A modest proposal: Why it is time to retire the ideas of ‘centrism’ and ‘moderation’

There is a lot of talk about the political centre. Where is it? Why is it less popular than it used to be? Shouldn’t political parties move back into it? And so on…

People who occupy the political centre are referred to as ‘moderates’ with those who oppose them implicitly seen as ‘extremists’ of either the left or the right.

The more I hear the terminology of the centre and moderation, the less comfortable I am with these terms. The first problem is that the terminology seems to be value laden and designed to elevate those in the centre above those who oppose them. The second problem is that these terms don’t really mean very much and in fact skate around all over the place in terms of what they denote.

So, let’s start with the first problem. The idea of being centrist or moderate is tied up with all sorts of ideas like being realistic, willing to compromise and negotiate, liberal, open and opposed to autocracy and extremism. These are all ideas that are appealing to many people, including me. But, they don’t necessarily align with what those who operate in the political centre believe. For example, the Liberal Democrats are standing in the current UK general election on the promise to overturn a massive popular democratic mandate in favour of Brexit. If they can squeak an election victory (spoiler – they won’t be able to), Brexit will be for the bin, no further questions asked. You can have various opinions about the wisdom of this plan, but can you really call it ‘moderate’ (or for that matter ‘liberal’ or ‘democratic’). But, associating yourself with centrism and moderation make you appear to be reasonable even when you are pursuing pretty far out policies. To even it up politically we could mention Tony Blair’s enthusiasm for war, David Cameron’s austerity programme or Teresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ as other examples where supposedly centrist politicians have pursued radical policies under the cover of their own moderate image.

Moving to the second problem – what does centrism or moderation really mean? In the 1970s and early 1980s middle of the road Conservative politicians were happy to preside over nationalised industries, but by the mid-2000s nationalisation was an unimaginably radical position. These days it has become more acceptable to talk about nationalisation, although those in the political centre still resist it. Once upon a time talking about climate change was the preserve of a lunatic fringe, but in recent years climate science has been accepted and everyone agrees that we need to take some fairly radical action to avoid an existential threat. Brexit is another issue where the centre ground has shifted around over a very short period of time.

So, what all of this demonstrates is that the political centre and the moderate position are highly contingent on circumstance and that these circumstances can change fairly rapidly. Whereas ideologies (socialism, liberalism, conservativism) have some core positions, key thinkers and above all a tradition that they have to relate to, centrism is baggage free. It can pivot at any point and declare whatever its adherents happen to believe in to be the new orthodoxy. This seems to be to be profoundly unhealthy. Ideas need to be interrogated for what they are and what they will do rather than for their proximity to a mythical and ever-shifting political centre.

It is fine for us to disagree. It is fine for us to talk about what is realistic, achievable and desirable. But, it is ultimately pointless for us to argue about who is more moderate or extreme. These terms are so loaded, and yet so meaningless, that they serve only to obscure and never to illuminate.

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