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UK Politics – the centre is dead, time for big ideas. Really?

July 3, 2017

As a fully paid up member of an apparently endangered species, I object to being considered irrelevant. Even more, that people like me are incapable of coming up with big ideas.

Recently, I spent a fascinating half-hour wading through comments on an article in The Guardian newspaper by Giles Fraser. He’s a Church of England priest who seems to identify with the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party.

In his piece Rejoice! Centrism in British politics is dead and big ideas are back he suggests that the consolidation of British voters around two fairly extreme opposites on the left and right is an encouraging development. The centre is weak or non-existent, he says, and in countries where it holds sway, such as France, it is the vehicle for the control of the state by what he calls the elite – business interests and other establishment stakeholders who would like to keep things just as they are, thank you very much.

Big, nation-changing ideas, apparently, come only from the edge of politics.

In my opinion he’s talking out of the nether regions of his cassock. But what’s really interesting is the 600-or-so comments on Guardian his piece. As you would expect, the contributors reflect the paper’s readership, which tends to range from those on the far left to the liberals (with a small L) in the centre.

Some of them do a far better job than I could of demolishing Fraser’s arguments. The first comment I read list virtually accuses him, as the representative of the established church, of hypocrisy:

giles fraser is right: let’s have big ideas, let’s be radical, let’s scrap the entitled centrist elite. Let’s start with the Church of England, famously ‘the Conservative Party at prayer’…. for starters, disestablish it, abolish the 26 Bishopric presences in the House of Lords, convert St Paul’s into a shelter for homeless and asylum seekers, sell off church lands, appropriate church investments, which are vast, for the public good, divest the clergy of their privileges…. after all. we no longer want elites, do we Giles?

A little unfair to tar him with the high Anglican brush, perhaps, particularly as he was relieved of his post at St Paul’s for his support of the occupation by homeless activists of the cathedral’s grounds a while ago. And also unkind given that he now works in one of the most deprived areas of London.

Another comment reflects to an extent my views, soggy, wishy-washy centrist that I am:

Reasonably certain the majority of the general public do not hold views that could be easily classified as Right or Left, they’ll hold some views that are liberal and some socially conservative, based largely on their personal experiences and prejudices.

Centrists will appeal to them in a way ideological purity never can. I agreed with half of what Jeremy Corbyn said and loathed the rest, likewise with Theresa May, and couldn’t vote for either in the end. Those of us who don’t consider ourselves political partisans have no cause to rejoice if what you’re saying is true. We can look forward to a permanently divided and angry Britain.

Here’s someone with an analytical bent:

Centrist-style politics is merely a matter of electoral mathematics. Most systems, including most human systems, follow Gaussian distributions, with most entities in the system clustering around a central average. Electorates are no different. In political systems like ours, with two big parties vying for power, it makes complete sense for the two parties to fight for the centre of the distribution, stressing their “centrist” credentials.

What could be happening is that because of Brexit and/or other forces at work, the midpoint of the electoral distribution is shifting to the “left”. This might explain Labour’s electoral results; ideas that the “Centre” would have rejected a few years ago they now embrace. In my lifetime, I’ve seen one such shift, to the “right”, the one that brought Thatcher to power. Now maybe the centre is shifting back again to the “left”.

Or, because of the fractiousness of Brexit, maybe the central dome of the distribution is splitting into two smaller domes, one drifting rightwards, the other leftwards.

Whatever it is, in electoral systems like ours, the party that wins has to appeal to the central voters, otherwise it has no chance of winning elections – which I presume is why they are there, to win elections.

And finally someone you would imagine is a Corbynista:

Really good piece. The comments about Macron apply equally to Barack Obama as well. Socially liberal (see LGBT rights etc.) but economically as neo-liberal as any world leader in history. Have no doubt that his vehement opposition to Brexit ahead of the vote was that he wanted to sneak TTIP through the (emboldened) EU. Much of my objection to the liberal reaction to Trump’s election success (which I obviously deplore as a socialist) was the strange idea that we had lost a left wing US president. As Fraser explains, this outlook is partly due to the ever rightward shifting of the political landscape, which is fuelled in no little part by the growth of centrism. Leon Trotsky said it best: “Centrism can never be a program in itself”. It is designed instead to embolden the right and make the left appear extreme.

Others question the meaning of ideology, of centrism and probably of God for good measure.

While quite a few of the comments caused my eyes to glaze over, it’s still impressive that so many people feel strongly enough about the issues Fraser raised to put digital pen to paper. You could wave them away with the thought that they’re just the chattering classes, university-educated urban lefties indulging in a bit of ideological masturbation.

But in comparison, if you take a look, as I do occasionally, at the comments attached to political articles in the mainstream US press – the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times, you might be surprised at the low-grade quality of many contributions. Views, incoherently articulated, that would make Corbyn and Farage blanch, with contributors taking great delight in abusing each other. Very similar to a trip round the wilder shores of Twitter, in fact.

But then what do you expect in a country where the president delights in mocking a journalist for the blood on her face after a facelift (allegedly)?

Even though I profoundly disagree with what many of the Guardian readers said about Fraser’s piece, it’s good to see a bit of civilised and often well-argued debate, even if it is between readers whose views represent only part of the electorate. And if that sounds patronising, well, I suppose that bears out his theories on the centre.

For what it’s worth, I find it a ridiculous suggestion that “the centre” is incapable of producing big ideas. The much-despised Blair government, for example, came up with devolution for Scotland and Wales, and gave the Bank of England control over interest rates. These were changes that had a profound impact on the political landscape and on the economy. They were ideas that no subsequent government has attempted to roll back.

In the United States, Lyndon Johnson, who, as a Southern Democrat could hardly be described as a leftie, was responsible for the Great Society legislation, the most radical set of civil rights laws since the Emancipation. And I find it somewhat insulting to describe Emmanuel Macron as a tool of business interests because of his education at one of France’s top technocratic institutions and his professional background as a merchant banker. Is Fraser suggesting that Macron is incapable of coming up with game-changing ideas because he used to be a banker?

Also the suggestion that millions of voters who, like me, have no tribal loyalty to left or right, are incapable of detecting when a supposed elite is trying to manipulate us is both insulting and patronising.

The best ideas come from independence and freedom of thought, not from minds enslaved by ideology. Ideology, where it’s useful, should be our servant, not our master.

For all that, it’s encouraging to see that there are some places where people can debate without calling each other scum, subversives and traitors.

And, inept as our leaders are, and however disastrous the path they’re leading us down, it’s a small consolation that we don’t have a leader who’s more inept than any of them, and spends much of his time vomiting poisonous insults on Twitter.

We may be in deep trouble, but we haven’t got to that point yet.

From → France, Politics, Social, UK

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