Centrism – dead or merely dormant?

This blog rarely ventures into the area of politics, which isn’t to say that politicians don’t get the occasional mention; but it is only occasional and invariably unflattering. Politics, though? That’s an altogether different matter – a place (to paraphrase The Joker) like Gotham; best avoided by decent people who’d be happier someplace else. So this is an unaccustomed foray into shark-infested waters – unarmed, under-equipped, it has ‘ill-advised’ written all over it…

I (and I promise this will be the end of water-based analogies) would happily admit to – in political terms – not exactly paddling in the very middle of the stream, nor indeed where the prevailing currents are presently at their strongest. That said, neither do I see myself as someone who gravitates to the extreme ideological margins; with that in mind, I’m a bit puzzled as to why I feel quite so alienated.

My view – and it’s a long held one – is that the vast majority of the sentient population occupy a relatively narrow segment of the political spectrum, roughly spanning the arc from social democrats (although in the UK we don’t call them that – it’s all a bit too Scandinavian) to traditional one-nation tories. I belong in the former group, which remains sadly, somewhat lazily, but perhaps understandably tainted by Blairism; I persist in using the term social democrat because I see it as quite distinct not only from socialism but also from the present leadership and direction of our principal party of the left.

My alienation – something I’m convinced I have in common with many of those on the centre right (at least those with whom I have some contact) – is the frustration which derives from being  inadequately represented by our parliamentarians; not because the parliamentary consensus doesn’t share our views, but rather because it quite probably does and seems too timid to express itself, thereby allowing the agenda to be commandeered by a vocal minority of lunatics on either flank. Until the moderates – maybe numbering about 500 out of the 650, but we’ll never really know unless they speak up – until they find their collective voice (and balls!) we will not have a properly functioning parliamentary democracy.

In part this problem has its roots in the use of lazy collective terminology – ‘the left’ being just one example; there is no homogenised left, any more than it would be possible to throw a small blanket over everybody to the right of centre. It’s a handy device if you want to appear dismissive, but it’s hardly contributing much to an informed debate. But, whatever the root causes, it’s a sad and dangerous state of affairs when both of the main parties appear to be operating in fear of a fringe who are neither representative of their traditional support nor even the majority of their own sitting MPs. Not really a functioning democracy in anything other than name. 

These battles, on both sides of the political divide, might not literally be as old as the hills but will probably last most of us a lifetime: often they are depicted as ‘struggles for the soul of the movement’, which sounds so much more benign and principled than the more truthful assessment that what they usually represent are shameless power grabs. Meanwhile we continue to hope that moderation – being still the majority mindset both inside of parliament and out – will somehow eventually reassert itself. How realistic a hope that actually is becomes ever more questionable while each of what we call “the main parties” appears susceptible to the influences of zealots of differing varieties – the disaffected anarchists who try repeatedly to attach themselves to Labour; the neoliberal dogmatists who find their host at the fringes of the Tories.

The latter are probably fewer in number, albeit often with the wherewithal to buy themselves a cloak of either anonymity or respectability; but the motives are the same – to operate outside the societal norms which constrain most of us, whether we like it or not. Using bought influence to manipulate the democratic processes might be less visible than throwing bricks at the windows of a bank, but just as destructive in its different way.

The counter argument to this gloomy prognosis is that in the end the ‘centrists’ invariably win; there’s truth in that, but, having won, to then have to expend so much energy battling with their respective fringes – relatively small in number, but disproportionately vocal and disruptive – is no recipe for effective administration, even less so for edifying public spectacle. So while it’s no real surprise that a great rump of backbenchers on opposite sides of the house frequently turn out to have – to quote the late Jo Cox – more in common, the problem remains that moderates are, by the very nature of being moderate, inclined to operate quietly, go about their business undemonstratively. Restraint and tolerance rarely make the front pages.

As I’m coming to the end of this – and it’s taken a while – we seem to be in the throes of yet another round of ‘what about?’ politicking: the apparent anti-semitism still perpetuated by certain elements of the left, countered by accusations of Islamophobic factions operating inside the political right. As if we have nothing more pressing or constructive to be occupying our minds right now. I smell burning, hand me my fiddle…

It does say something though for the state of our politics that it can seemingly be reduced to a hand of bigotry poker, with all sides apparently clamouring to be dealt in. Which is obviously hyperbole, but that’s what grabs the headlines.

Right, I’ve reached the point where it’s either publish or delete; I’d like to say it’s been cathartic, but one last read-through has just left me in need of a walk. So perhaps it hasn’t been entirely wasted after all…