The Centrist Persecution Complex

Tony Blair

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).

Lewis writes:

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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Donald Trump Victory Reaction: Matthew Parris Doesn’t Get It

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Self-described elitists like Matthew Parris tolerate democracy only so long as they get to narrowly define the range of possible outcomes before the public are invited to have their say

The outcome of a democratic election in the greatest democracy on earth has caused Matthew Parris to lose faith in democracy itself. Go figure.

Self-confessed elitist Parris has a piece in The Spectator today in which he makes it clear just how very disappointed he is in We the People (now apparently downgraded in his estimation from being a “crowd” to a “mob”) following the EU referendum result in Britain and now the election of Donald Trump in America:

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States may have signalled the death of the closest thing we have to a religion in politics. On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy risks being knocked from the high altar as an unmitigated and unquestioned good.

The man’s obviously a fool and a nasty fool too. The contest should have been a walkover for Hillary Clinton. But it wasn’t. What happened? Can we be sure any longer that democracy works? Is it really the reliable bulwark against political madness that we always supposed?

Without hesitation I plead guilty to the obvious charge: Trump supporters could level it at me, enthusiasts for Brexit do. Spanish enthusiasts for the left-wing populist party of protest, Podemos, and French supporters of Marine Le Pen would tell me the same and they’d be right. The reason I am beginning to question democracy is that it is producing results I profoundly dislike.

Already it should be clear that this is leading nowhere good. More:

But why now? When Richard Nixon was re-elected, did we who had preferred George McGovern despair of democracy? When British Conservative governments fell and socialist governments were elected, did Liberal or Tory democrats develop doubts about democracy itself? Why did we trust the people then, even though they had given the ‘wrong’ answer — but not now? What was it that people like me did believe, when we said we believed in democracy?

Someone urgently needs to introduce Matthew Parris to the concept of the Overton Window.

The reason nobody much cared when “conservative” British governments were voted out and replaced by “socialist” ones in the 50s, 60s and 70s is that they were actually all largely socialist anyway. Party labels at that time were more or less a nostalgic and almost entirely cosmetic sticker slapped on to differentiate two political parties which had both equally swallowed the dogmas of the post-war consensus and the supposed need for a planned, “mixed” economy (in reality an economy in which the government owned and ran vast swathes of industry, from mining, utilities, transport, telecoms and even restaurants and betting shops).

The reason that nobody in Britain “lost faith in democracy” when either shade of socialist Red got itself elected is because it hardly made a difference to their lives. The all-important (and foolish) decision to embrace rather than oppose socialism had been made in smoky back rooms by dusty, frightened old men (and some callow but zealous younger ones). Giving socialism the heave-ho was never on the ballot paper. The only question was whether one preferred Labour or the Conservatives to preside over our national decline.

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When the Overton Window of a country’s politics – the range of political viewpoints considered mainstream, acceptable or permissible – is as desperately narrow as it was in Britain until Thatcher came and rescued us from self-inflicted socialist suicide, people like Matthew Parris would have no cause to lose faith in democracy because it continually serves up the kind of muddled, un-ambitious centre-leftism that they like (whether they admit it or not), and because elections therefore essentially do not matter.

The reason that Matthew Parris is now so upset, first with the Brexit vote in the EU referendum and now with Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election, is that both of these plebiscites actually mattered – because two markedly different potential outcomes were riding on the result. Or to put it even more bluntly: because the Overton Window has been expanded, and people like Matthew Parris are losing the ability to fix the policy outcome regardless of who wins an election.

The kind of “democracy” that Matthew Parris likes is one in which he and other people like him get together beforehand and decide the future direction of the country in advance, hashing out a deal between themselves before allowing the political parties to tinker around the edges and squabble over branding. Parris doesn’t trust the people to weigh up the important decisions themselves because he can barely tolerate most of the country, as he has himself previously admitted.

So spare a thought for poor Matthew Parris today. Soon Britain will be leaving the European Union, and the range of possible choices – on taxation, social matters, foreign policy, trade and more – over which the British government has greater or total autonomy will increase beyond the ideological guard rails currently imposed by our EU membership.

Worse, with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the British public have a real choice between Corbynite post-war consensus socialism and vaguely enthusiastic capitalism for the first time since 1983. And now, with the election of Donald Trump in America, the Overton Window of American politics has expanded so that the old (and often failed) consensus position on a whole range of issues is no longer the only choice available.

And Matthew Parris hates hates hates all of this. Because not-so-secretly, Matthew Parris hates most of us.

 

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The Jeremy Corbyn-Fearing Elite Has No Right To Impose An Ideological Test On Britain’s Potential Leaders

Jeremy Corbyn rally - Kilburn State - Labour leadership - 2

Labour’s rebellious centrists and their media allies are not merely refuting Jeremy Corbyn’s quaintly antiquated socialist ideas – they are seeking to suppress the expression of these ideas by mainstream politicians altogether, and to establish a strict ideological test for elected office based on the existing narrow centrist political consensus. But that is no way to kill off bad ideas.

If political history through the ages teaches us anything, it is that suppressing an idea or airily declaring any political belief to be haram, off limits, out of bounds for discussion, is a surefire way to kindle support for that idea and imbue it with an often-undeserved air of nobility.

Bad political and social ideas – communism, eugenics, holocaust denial, social justice – are only defeated when they are debated, subjected to the full rigour of public scrutiny, and ultimately found wanting. Suggesting that something is so inherently offensive that its demerits cannot even be discussed in public makes martyrs out of a banned idea’s adherents and pushes it underground to fester and grow out of sight of society – until, of course, it bursts forth in dangerous new ways.

I stress this obvious point because  we see the same forces of ideological suppression (and the fightback against it) playing out before us now, in the form of the Labour leadership coup against Jeremy Corbyn. And if we are not much more careful in our response to Corbyn’s leadership and almost inevitable victory in the second leadership election, we will succeed only in making a martyr out of Corbyn, dignifying his more antiquated beliefs or distasteful associations and perpetuating the problem rather than tackling it at source.

“But Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable!” thunders the media and assorted Labour Party figures (I would say big beasts, but there seem to be none of those left). They say this as though people’s political views are fixed and immovable, as though the political centre of gravity has never shifted before when moments of crisis and opportunistic change-makers combine, and as though the Overton window of British politics cannot be moved. They say this by way of suggesting that Britain’s voters essentially form an ideology-free, centrist blob, and that it is the job of politicians to bend, flatter and shapeshift as best they can in order to appeal to this blob without ever challenging them.

If that is their view of politics – and their every action and statement regarding the Labour leadership turmoil suggests that it is – then this is truly depressing. It tells us that too many of our political elites have given up on any notion of true leadership, of having a vision to improve the country they love and then exhorting others to achieve that goal, and that they instead see the British population as troublesome noisemakers to be placated and soothed with the “right” policy mix as determine by polls and focus groups.

It is, in fact, the very opposite of Margaret Thatcher’s ideal of political leadership, as laid out a decade before she even took office:

There are dangers in consensus; it could be an attempt to satisfy people holding no particular views about anything. It seems more important to have a philosophy and policy which because they are good appeal to sufficient people to secure a majority.

[..]

No great party can survive except on the basis of firm beliefs about what it wants to do. It is not enough to have reluctant support. We want people’s enthusiasm as well.

The dangers of consensus… This phrase should be setting off alarm bells today, because in the establishment’s horror and revulsion at Jeremy Corbyn and his quaintly old fashioned socialist views, the prevailing ideological consensus is revealed – that narrow band of political opinion within whose boundaries all “mainstream” politicians are expected to remain.

On issue after issue, we are told by outraged columnists and troublemaking centrist Labour MPs that Jeremy Corbyn’s political positions are not simply wrong or misguided, but that they are unacceptable, beyond the pale, immediately disqualifying the holder from even seeking future elected office. The net effect of this manufactured outrage is to effectively declare support for old-fashioned socialist principles to be a career-ending form of political thoughtcrime. Question the purpose of NATO in 2016, or the Trident nuclear deterrent, and it is akin to pulling the pin on a grenade and holding it under your chin – the commentariat will blow your head off before the electorate even get the chance to pass their own judgement.

It is as though it is no longer enough for the party we personally support to reflect our own views and priorities – we now expect opposing parties to reflect them too. This is a politically stultifying and increasingly ludicrous state of affairs. As a small-c conservative I believe strongly in maintaining our nuclear deterrent, a strong military, the NATO alliance, low taxes and small government. But I don’t for a moment expect the leader of the Labour Party to hold these exact positions, too. And while it would be calamitous were Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister by some dark miracle and actually enact all of his policies, I trust in the wisdom of the British people to see through his policies and reject Corbynism at the ballot box.

And that’s the difference, I suppose, between this blog and the political and media establishment. I trust the people to look at the political parties and refuse to vote for a party campaigning on a manifesto which is so clearly damaging to our economy and national interests. The establishment do not trust the people, because they do not respect the people. They have no faith that the British people will make rational decisions when presented with a range of political alternatives – therefore they see it as their job to artificially limit our choice beforehand, taking certain options off the table by declaring them “unacceptable” and suppressing their very discussion by mainstream politicians.

(Most of the establishment, horrified by the result of the EU referendum, will see Britain’s vote for Brexit as vindication of their paternalistic approach toward the masses. They are not shy in their opinion that the stupid British electorate were “tricked” into voting for Brexit against their own interests, and will now be strengthened in their resolve to ensure that any future big decisions are settled quietly and a consensus forged between the main parties, well away from the voters).

This arrogant, paternalistic approach by the establishment is poisoning our politics. And it is why this blog has consistently supported Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, despite my obvious and profound political differences with him. I support Corbyn not out of some Machiavellian desire to destroy the Labour Party or otherwise make mischief, but because Corbyn gives voice to certain ideas and policies which, while they might not be popular with the country as a whole, are passionately held by many people and deserve to have a public hearing – if only so that we can expose and discredit them again.

Toppling Jeremy Corbyn and replacing him with the kind of bland, telegenic, youthful centrist which the Parliamentary Party so clearly wants (for we all know that Owen Smith’s pathetic leadership campaign is doomed) would mean that all those who favour Corbyn’s left-wing ideas no longer have a voice or a stake in our national politics. This is both unfair to his supporters and harmful to our own national discourse, because the superiority of conservative principles and policies cannot be proven beyond doubt when we are forbidden from even discussing their socialist antonyms.

This is why the Labour Party must now split into a woolly, bland centrist party virtually indistinguishable from Theresa May’s government and a zealous, socialist populist party led by Corbyn – assuming that Labour MPs remain so selfish and career-minded that they are unwilling to allow Jeremy Corbyn to flame out on his own at the 2020 general election.

At present, it seems as though Labour’s centrist MPs are in no mood to do any such thing. They simultaneously want to regain power in 2020, yet none of their remaining “big beasts” think that they have a good enough chance of doing so that they were willing to put their precious careers on the line by standing for the leadership. As Pete North lucidly explains, that is why the pathetic Owen Smith is on the ballot rather than somebody of real substance and gravitas. They will not strike out on their own and form a new centrist party, and nor will they accept Corbyn’s leadership, even for a few years (a mere drop in the ocean in terms of the Labour Party’s long history).

So what is the answer? More stalemate, apparently. If Jeremy Corbyn wins a second Labour leadership election in the space of a year, he will have the undisputed right to lead his party. But Labour’s centrist MPs will not accept his legitimacy, and will continue fighting one another like ferrets in a sack, doing all they can to force Corbyn prematurely from office.

This is stupid. Jeremy Corbyn has earned the right to lead his party, and to take Labour into the 2020 general election on the basis of his markedly left-wing policies. All Labour centrists have to do is wait for Corbyn fever to break against the walls of a sceptical British electorate at the next general election and they can install one of their own as the next leader with little opposition from a chastened and defeated left wing. The only thing stopping them following this approach is personal greed and a selfish regard for their own careers above those of the party and the country’s political discourse. Don’t listen to all that sanctimonious, faux-sentimental drivel about how the country “can’t afford four more years of the Evil Tor-ees” – it is more the case that their inflated career expectations cannot afford four more years in the political wilderness rather than climbing up the greasy pole.

One way or another, the establishment seems determined not to give the quaintly antiquated socialism of Jeremy Corbyn the opportunity to fail on its own. Labour’s centrist MPs do so because they are hungry to pursue what they see as the quickest route back to power (and some fear losing their seats in a 2020 anti-Corbyn landslide), and the rest of the political and media establishment do so because they are alarmed by Corbyn’s views on NATO, Trident and other issues, and do not trust the British people to likewise see the flaws in these ideas and reject them.

Of course, the sad irony is that by going to such extreme lengths to prevent Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist ideas being tested in a general election, the establishment is doing more than anyone else – more even than Corbyn himself – to harden support for those failed ideas, ensuring that they live on even longer past their “sell by” date.

Furthermore, the idea of centrist MPs enforcing what is essentially a de facto ideological test for any politician seeking high national office is grossly offensive to our democracy, revealing the establishment’s contempt for the people in all its hateful glory. We the people are more than capable of determining which political ideas are good, bad, offensive, dangerous or otherwise, and we have no need for a sanctimonious elite to pre-screen our choices for us.

The only things necessary to defeat Corbynism are Jeremy Corbyn himself and the British electorate. It’s sad that Labour MPs and the political / media establishment are simultaneously too selfish and too distrustful of the British people to realise this obvious truth.

 

Jeremy Corbyn - PMQs

Top Image: Huffington Post, Jack Taylor/Getty Images

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