Discredited centrists, locked out of power and influence for the first time in decades, mount a crisis PR campaign to salvage their reputation
It reached a peak immediately after the surprise victory for Team Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum, with weepy centrists tearfully quoting W. B. Yeats to each other (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world“) and huddling in fear of the oncoming fascist terror, as though Britain had been suddenly stripped of all decency and reason overnight.
But truthfully, the Lamentation of the Centrists began the moment that Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely bid for the Labour Party leadership started picking up steam in the summer of 2015. It began when a cohort of bland, unremarkable political nothings (to call them technocrats would bestow an undeserved suggestion of expertise and competence) suddenly realised that the comfortable, predictable career progression and access to power they took for granted was in jeopardy, and all because some obscure, dusty old backbencher with these strange things called “principles” and “political convictions” was generating widespread grassroots enthusiasm.
Since these events, any suggestion or development which threatens to marginally expand the narrow Overton Window of British politics has been greeted by the centrists of both parties as a disaster waiting to happen. Back when Ed Miliband proposed energy price to limit consumer utility bill increases, the Tories treated it like a 1970s-style demand for socialist renationalisation of industry, which was made all the more ironic since Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party then actually proposed the renationalisation of industry in their 2017 manifesto while Theresa May’s Tories now think that price controls are a wonderful idea.
The window of political possibilities has thus been expanding, but primarily in a leftward direction, since the present-day Conservative Party lacks anybody willing or able to make a robust, inspiring and unapologetic argument for right-wing policies. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has single-handedly proved to a sceptical political and media establishment that having a coherent political ideology and policies which naturally flow from it can still be attractive to voters, particularly when communicated clearly and unapologetically.
And this has the centrists scared. What once looked like a temporary, aberrant blip on the horizon and was later nervously dismissed as a brief interruption to their natural right to rule is now starting to look like a permanent, existential threat. And predictably enough, something of a desperate fightback is now underway.
Of course, being centrists, they cannot help but belittle and condescend to the millions of people who grew tired of their self-serving shtick and started looking elsewhere for political inspiration, even as they seek to win back their favour. Thus we are told over and over again that the centrists are the wise adults in the room, the mature grownups who see the world as it is rather than as they wish it were and choose their dismal policies accordingly, while we partisan hotheads on the left and right are being immature and unrealistic by daring to “dream of things that never were, and ask why not”.
The centrists sometimes go on to argue that theirs is also a coherent political ideology, and that their political “beliefs” should not be dismissed simply because they do not hew towards one extreme or another. This is most often brought up in response to my remarking that a leftist sees a river and demands that a bridge be built across it at any cost, the conservative sees the same river and says that a new bridge would be expensive and unnecessary, but a centrist compromises and builds half a bridge halfway across the river and congratulates himself on his pragmatism.
Their defence against this charge is false – true centrism is absolutely not an ideology or worldview of its own, since in a strict sense it merely defines the midpoint between two more polarised political worldviews. When one side manages to push the centre of political gravity left or right, the centre will move with it, maintaining an equidistant position. This is the definition of reactionary opportunism, not principle.
But in another sense, the whining “centrists” are absolutely right. They do indeed have a unique and defined worldview, it just happens to be more of an establishment worldview than a truly centrist one. For a long time, the two terms were interchangeable since Labour and the Conservatives had staked out very predictable and largely static positions since the dawn of the New Labour government. Today’s so-called “centrist” politicians therefore tend to be those people who personally benefit (and/or advocate for those who benefit) from the current status quo, the pathetic tug of war between a not-very-conservative Tory Party and what was until recently a Blairite “sons of Thatcher” Labour Party.
And nobody can say that the United Kingdom as a whole has not prospered, materially at least, under the aegis of the centrists, particularly to look at London or the regeneration of other major British cities. But at the same time, other places have been hollowed out. Regional cities, market towns and suburban commuterville have often become scruffy, more deprived and less pleasant, characterised by vacated high street shop units rather than vegan hipster taco bars.
My own hometown of Harlow, Essex has been very hard hit in recent years, with nearly all the large employers either moving out or significantly downscaling, and the opening of a new retail area only causing businesses to migrate from the other end of the town centre, leaving it a wasteland of charity shops, second hand stores and a few Eastern European mini-marts. Meanwhile, firms which once offered entry-level office work and the possibility of advancement have been replaced by vast distribution centres which offer minimum wage warehouse work and no career progression.
If the centrists even noticed the hollowing out of large parts of the country on their watch, they had over a decade to show that they cared by coming up with new policy prescriptions to make Britain better equipped to face the challenges of globalisation, automation, outsourcing and localised mass immigration. But no sympathy was forthcoming, let alone concrete solutions. And now, with Brexit and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the establishment is being forced to pay in a lump for pretending to care about the entire country while looking out only for very specific segments of society.
Naturally, the centrists do not see it this way. In their alternative narrative, they are the victims. The likes of Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Sir Nicholas Soames and Anna Soubry probably imagine themselves as Cicero banished from Rome, stellar public servants unfairly cast from favour by an unreasonable mob whose passions will eventually cool and allow them to resume their rightful position in charge of the nation’s affairs.
A new piece by Helen Lewis in the New Statesman perfectly encapsulates this sense of self-entitled grievance, beginning with the headline “Are you now, or have you ever been, a centrist?”, actually likening their plight to the victims of the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s (modesty and a sense of perspective are not the centrist’s forte).
Yes, we’ve been here before. The word “neoliberal” migrated from describing a particular kind of political ideology to a catch-all for anything vaguely capitalist the speaker didn’t like.
[..] “Centrist” is now doing a similar job. In the way it is used by the Labour left, the world is divided into three categories: them, Actual Nazis, and everyone else, who is a centrist.
Boo hoo. How sad that the denizens of centristland, who for years maintained their vice-like grip on power by smearing everybody else as a dangerous extremist, now find themselves being criticised, sometimes unfairly. I can’t possibly imagine what that must feel like.
None of this is to say that there is not a time for more centrist, technocratic leadership. There undoubtedly is. When times are good, threats are few and both society and the economy are in a reasonably satisfactory steady-state then choosing politicians and leaders without much of an ideological compass but the pragmatic ability to get things done can be absolutely the right choice. The problem only comes when the centrists and technocrats outstay their welcome, lingering on with their cautious and unambitious approach in the face of impending danger or disruption.
One could certainly argue that early New Labour acquitted this “steady state” management job fairly well, inheriting the Thatcher economic transformation and reaping its benefits through studious inaction rather than torpedoing Britain with an immediate return to 90 percent top tax rates. But it is also clear that Blairite and Brownite Labour then went wrong by maintaining their cautious, plodding approach in the face of globalisation, spiking immigration from the new accession EU countries and the 2008 crash and recession.
It should now be clear to all that this is no longer a time for centrist, technocratic leadership. The challenges we face on the domestic, foreign and national security fronts – reviving the economy and ensuring that more Brits are equipped to prosper in it, asserting British influence on the world stage and tackling the evil ideology of Islamist terror – will not be solved by tweaking the dials or turning the tiller half a degree in a particular direction. Far more radical and ambitious government is required to meet these challenges.
Now, I will be the first to admit that I do not have a ready-made answer for what this new governing agenda should be. Conservatives in particular have a real challenge to come up with a policy mix which does not simply ape Labour’s go-to solution of waving a magic wand and creating a new government programme to deal with every single social or economic ill. But just as the need for the Thatcher government’s monetarism and supply-side policies was realised by only a few people in the 1960s and 70s, so the answer to our present difficulties may presently be seen as equally marginal and controversial. As Lincoln once said, the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.
I am often gently mocked or criticised by friends and readers for being too negative about contemporary politicians, as though by objecting to the various shades of beige offered by Labour and the Conservatives I am somehow setting my standards unreasonably high. I strenuously disagree. Would somebody in the early 1970s have been unreasonable to be disillusioned with both Labour and the Conservatives? Hardly. The Heath, Wilson and Callaghan governments were all wedded to the same failing post-war consensus which was slowly dragging Britain toward terminal national decline. Rejecting the statist politics of the 1970s was absolutely the right thing to do – the dogmas of the immediate post-war years were inadequate to the stormy seventies. And so it is now, when the dogmas which served some people so well in the nineties and early 21st century are being rejected by a majority of the country.
And this is what the centrists just don’t get. They seem to think that everything was ticking along just fine until this awful populist revolution came and ruined their perfect existence. They hold this belief because from their perspective everything was fine – a continual upward trajectory in terms of wealth, living standards, career and leisure opportunities. Though they furiously deny the charge, many centrists possess the ability to simply forget about the parts of the country and all the people who have been hurting, stagnating and not seeing their concerns reflected in our electoral politics, and having thus exempted themselves from the need to show empathy they view both Corbynism and Brexit as movements based on pure irrationality.
One might have hoped that a brief period in the political wilderness – two years in the case of the Labour centrists and now just over one year in terms of the pro-EU establishment – might have taught the centrists some humility or instilled a modicum of respect for those people who are now finally beginning to make their voices heard. But of course we have seen the exact opposite – disbelief that these people dare to seek to influence the politics of their own country followed by a dismissal of their ideas and often a seething hatred of what they stand for. And still the centrists might have gotten away with this elitism, were it not for the fact that they are incapable of keeping their contempt for the people to themselves. On the contrary, they feel compelled to continually remind the rest of the country just how backward, stupid, communist, racist or evil they consider us to be.
The centrists may win some victories yet. The almighty mess being made of the Brexit negotiations by the UK government may, if things go badly, allow the centrists to prance around screeching “I told you so!” as though flawed execution and lack of planning somehow discredit Brexit as an idea. And Jeremy Corbyn may yet be turfed out of the Labour leadership if the centrists get their act together and rally around a single candidate, particularly if they can find a Emmanuel Macron-type character, an empty suit who can stalk around on stage roaring empty platitudes to get people fired up.
But the centrists have now been exposed. Rather than the wise, measured and pragmatic types who chart an intellectual course between two political extremes that they pretend to be, they have been revealed as unimaginative and thoroughly self-interested defenders of the status quo.
And all their overwrought and exaggerated complaints about evil populists, “things falling apart”, having their opportunity to “live, work and love in Europe” cruelly ripped away or being the supposed victims of a McCarthyite purge will not save them from the judgment of the people.
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