The centre ground in British politics is dead. Or, at the very least, extremely uncomfortable. A year later the plotters tried to evict Jeremy Corbyn to be unelectably of the left, those on the right of Work, have finally fallen silent. The Liberal Democrats have no electoral inroads, despite being the only one to go to the party for “brexit” dissidents. And to the left of the Tory party seems to be embittered and lost. So much for the oft-repeated mantra that elections are won by the centre of the field.
For my part, I am delighted that the centrism is sick, because it has long been a fantasy at the heart of what rots our brains and makes us servile – a very British kind of fantasy that there is such a thing as non-ideological politics, some quiet and sensitive at the mid-point between the howling bursts of ideological extremes. The centrists think that this is where the adults do their policy. Indeed, the metaphor of the “centre” uses the language of the position of other people on the suspect “extreme”. From that sensitive center, those on the “margins” of political life are easily frequented as the young idealist, waving flags at Glastonbury, or the dangerously supporters of plotting to overthrow the status quo.
Ever since the English civil war, the British were afraid of the ideology as a reason that the countrymen would brain each other with pikes and guns. From the end of the 17th century to the present, we may begin to organize our common life, so as to exclude ideological contestation. We are not of God. We will not talk about politics at dinner parties. We are a practical people who want to know if something works in practice, before that she worked in the theory that is the basis of Edmund Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution. Forget “rise, like lions after slumber”. A better poetic order of the warning about Wallace: don’t take a stick and poking the sleeping lion in the ear.
Unlike those who want to change the world, the characteristic of centrists is not a belief in a particular type of political philosophy, but simply a supreme confidence in their ability to run things. They gaze on the messy political fray with a superior disdain, ready to intervene and decide on some reasonable compromise. The policy is a management exercise directed by professionals properly trained.
The fantasy is that there is a certain way to transcend all the aggravation of the political division and opposition of interests. There is not. But what is often forgotten, is that this idea has also become a way for the elite to secure their power. The left often gets it wrong by assuming that the elite try to govern from the right. They are not – at least, not any more. The elite try to govern from the center. Emmanuel Macron is a perfect example. How is it possible, especially after all the trauma of the financial crisis of 2008, the ex-Rothschild banker and business graduate of the national School of administration was able to present himself as the middle-of-the-road inclusive savior of the French policy?
The answer is, in part, the quality of his opponents. But just because the alternative was racist and Islamophobic, it would be a mistake to normalize the centrist Macron in the free-market, privatization, investment banker, instinct. A handful of social liberalism should not disguise the interests it serves. Macron is precisely the kind of law that is technocratic and elitist that we have rejected with brexit and the collapse of the centre-ground of politics.
To give centrists the benefit of the doubt, I think that they generally do not realize how they come across as superior and the right. They carry themselves in this born-to-rule kind of way that offends against the democratic instincts of many voters, who have scolded the centrist ruse: that a certain style of political conduct in looking the part, speaking in perfect RP-like soundbites, with opinions sifted through focus groups, etc – is what we want from our political leaders. This is precisely why Hillary Clinton has lost.
And this is also why Jeremy Corbyn is doing it well. Good policy is back. The ideology is back. The policy is not only about the elite in trying to manage things by staying about the same. We are asking for now in the interest of which things are running. Suddenly, the big ideas are OK again. Suddenly, there’s a lot to advocate for and change is in the air.