28 July 2017

Can anyone save British politics?


People of moderate views are unfashionable these days. Their instincts are easily caricatured. They are craven sell-outs or gutless enthusiasts for a Goldilocks politics that is neither too cold nor too hot but just about right. Milquetoast trimmers in a world defined by certainty. They say deeply troubling things along the lines of, “Well, I’m not sure I know. I suspect it’s complicated.”

This has the advantage of being true but who cares about that in a world in which everything is taken to be Manichean and politics is a matter of self-affirmation. What you really believe matters no more than who you really hate. 

We are all, if we are honest with ourselves, guilty of this. The certainty of certainty is always alluring. Moreover, and just as perniciously, it is easy to construct our beliefs along the following lines: Person A thinks B. I loathe person A. Therefore I think C, chiefly because C is not B. We are defined by our foes more than we are made by our allies. 

Social media exacerbates this tendency and has, I suspect, led to what feels like an ever-deeper divide between Left and Right. There is, or seems to be at any rate, less common ground and thus less to talk about than there used to be. Some of this is doubtless nostalgia for an imagined era of a better politics that never felt so good or so substantial at the time it was actually experienced, but there’s more to it than that. 

Certainty is a drowning man clutching at anything which looks like it might be a rope. A reflection, then, of the turbulence of our moment. The widespread apprehension something has gone wrong somewhere along the road to 2017 is the governing principle driving politics all across the western world. It’s the argument that led to Donald Trump, to a referendum on Scottish independence, to Brexit, to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and much else besides. 

If these diverse moments have a common ancestor, it is to be found in a spirit of anxiety. The response to that anxiety is explosive; there is a keenly-felt temptation to blow everything up and start again. That’s what a decade of lost growth will do and, viewed dispassionately, it is easy to understand why this is so appealing. When politics – and society – seems an endless series of impossible Gordian knots, everyone looks for a sword. 

Centrism flourishes when other opportunities are discredited. That helps explain why this is not a centrist moment in British politics. Matters are arranged differently on the other side of the channel: Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France was a product of exhaustion just as much as it was an endorsement of his own plans. Neither the French Right nor the French Left has the energy or the imagination to refresh French politics. In those circumstances, youth can have its chance. Centrism, in this respect at least, is the ideology of the last chance saloon. 

This was once apparent in the United Kingdom too. Tony Blair was never a trimmer forever maintaining equidistance between the Left and Right but his instincts were sound enough: yes to markets but not at any price; yes to increasing spending on public services but not at the expense of compromising economic growth by sharply increasing taxation. Blairism was a reaction to the inadequacy of the Left and the exhaustion of the Right. Indeed, “Yes, but” is at the core of centrism. It is the necessary partner of the centrist’s core conviction that “actually, I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that”. 

The expression of such sentiments invariably risks seeming loftily-superior and Blair’s own failures were rooted in hubris (abolishing boom and bust!) and forgetting that you can’t always have everything you want. Still, being right can be a thankless enterprise and few people relish being reminded they’re wrong. Simplicity is cherished for a reason. Be that as it may, it almost always really is more complicated than zealots on either the left and right imagine. There rarely is an answer that is simple, quick, popular, and cheap. What you gain on the swings, you’ll often lose on the roundabouts. 

If Brexit is teaching us anything it should be that you can’t always get all that you want. This week’s row over chlorinated chicken from the United States is revealing not because these birds are going to start killing Britons (while mysteriously not killing Americans), but because it shows the wincingly difficult trade-offs the UK is going to have to make now it has taken back control and chosen to swim alone. 

Markets require rules – enforcing these rules in the single European market is the chief role played by the much-maligned European Commission – and they require everyone to be playing by the same rules. The UK now faces a choice: it can accept US demands on agriculture or it can continue to adhere to the current EU-required standards. If the UK plays by American rules, British food producers will lose access to EU markets; if it insists on playing by European rules, the Americans will reject a trade deal. This is what happens when you’re the littlest guy in the room. Brexit needn’t be a disaster; it doesn’t look like being a great salvation either. 

The problem for ideologues – whether on the Left or the Right – is that reality gets in the way. Few people will really vote for candidates promising modest and incremental improvements in public services and general well-being delivered in the appropriate fullness of time but this, in general, is the best that any government can hope to achieve. 

This is a time for ideologues, however. Voters remain remarkably unaware of the implications for Britain of the hard-left’s capture of the Labour party but that state of blissful ignorance must end eventually. The strength of the Tory Right is less in doubt but if the experience of the past 30 years tells us anything it is that the public is unlikely to embrace a government perceived to be in hock to the hard-right any more than it appreciates one in thrall to the hard-left. The European question has helped ruin three Conservative prime ministers and looks like claiming a fourth scalp too. 

Moderation in the pursuit of stability and modest improvement is no vice. But it does demand substantial political figures, capable of inspiring something like confidence. A measure of hope would not be amiss either. Today’s Britain quite obviously lacks those political leaders. The Prime Minister does not enjoy the nation’s confidence; nor does the leader of the Opposition. This leaves our politics in a Beckettian quandary: we cannot stay here but nor can we leave, for we do not know where to go. We can’t go on like this, but we can’t do anything else either. 

Enjoy the summer holidays because, well, because winter is coming. Spring will have to wait for its own champion and the exhaustion of all alternatives. We are not yet ready for that.

Alex Massie is a political commentator