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7 August 2023

Britain’s reactionary centre is going mad

Centrists can no longer claim to be rational actors.

By Finn McRedmond

The centre ground in Britain maintains two fictions about itself. First, that it is above the emotional pinball of politics, and is instead grounded in reason; the centre never makes culture war. Second, that the centre is the standard bearer of public civility, positioned in stark contrast to the brutishness of both the left and the right. 

Both of these beliefs are, of course, false.

In fact, as much as British centrists reject the disposition of the conspiratorial zealot, they share many of their pathologies. The likes of Russell Brand and Alex Jones and Nigel Farage horrify the sensibilities of the centre: they lack moderation, they are corrupted by extreme ideologies, and they have no reverence for expertise. But a little self-interrogation might reveal commonalities: they are loud, tribal, they believe that the government is not just incompetent but actively malign, and they are obsessed with the daily trivia of politics.

The beating heart of the British centre is the Remain movement, which has never quite recovered from the events of 2016. Their fervour, displayed daily online, in newspapers, magazines and podcasts, is enough to discredit their self-styling as dispassionate observers. A temperate group of data-first moderates would not, for example, march through the streets of London in their hundreds and thousands (no less than eight times over three years) to protest the result of a referendum. They certainly wouldn’t brandish placards declaring Brexit “a plot of deceit”, declaring it will rob children of their future, while swaddled in European Union flags. They would not continue to hold Brexit responsible for every social and economic ill in Britain, when the sources of this country’s malaise are clearly more varied than that

Passionate antagonism was once the reserve of Britain’s political fringes. The left has long been suspicious of treason and plot: Corbynism was founded on the premise that the elites rigged the economy for their private gain. “You know what the elites are really afraid of?” Corbyn tweeted in the run-up to the 2019 election. “Paying their taxes.” On the right, elites are not colluding to defraud the British people; instead, as Allister Heath put it last week in the Telegraph: “Britain is now an elite dictatorship where majority opinions are crushed.” In 2019 Heath’s colleague Allison Pearson wrote that a “powerful and well co-ordinated plot to thwart the democratic will of the British people” was under way. Paranoia and anger linked left and right.

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The centre sees itself as above this kind of chicanery. They are the pragmatic vanguards of consensus politics. At one Brexit protest a man in a lab coat handed out flyers on behalf of Scientists for EU: “for those who believe in experts”, he said. But this claim to be the sensible ones in the room is dissolving fast.

Consider what happened when Charlotte Owen, a political aide to Boris Johnson, was made the youngest ever peer at 30 years old. British centrists recoiled. There was no way that Owen could be made a peer for “normal” reasons. (The centrist media brand Tortoise disparaged her bona fides: “she has a 2:1 in history and politics”.) Conspiracies bounced around social media that Owen must have been very close to Johnson to earn her place on his resignation honours list. The only explanation centrists could conceive of for her rise had to be deceit. And this maelstrom became a perfect microcosm of the centre’s arduous game of self-deception – still believing they are the champions of civility, while completely vulnerable to wild, unverified rumours of plot.

[See also: Do voters care about Nigel Farage’s bank account?]

If the centrist reactionaries have a spiritual leader it might be James O’Brien, the radio host on LBC. He is worshipped for his outraged invectives and destruction of Brexiteer “logic”. He rails against the Conservatives, the right-wing press, large portions of the electorate, and frequently, his own listeners. If he is a figurehead then whatever claim the centrist had to moderation and temperance has dissipated.

Now they bifurcate the world into ideological friends and foes: those on the right side of history, and the rest who have been deceived by a dishonest cabal of politicians into voting against their interests (Johnson, Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Suella Braverman are the ready-made bogeymen). So when O’Brien suggests that Britain is headed in a “fascistic direction” he not only apes the language of conspiratorial left and right, his acolytes believe him

When Farage’s bank account at Coutt’s was shut down at the beginning of July it was fodder for centrists who insist that they never start the culture war. Emily Maitlis said on The News Agents podcast – after it had been revealed that the account’s closure was politically motivated – that Farage had nonetheless played a victim. O’Brien didn’t mince his words, tweeting: “As I said, that people still take anything Nigel Farage says at face value is a mark of just how broken public discourse has become.” Farage may be the expert of the populist playbook, but his opponents are hardly amateurs.

In 2019 O’Brien said the quiet part out loud. “Can we all agree that it’s time to rename remain and leave?” he tweeted. “I suggest right and wrong.” For all its intellectual arrogance, O’Brien’s tweet accidentally revealed the original sin of the reactionary centre’s politics. It rests on a notion that there is a singular correct way for the world to be organised, that their only task is to persuade the rest to see the light. That Brexit may have excavated deep fissures in British society eludes their grasp; the notion that these fissures might be worth exploring is completely ludicrous.

It is perfectly easy, then, to be sympathetic to the centrist reactionaries and their lurch towards conspiratorial thinking: that Russia intervened in the Brexit campaign (who knows?); that Britain will ultimately rejoin the European Union; that the triumvirate of Farage, Rees-Mogg and Johnson conspired to lie and cheat their way to their political ends. Because if you believe there is a correct “answer” to politics (Remain, in this case), of course it is maddening when the country goes the other way. And failing to convince those who have been tricked of the right kind of thinking is just a path to further alienation.

Marxist false consciousness contends that the proletariat are so consumed by capitalism that they cannot even see their chains, let alone begin to unshackle themselves. The centrist reactionary view is much the same, but it is not capitalism obscuring the clear thinking of the electorate but the tabloids and the Tories. This idea is as comforting to the crank centre as it once was to Marxists. It does not make it right.

It would be far more terrifying to believe that people were not lied to than to believe they were. Accepting that Brexit was the product of malign forces means there is no need for soul searching – it was ultimately someone else’s fault: a bus with claims about the NHS, Johnson’s infamous dual Telegraph column, claims about Turkey’s potential accession to the EU. It is harder to accept that perhaps you are simply out of sync with the nation. A different point of view is very troubling to people whose entire self-conception is that there is only one legitimate point of view.

“We often talk about how unpleasant politics has become,” says Rory Stewart on the latest episode of The Rest Is Politics, the popular podcast he hosts with the former No 10 communications chief Alastair Campbell, another lodestar for the reactionary centrist. But perhaps no one has noticed that the unpleasantness is coming from their tribe.

[See also: When should Rishi Sunak call a general election?]

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