If only we could all be more like Richard Tull.
As the antihero of Martin Amis’s novel The Information, the anguished writer has fallen out of favour with the literary crowd but still aspires to their pretensions – not least in politics, where he feels at home among the soft-Left consensus of Tory-fatigued, mid-Nineties London.
Amis notes, caustically: ‘It often seemed to him, moving in the circles he moved in and reading what he read, that everyone in England was Labour, except the Government.’
Everyone in Britain wants a centrist party, except the voters. Westminster is alive with speculation that a new Parliamentary force could emerge, formed of Left-leaning Tories and Labour Blairites. A former government adviser is enthusiastic. Cabinet ministers are said to be sympathetic. No doubt Richard Tull would approve.
Proponents of a new party assure themselves the country is crying out for moderation. You can’t move in Whole Foods without someone badgering you for an avocado smoothie recipe and an opinion on Vince Cable. But there is just one problem – nobody thought to ask the electorate.
Although centrists claim to cherish ‘evidence-based policy-making’, the evidence is voters do not yearn for a British analogue of Emmanuel Macron. In June’s election, the two main parties commanded 82 per cent of the vote – despite and, gasp, perhaps because of their shared commitment to a hard Brexit. The Labour Party, mired in the filth of anti-Semitism and led by a faithful comrade of IRA terrorists, saw its vote share surge. The Liberal Democrats, hitherto custodians of the centre ground, managed a paltry 7 per cent of the vote.
The centrist party is the unkillable horror movie villain of UK politics. Every time you think it’s been put down for good, it sits bolt upright in the background. The notion is appealing but the logic elusive. Left and Right have failed – let’s bring together the best of both failures. The electoral system’s impediments and disputes between centrists be damned. There’s a Brexit to be stopped.
To the centrist’s eye, UK politics has swung to the extremes – but to many voters, ministers and MPs have been out on the fringes for years. For two decades freedom of movement and European integration, allied to deregulation and low taxes, represented the ‘centre’, with scant regard to public opinion. They may be sensible ideas but there was little ‘centrist’ about them. They were radical policies deserving of debate but largely imposed on the country.
Most voters don’t think in terms of Left and Right but what works and what doesn’t – and very little seems to work right now. The ‘centre’ sounds reasonable, which is no doubt why more than three-quarters of Britons place themselves either in the centre or on the centre-Right or centre-Left. Prod a little further, though, and ‘centrism’ begins to lose its usefulness as a category.
Research by the Social Market Foundation instead grouped voters into categories like ‘progressives’, ‘new Britain’ and ‘free liberals’. Allowing the broadest definition of conventionally centrist beliefs, including openness, internationalism and market economics, less than a third of Britons are in the ‘centre’. Instead, the populace espouses views that zigzag the political spectrum, from re-nationalisation and a ban on zero-hours contracts to tighter borders and mandatory work for benefits. The only thing these stances have in common is that, until lately, they got short shrift from the major parties.
Across the West, the parties that will win and retain power in the next decade or two are those that fuse several of these strands. Socialist outfits such as Corbyn Labour will have to balance the liberal instincts of their middle-class supporters with the patriotic and populist preferences of their blue-collar grassroots. The Tories will have to reconcile free-market orthodoxies with an electorate that is more statist and protectionist. No one will be ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’. And progressive voices on immigration, welfare and crime will fall on deaf ears in both main parties. Foreign policy, particularly humanitarian intervention, will have to take a ticket.
Political upheaval is sometimes necessary to correct the flaws of the status quo. The 1945 Labour Government was ‘extreme’ in its policy prescriptions but they were designed to civilise a country bloodied by war and divided by class. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher won and kept on winning not because Britain had turned libertarian but because socialism had stopped working. These adjustments take place every few generations and, like a trip to the chiropractor, they may or may not be advisable but they do seem to loosen up the joints in the body politic.
In the era of Richard Tull, with socialism and conservatism consigned to early obsolescence, the closest thing to an ideology was ‘change’. Change was the Sorting Hat of post-modernity. If you embraced it, welcome to the party – if you resisted, what an old dinosaur you were. Now those who told unemployed steel workers and grouchy Eurosceptics to move with the times find the times have moved on from them. Globalisation has lost its brutal lustre of inevitability and the state and the nation are back. Change is scary again.
Centrism will not be achieved by sticking the same MPs behind a new logo and some poll-tested slogans. Moderation comes when the people feel secure, prosperous and in control, and that politics is working once more. Small men with big promises have a short shelf-life in democracy, extended only by their opponents’ mistakes.
Those who want to see measured, reasonable politics cannot deceive themselves, like Richard Tull, that a readymade liberal majority awaits them. If they want to rebuild the centre, they have to meet the voters in the middle.
After torch-bearing white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, Nicola Sturgeon sent a message of solidarity to the mayor. Very laudable, First Minister, but you might like to address bigotry closer to home.
Letters have appeared in a pro-Nationalist newspaper vilifying English-born Scots. One reader lamented that ‘native-born Scots’ had been outvoted by foreigners in 2014. ‘The time for being nice is long gone,’ he proclaimed, advocating a ‘residency qualification’ for rUK voters.
Another said she did not want to ‘alienate or antagonise that English minority’ or ‘persuade them to leave’ (how generous!) but asked if they were ‘reluctant to integrate and become part of Scotland’ because they preferred to be ‘nabobs of a defunct empire’. A third determined it was ‘time to get tough’ and strip ‘incomers’ of the vote until they had been resident ‘for at least 10 years’.
As the repugnant scenes in Charlottesville illustrate, nationalism is never ‘civic and joyous’.
‘Why the battle against sexist school shoes is a fight worth having,’ harrumphs a Guardian headline. Apparently, flimsy female footwear is a patriarchal imposition. This, not the excitable wee chap in North Korea preparing to nuke the boots off us, should be top priority. At least we’ll be gender neutral when the time comes to be neutralised.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Have your say on the issues raised here by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, remembering to reference the column. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.