The Centre Must Not Hold

BY SAM HOOPER

Calls for the Tories to pursue and embrace the non-existent “radical centre” are a dangerous Siren song for conservatism at a time when the country needs conviction and clarity of purpose.

We must know what a Tory government will have to achieve, before thinking about the way in which it must win office, because simply “winning a majority” on the wrong terms may not give it the authority it needs for success.

In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.

But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.

– John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss, “Stepping Stones Report”, 1977

For over a week now I have not been able to bring myself to write anything new. Why? Because the patterns of failure in British politics are now tediously familiar beyond all endurance, as are the mistakes, missed opportunities and blunders routinely committed by politicians and thinkers who call themselves “conservative”.

Yes, the past week was a particularly torrid one for Theresa May’s shambolic government, but it did not teach us anything new. So more evidence emerged that Boris Johnson is totally unfit to be Foreign Secretary, the Tories no longer even seek to act like the party of Defence while the prime minister is utterly dependent on her questionable deputy Damian Green – these are not new revelations. They have been relentlessly, depressingly drummed into our consciousness over a matter of months and (in some cases) years.

Besides, even if Theresa May’s Cabinet were a precision-engineered Rolls Royce jet engine operating at maximum power and efficiency it would not matter – we would simply reach the same dismal destination somewhat faster than is currently the case. This is not an ambitious and visionary government let down by flawed execution and unfortunate scandal; it is a government which never had any real purpose to begin with.

Every two-bit conservative commentator is now saying what this blog has been screaming for years – that aimless, centrist government devoid of purpose is a dogma of the quiet past, inadequate to the stormy present; that we may as well not have bothered deposing New Labour in 2010 if we were only going to replace Gordon Brown with a bunch of slavish centre-left devotees wearing blue rosettes instead of red ones.

Well slow hand clap, guys. What do you want, a medal? Some of us have been making this point for years now, back when the well-paid and ubiquitous journalists and TV commentators were purring over David Cameron and Theresa May, predicting an uninterrupted decade of energetic, fruitful Tory rule even as their timidity and incompetence led us ever closer to the abyss.

Already there are a number of travelling quacks offering their own dubious potions and cures for the Tory malaise, most of which are vague at best or completely misguided at worst. A few thoughtful people have genuinely interesting ideas, but many seem to propose a further shift to the left, as though additional concessions to Corbynism will do anything other than validate Labour policies in the eyes of the electorate. Others suggest that “compassionate conservatism“, that hateful, self-sabotaging and worn-out phrase, is the magic solution. But most common are the tedious, meaningless calls for the Tories to recapture the “radical centre” of British politics.

The latest to take up this cry is Tory MP Johnny Mercer, who offers a fairly blistering (and by no means inaccurate) critique of past Conservative failures, taking Theresa May to task for her failures of leadership and the party as a whole to task for their ideological drift.

From the Telegraph:

“It smells of decline, and the people won’t have it” said Mr Mercer, MP for Plymouth Moor View, who bucked the national trend and increased his majority by five-fold at the last election.

“There becomes a cross-over point in seats like mine, it becomes about your personal integrity, about your credibility. You have to step back and question what your party is doing – of course.  Yes we are beginning to get there I fear”.

[..] He went on: “A Corbyn/McDonnell Government would fundamentally change Britain and what it means to be British. We would not be forgiven as a party for 20 years. We must remain, if nothing else at the moment, credible.”

[..] “We have a duty to the Nation to ensure the Cabinet is comprised of the best people in parliament, not the most famous names. Theresa May had to make a decision where she formed her cabinet: whether to select members to manage the fall-out from Brexit or select the best modernisers to bring about social change. She chose the former – I understand that, but now is the time for bold, outward facing leadership in my view.”

But then, just as you are expecting something radical or attention-worthy proposed as an alternative, Johnny Mercer merely proposes a further attempt to “grab the middle ground”.

This is so incredibly disheartening, coming from somebody whose profile and biography would potentially make him a very attractive future leadership candidate. Having diagnosed the problem, where is Mercer’s solution? More grasping for the centre?

People: THE CENTRE IS NOT A FIXED PLACE. It merely describes a point equidistant between two other, polarised positions on the political spectrum – usually the status quo, or today the groupthink of a pro-EU establishment who are becoming increasingly extreme in their contempt for democracy. The centre is not and cannot be a place from which to build effective policy because it is rooted in nothing but triangulation and brazen political calculation as opposed to any kind of firm conviction as to how society should be ordered, or the rights of the people and the role of government set out.

If the last few years in British politics have taught us anything, it is that the people respond surprisingly warmly to sincere politicians who hold clear convictions springing from a coherent and easily explainable worldview. People may not agree with Jeremy Corbyn, but even many of his detractors admire the fact that he has held and advocated for many of his ideas in good times and bad, back when they were on the discredited fringe and now, when they are being taken more seriously once again.

The Tories need a Jeremy Corbyn of their ownbut instead they got Theresa May, who frittered away the Conservative majority because she stood for nothing. She is an authoritarian pseudo-traditionalist whose intellectual blood bank (in the form of Nick Timothy) has thankfully been exiled from government, but not replaced by anything better.

May’s risible pitch in the 2017 general election was strength and stability, but these are states of being, not a direction of travel. People jetting off in an aeroplane together would generally prefer less turbulence to a more bumpy flight, but more than anything they care about arriving at the correct destination. Jeremy Corbyn made his flight plan crystal clear to the British electorate. Theresa May didn’t even bother to produce one, preferring to pander to the Politics of Me Me Me.

You don’t win a convincing mandate to govern by chasing the centre. You win such a mandate by coming up with a clear plan of action flowing from a coherent and easily explainable view of the world, one which is so compelling that it makes sense to an election-winning majority of voters, thus causing the floating centre to shift in that direction.

Margaret Thatcher’s government did not rescue Britain from a failing post-war consensus and 1970s national decline by cautiously seeking consensus and the same elusive centre ground fought over by the previous Heath, Wilson and Callaghan administrations. She made her mark on Britain by charting a new course, braving resistance rather than capitulating to it, and dragging the centre to the right so that after the Tories finally lost power, New Labour had neither the ability nor the desire to undo many of the changes she wrought.

That’s how you run a government worthy of the history books. The Tories should stop slavishly chasing the centre, and come up with a new blueprint for Britain – the new Stepping Stones Report which we so desperately need, updated for 2017 – which will shift the centre of British politics back in the direction of liberty underpinned by the autonomous nation state (or some compelling improvement on it).

Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is just noise.

Sam Hooper is a former management consultant turned political commentator, currently living in London with his Texan wife. Sam can usually be found online, droning on about politics, free markets, civil liberties, conservatism and classical music. Sam is a proud conservatarian, blogs here and tweets @SamHooper

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