The return of the Tory centrists, exemplified in the UK by Rishi Sunak replacing Liz Truss as prime minister and the appointment of David Cameron as Foreign Secretary, supposedly heralds moderation and competence after the excesses of the populists. Yet the semblance of stability conceals the chaos unleashed by centrist conservatism over the past decade. The hollowing out of state capacity after austerity. Violence and anarchy following pre-emptive warfare in Libya. Inviting Chinese state corporations to invest in critical infrastructure projects with implications for national security. No real contingency planning prior to the Brexit referendum. The 2015 election slogan about “strong and stable leadership” will forever haunt Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton.
Rishi Sunak’s centrism fares hardly better. As chancellor of the Exchequer, his “eat out to help out” scheme in the summer of 2020 subsidised the spread of Covid-19 and accelerated the second wave in the autumn. He also failed to take out insurance against interest-rate increases on almost £900bn of reserves created by quantitative easing, which has already cost the taxpayer at least £11bn in higher debt-servicing costs. As Prime Minister, his decision to cancel HS2 beyond Birmingham means that Britain is the only advanced economy without a network of high-speed rail links. The chopping and changing of policy combined with ministerial churn – first appointing and then sacking Suella Braverman as home secretary – was far from competent. Bringing in Cameron one day, and then using the law to change facts by declaring Rwanda a safe country is little more than political zigzag – the centrist analogue to Boris Johnson’s shopping trolley.
But the failure of the centrists goes much further. New Labour brought us the Iraq invasion, the curtailing of civil liberties, mass immigration, the outsourcing of industry, an armada of accountants and auditors ruling the public sector, as well as adopting US-style light-touch regulation that sowed the seeds of the 2008 financial crash. The roots of the populist revolution and the subsequent technocratic restoration lie in the wasteland left behind by the liberal centrists of the left and the right.
[Listen now: Is Britain really great? With Armando Iannucci]
Their seemingly “common-sense” philosophy of fiscal conservatism allied to social liberalism is the acceptable face of free-market capitalism and identity politics – the two dominant forces in our economy and society. Binding them together is rampant individualism, grounded in the triumph of individual will over common endeavour, of private choice over collective action, and of negative liberty – freedom without communal constraints – over social solidarity.
But most of all, the politics of centrism is dangerously deceptive: the rhetoric of centrists is as moderate as their policies are extreme. Market nationalism on the right, state atomisation on the left.
It should come as no surprise that both positions lack majority popular support. They neither have the ideas nor the energy to offer security, agency or purpose. Instead, centrists promote a form of economic and technological determinism that promises an earthly utopia, but ends in dystopia. A world without work or workers that traps people in poorly paid precarious jobs devoid of meaning. AI and bio-technology that purport to enhance humanity while robbing us of creativity and the ability to shape the world around us.
Assumptions about the importance of technology underpin the centrist belief that change is mostly good and that progress is inevitable. But, in reality, both change and progress involve loss – of good, if imperfect, traditions, of shared customs such as common decency, of a web of both individual rights and mutual obligations. There is no radical moderation in championing the forces of change and progress without enforcing limits and upholding traditions. It ends up promoting multiculturalism without shared bonds of belonging, immigration without integration, and automation without the revaluing of human work and uniquely human skills.
The fundamental reason for the failure of centrism is that centrists of the left and right are beholden to fantasies such as ever-expanding globalisation, free trade, the knowledge economy and the inevitable forward march of progress powered by technology, science and unfettered capital. Yet in our age we are witnessing the return of protectionism and mercantilism, as with Donald Trump’s and Joe Biden’s technology and trade war with China, the importance of manual and vocational work, as highlighted by Covid, and the end of the “end of history”. The world we live in is one of contingency, fragility and tragedy – ideas that seem unfamiliar to centrists.
Ultimately, neither centrism nor the extremes of the radical right or the revolutionary left have adequate answers. They all rest on idealist thinking that is divorced from reality and seeks solace in abstractions. Liberal democracy, human rights and the rule of law are noble ideas – but they need to be translated into tangible realities if people are going to trust the political classes again. For that to happen, we need a heavy dose of realism both at home and abroad.