The Populism of Centrists


There is something in the air. A steady drumbeat growing steadily louder. What had been a whisper is now a steady chorus. The adults are back. Serious people are on the cusp of retaking politics and doing serious things after that unfortunate interregnum when the children (plebs? There is always an air of class-based sneering about these things) gained control and messed everything up.

Sir Keir Starmer has been touring the world, stirring up apathy and introducing us to the novel sensation of feeling pity for Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron, both of whom have recently had the pleasure of his company. Rory Stewart has once more backed into the limelight by writing another book about himself. Barely a weekend passes without a long-form, soft focus broadsheet interview with a member of the shadow cabinet, promising a land of milk and honey as soon as the Tories do the decent thing and leave office. Finally, Waitrose-shoppers across the land can dare to dream.

For the next election will not just bring a change of personnel, it will usher in a change of approach. There will be no more simplistic solutions, designed to flatter and attract society’s less able. No, there will be clever people dealing with serious problems and introducing sensible policies. Whereas the Conservatives offered the insanity of Liz Truss (centrists’ favourite punching bag) or the cavalier depravity of Boris Johnson (centrists’ Voldemort), the next government will offer sober, serious people who can be relied on (because they are sober and serious) to find the right answer.

As a rhetorical trick to tickle the erogenous zone of the country’s educated middle-class, this has few equals, flattering their prejudice that people like them can understand the world, and also that people unlike them cannot. Self-love and sneering is the sweet spot for a species which is not renowned for its self-awareness.

But while they might like to believe they are different to those whom they quite openly deride as their inferiors, is there perhaps more in common between the centrists and those whom they see as the victims of unscrupulous populists? A child and Bertrand Russell could both believe that 1+1=2, the former because a parent or teacher told them, the latter because he spent 300 pages of Principia Mathematica proving it, but as Kurt Godel later showed, there is no way of doing so (using, as Russell had wrongly thought, mathematics alone).

At its heart, the centrists’ claim is that there is an optimum solution to any political question and that they, being clever and hard-working, can find it. A simple argument, perhaps even a simplistic argument.

In finance, there is a concept called “the efficient frontier”. This is the mix of assets which provides the highest return for a particular level of risk. The frontier is not, however, a point, it is a curve. Different individuals have different appetites for risk and so different optimum portfolio mixes. All of these are equally valid. Running a risk of 4% to make a return of 8% is just as acceptable as running a risk of 8% to make a return of 16%. It is up to the preferences (and perhaps the age) of the individual.

Finance recognises that trade-offs must be made. If you wish to run a low-risk portfolio, your large allocation to bonds will reduce the funds available to buy higher-returning equities. However, it lives in a simple, two dimensional world. There is risk and there is return and the two must be played against each other.

Most political problems, by contrast, involve far more dimensions. A question like Brexit involves concerns over the economy certainly, but also issues of belonging, sovereignty, democracy etc. The answer an individual derives depends on how they weigh those issues. Someone who prizes economic growth may think that the hit to it leaving the E.U. entails will always outweigh any other benefits. Someone who prizes belonging to a defined national community might be willing to take a large economic hit to be able to control their borders. Both are quite reasonable concerns, but both lead to radically different answers. Even single dimensions can lead to different answers – those whose tribalism was transnational saw themselves as European and voted remain, those whose tribalism was local defined themselves as English and voted to leave. Those who prize economic growth above all else might view future gains from more tailored regulation as outweighing the near-term costs of leaving – reculer pour mieux sauter as our continental cousins might put it.

If their attempt to reduce Brexit to a matter of economics was simplistic, both in its assumption that no other concerns were valid and its conclusion that only one outcome was possible, there is, sadly, no sign that those of a centrist leaning have learned their lesson. It is straightforwardly correct that Britain must adopt net zero policies, the benefits of which are distant and small (even accounting generously for imported emissions, Britain is responsible for 2% of emissions) but the costs of which are large and near-term (as tradesmen currently paying Mayor Khan £12.50 to drive their vans into the ULEZ zone know). It is straightforwardly correct that VAT should be levied on school fees, giving a small benefit to each child on whose state education the money is spent, but imposing a large cost from those whose parents can no longer afford a private education.

It is straightforwardly correct that non-dom status should be ended despite Tony Blair’s government overseeing a near doubling of those with that status.

It is not that these policies are necessarily wrong, but that they are only correct if one makes certain assumptions. And one can reasonably refuse to do so for they reflect a raft of other considerations, moral, philosophical and probably genetic. Yet centrists, always so keen to say, “It’s a bit more complex than that, actually”, seem strangely reluctant to admit this of their own pet causes. Those who disagree with them are either wrong (“science deniers”), wrong and evil (“why do you want to hurt poor children?) or wrong and self-interested (“why won’t you pay your “fair share”). The world, as they never cease to remind us, is a complicated place, except when it comes to their preferences. Then, it becomes remarkably simple.

If centrists are just as prone to simplistic solutions as their populist foes, then at least they don’t indulge in their frankly distasteful hero worship. No-one has yet had Rory Stewart tattooed on their thigh. Sober, sensible people are all too aware of the fallibility of man and place no-one on a pedestal. Not for them the belief that all that is necessary for the new Jerusalem to be built is the leadership of Donald Trump/Boris Johnson/Nigel Farage.

Well, up to a point (and the shiver which runs up many a middle-aged, middle class thigh when a new episode of The Rest Is Politics drops makes one wonder just how close that point is). Thinking that there is a single, correct answer to every political problem, centrists also seem to believe that a certain type of person can reliably find it.

All that is needed is having held a job previously in academia/the think-tank world/the bureaucracy or a charity. It is not important how any of these institutions have performed, or indeed, how any of these individuals have performed in them. Merely serving in such a role makes one papabile, the sort of person on whom centrists can rely to get things right, and the sort of person who should, therefore, be in charge. Rachel Reeves should be Chancellor because she worked in the Bank of England. Rory Stewart should be in cabinet because he was a professor at Harvard (we shall draw a discrete veil over W.F. Buckley’s dictum that it would be better to be ruled by the first 500 names in the Boston phonebook than the faculty of that institution. He was, after all, a Yale man).

While centrists are keen to tout their knowledge of the past (new episodes of The Rest is History elicit a similar response to its stable mate), they seem surprisingly unwilling to heed its lesson that sustainably finding the right answer is extremely rare. All political lives, after all, end in failure. The history of the world is the history of human mistakes, against which intelligence is no defence – Napoleon had a genius-level IQ but he still invaded Russia. Nor is there any reason to believe that we are much better than our ancestors at predicting the future – just read an OBR forecast. A politician chosen for office because he read PPE is not much more likely to be sustainably right than a real estate developer chosen because “he fights”.

It is easy to sneer at our out-group, whether we think them ignorant rubes or muddle-headed intellectuals. But to their accusations of simplistic solutions and worshipping unworthy heroes, a populist could, were he a Latinist, easily reply to a centrist, “Tu quoque”. As that favoured think-tank of the educated classes would have it, the two sides really do have More in Common.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.