Friday, 21 December 2012

Why I am not a Centrist

Recently U.K.Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has made two major speeches (one at the party conference in September, the other this month on welfare reform) in which he has made a great deal of the virtue of being in the political centre.

To me, there is neither virtue nor sin attached to being in the centre; and the centre has never been where I though I was. On particular issues, yes of course, it can happen that the right, just or practical solution is about halfway between two other proposals put forward by opposing groups. On occasion though, one extreme is right. Imagine, say, a political leader, possibly a Liberal, saying, "On one hand there are the Fascists. On the other hand we have the democrats. We are halfway between the two, rejecting the extremism of both camps, so we must be right." A particular difficulty about being in the middle by firm preference, rather than by chance, is that the middle is defined by where the extremes are. So if someone on the right, say, or the anti-environmentalist side, or whatever duality you're looking at, moves their group way to the right or whatever, the centre moves right and you must move right with it. This gives remarkable power to extremists!

The more cynical centrists, such as the court around Tony Blair when he led the Labour Party, jink right or left to make sure that a majority of voters are nearer to their position than to the position of their main opponents. The less cynical ones are puppets just as much.

If you run through major political philosophers, you'll find some who defined themselves as conservatives, monarchists, nationalists, Christian democrats, liberals, social democrats, socialists, anarchists - but not centrists, unless you count Popper as a centrist, and I would suggest he's outside the right-left spectrum.This is because centrism is not a political philosophy at all: it's either a political tactic (stay in the middle and you'll win elections) or amounts to little more than a belief in negotiation, diplomacy, the rule of law, caution - things many people clearly not in the centre also believe to be generally a good idea.

Political parties need passion. How can you be a passionate centrist?

The old, pre-merger Liberal Party constitution said Liberals "in all things, put freedom first". That sounds quite extreme. That party was often willing to take flak proposing things that seemed way out at the time. A party sharing in power will necessarily be more selective about that, but need not lose its soul.

But where is that soul? At one time I would have said quite confidently that it lay in a combination of individual liberty, support for community and individual empowerment through free collective action (active citizenship) and fairness (equality). I still think that's the essence of Liberalism (plus environmental responsibility), and distinguishes leftish Liberal Democrats, despite snide remarks from Nick Clegg's court, from social democrats, who have more faith in a centralist state and less interest in small-group action. But the second quality in particular seems to have been forgotten by many and that, together with a debasing of community politics so that it becomes local party campaigning without any idea of empowerment, may explain why a belief in the rightness of being in the centre (as opposed to being in the centre on some key issues but not on others) has gained so much ground despite its essential emptiness.

The heart is still there, but beating uncertainly.

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