It is an incontrovertible truth that here in Britain and beyond, we are seeing nothing short of an ideological war taking place in the political arena. In the UK, for example, we see on display radical populism on both left and right, with the centre-ground or Third Way, that so successfully won elections back in the 1990s and early 2000s, receding ever further into the distance. In other countries too, news coverage is dominated by an insurgent movement to the far-right, where radical politicians like Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump have appeared to ride a wave of anger to electoral success. These are both troubling and highly exciting times to be young and politically engaged. However, the rise in what might be termed reactionary politics is profoundly concerning for those of us who believe strongly that the centre-ground, represented by political giants such as Blair and Clinton is the way to both win elections and implement pragmatic and effective policies. Throughout this article I will offer my thoughts on: what I think is good, politically and pragmatically about the centre-ground, what I think has led to the centre-ground being almost unwound, both in the UK and elsewhere, and crucially what I think the centre needs to do to regain the immense popularity it previously enjoyed.
In politics we often hear of “left” versus “right”. The classical distinction between those to the left of the political spectrum and those to the right is, we are told, simple to discern: the left are socially compassionate individuals who believe that wealth should be distributed equally within society, who argue for a unified, non-selective education system; and who prioritise collective endeavour over individual aspiration. The right, conversely, allegedly adopt a more individualistic and materialistic outlook on life, concerned only with becoming wealthy and embedding themselves further into the country’s elite. Both of these are nothing more than erroneous stereotypes: the notion that one does not care about strong public services if one votes Conservative, and automatically does care about those if they vote Labour or Lib Dem, is completely absurd. As a Conservative, I believe passionately in choice in all spheres of life, be this choice about where one sends their children to school, choice about whether one uses public or private healthcare, and I advocate a model of government in which government sits alongside people rather than atop them. But the country risks going backwards, into a state of severe regression, if we allow ideological differences or beliefs to prevent us from implementing a policy agenda which has as broad an appeal and benefit as possible. The old divisions between left and right are successfully mediated within the matrix of centrism. Centre-ground political thinking is premised on a progressive, minimally ideological basis: it matters less whether the policy in question adheres strictly to traditional dogma or doctrine, and more about whether said policy will improve the education system or get waiting lists down on the NHS etc. This type of politics was, throughout the 1990s and early 21st century, what won politicians both in the UK and the US election victories. Why, one might ask, did the so- called Third Way have such a broad appeal to all types of voter?
There are many reasons why centrism had appeal and can still have appeal to the electorate. Firstly, centrism does not seek to so violently separate individual aspiration and collective endeavour. Traditional dividing lines between left and right seem in the modern world less pertinent than they once were and indeed wholly unsuitable. For example, a strong economy provides growth; this in turn creates jobs and enables people to be self-sufficient and economically autonomous. The effect of a strong economy and stronger economic performance is, often, better run and financed public services. Thus, centrism can reconcile the individual ambition of each person for material improvement and a prosperous existence with the state’s ambition for strong and efficient public services. Secondly, centre-ground politics has at its heart pragmatism: yes, ideological convictions shape to some extent the policy agenda, but centrism is less concerned about binary divides between left and right, and more concerned with the overall impact implementation of the policy it examines. We have seen in the UK and around the world a tragic retreat from moderate, centre-ground politics, to a more reactionary, isolationist and protectionist tenor of political discourse. At home, the hard-left peacock an apparent disdain for aspiration and an indifference to the concerns of working people. On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, on display is the dominance of extreme right-wing ideology again cornering voters with stark, unsatisfying choices at the polling station. However one dresses it up, the old, scarring lines of demarcation between left and right are being drawn ever deeper into the sand, and voters are feeling increasingly disenfranchised and dispirited by the apparent dominance of ideological populism over pragmatic, reasoned policy proposals.
Many people in the UK, the US – indeed the world over – are clearly looking for a type of politics that represents something more unified and moderate. Most people in society want to do well for themselves and their families and work toward what they aspire to for their children. Most members of society do, however, care equally about the provision of strong and effective public services – yet it seems, at least in the current political climate, that it is an all-or-nothing choice often on offer in the voting booth. The centre ground represents a medium between these two extremes, offering to voters a political philosophy which welcomes partnership between the individual and government rather than bureaucratic authoritarian rule. Aspiration and individual ambition are seen as noble and essential, choice lies at the heart of policy and most crucially balance is struck between getting on in life and contributing to society at the same time. It is vital that, should our current PM get re-elected in June, as I hope she will, she offers to the country a progressive, centrist agenda which champions aspiration and a strong economy, but places choice and autonomy for the individual at the heart of policy making. Populism has its place, but the key question for all of us at the current time is this: have we allowed populism to trump policy? Protest is one thing, policy is another. If it is a choice between ideological populism and effective policy, I know which I would opt for.