those who espouse centrism seem to want to square a circle. They want social liberalism (tolerance, respect for difference and diversity, a meritocracy), and economic liberalism (free-markets, globalisation). Leaving aside the satirical intent of Michael Young when he coined the term ‘meritocracy’ (the author of Labour’s 1945 Manifesto was no advocate of his invention), social liberalism is meaningless in the face of economic liberalism. Some social liberalism is marketisable and commodifiable (the recent Pride event had elements of this), but where social injustice and prejudice maps onto economic stratification (social class), as it does in the case of race and ethnicity, and to a very high degree in the case of gender, not to mention the poor more generally, then social liberalism talks the talk, but is very unwilling to go further. In other words, the ‘right wing’ bit of centrism – its position on economics – renders its social liberalism a facade, or even a con. As we saw quite clearly with David Cameron and George Osborne’s form of Liberal Conservatism.
We do need a new politics. But it needs to be a massively ambitious, radical politics. We need to change all our institutions, devolve power away from the centre, change the electoral system, address structural inequality, find new ways to fund services, to reject the fetishisation of markets where they don’t work. Above all, we must seriously address the looming global crisis of climate change by meaningful international cooperation. Indeed, the very concept of the nation must be challenged and eroded, if our planet is to be saved.
We don’t need unambitious, puny centrism. We need an Internationalist Manifesto!