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1 July 2022

In defence of centrism

Far from being outmoded Thatcherites, most centrists are sophisticated and adaptable thinkers.

By Philip Collins

All things change. The dictum of Heraclitus is a truism in politics and in life. As a gang of so-called centrists gathered to discuss their politics in central London under the banner of the “Future of Britain”, voices reverberated around social media to declare they were all dinosaurs who had hot-footed it from Glastonbury to continue a dialogue that began 25 years ago and has never changed. It raised once again a term that it would be good to lose from the lexicon. The “centrist” is back.

There are two ways in which one might define political centrism. The first, more cynical, account of what centrism means is to say that it is nothing more than a set of coordinates. The centrist, on this account, draws a line approximating to the political spectrum and marks a point in the middle where, they believe, the maximum amount of votes are to be won. This is an exercise with no philosophical content; it is a claim to have found the point of political victory.

It is worth pausing to ask whether the centrist is right about this. If the victory point is indeed in the middle of the political spectrum, would it not be rather eccentric to pitch the political strategy somewhere else? If the centrist really believes that nothing has changed since 1997, and that that line on the map is in the same place it always was, then that centrist is hopeless at politics, as well as philosophically empty. I am not sure we should waste any more time on such poor observers of the scene. Though some of them seem to have been quite good at winning elections for the Labour Party so perhaps this accusation lacks clarity.

So let’s assume, for sake of argument, that centrists of the political variety are quite good at politics. It therefore follows that they cannot be charged with saying the same old stuff. The task of drawing the political spectrum correctly – so as to work out where the centre is – requires a deep understanding of how things have changed. And, given that politics in 2022 is indeed very different from politics in 1997, the subject matter and conclusions to which the centrist will be drawn must be constantly changing. This kind of centrist will inevitably change their mind, consistent with the fact that the world under observation is itself changing.

There is, though, a second type of centrist implied when that loose term is used. It will already be obvious, from the caricature above, that a political strategy without beliefs is a hopeless proposition. Nobody actually approaches politics like this. Gordon Brown was a fearsomely clever political strategist but it would be stupid to claim he didn’t bring to political life his strong convictions. The same is true of everyone labelled a centrist, some of them Labour, some of them Liberal Democrat and some of them Conservatives.

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The force of the accusation against the second type of centrist is that, though they do have a set of determinate beliefs, these beliefs are hopelessly out of date and haven’t changed in 25 years. This is the sort of centrist to which John Gray applied his formidable armoury in a recent edition of the New Statesman. The governing nostrums of centrism, according to Gray, are an optimistic view of unstoppable globalisation and “a blend of technological determinism with gung-ho market economics” tethered to a rosy view that all reasonable people share the same values. 

There is some truth in the critique. It is a reasonable retort to the New Labour years to say that its rhetoric was all rather uncritical when it came to the effect of new technologies. It is true too that globalisation has had its detrimental effects as well as its benefits, though no smart centrist would actually disagree with that. It’s not true, though, and never has been true, that centrism is just revivalist Thatcherite economics. There is no need to rehearse the long list of wage regulations and trade union rights and windfall taxes of the New Labour year to clinch the point. Think instead of Peter Mandelson who, as business secretary, began the thinking on a modern industrial strategy – a partnership of government and business – that is now quite the centrist preoccupation.

The return of an industrial strategy shows that sophisticated political thinkers are always changing. In fact, the central proposition of Tony Blair’s political career is that tomorrow will not be the same as today. The one Blair message that has never changed is that everything is in a state of permanent flux. As he told the Future of Britain conference yesterday (30 June): “When the world’s changing fast, you’ve got to learn and you’ve got to go deep.” It would be reasonable to say that this stress on change can sometimes be breathless, sometimes rather optimistically naive. There is more than a suggestion of linear progress in it. But it is hard to maintain that, through changing circumstances, the centrist message is always the same. By definition, it never sits still.

The policy questions that were discussed at the Future of Britain conference were, for obvious reasons, very different from a similar conference that took place in the early years of the Blair government. The conference was all about living costs, the climate crisis, an energy price cap, the rising cost of healthcare in an ageing society, the collapse in the number of young people who are able to buy their own home. And, into the bargain, there was a shared assumption (quite right in my slightly heretical view) that Brexit cannot be reversed anytime soon. Times have changed, you see, and the centrist changes with it. If it is a term we have to use – and it would be better not to – let’s not use it as a too-easy term of abuse.

[See also: The Death of Consensus review: John Gray on the recurring nightmares of British politics]

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