4 April 2018

Holding out for a hero will get centrists nowhere


Sometimes a tune meets its moment. This is Bonnie Tyler’s. The Welsh songstress is not the only person these days who is holding out for a hero. As she asked, in terms anyone who despairs at the state of contemporary British politics will recognise:

Where have all the good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss and I turn
And I dream of what I need

Well, that’s your Centrist Dad’s torch song right there. If only there was a good man available and ready to ride to the nation’s rescue, the country might yet be saved from the disaster towards which it is hurtling. “If only”, you will notice, is carrying some serious weight in that sentence.

To put it kindly any question in which one of the few possible answers is, er, David Miliband is not a question that is going to be answered in the affirmative. Let’s go forwards by going backwards is not a compelling message to put before the electorate and no amount of wishful thinking can change that. “David is still attracted to Britain” one “friend” of Miliband assures us, via Rachel Sylvester’s most recent Times column, possibly forgetting that Britain has never been attracted to David. And even if it had been, it seems unlikely to respond positively to this kind of Antoinetteish approach. If Mr Miliband, last seen being unable to persuade his own colleagues that he should lead the Labour party, is “a white knight upon a fiery steed” then those words have been stripped of all meaning. The idea he could be a “streetwise Hercules” is, if anything, even more preposterous.

The thirst for a new kind of politics — though new kinds of politics always revert to being just the same as the old kinds of politics — is as understandable as it is unquenchable. When you look at Theresa May, whom unkind judges might reckon the worst prime minister since the last one, you think “Is this really as good as it gets?” And then you look at Jeremy Corbyn, to say nothing of the Conservatives who might fancy succeeding Mrs May, and you realise the doom-laden answer is probably “Yes, actually it is”.

No wonder despair is a growth business these days.

Centrism, alas, knows what it is against rather more than it can say what it is for. It often feels as though it doesn’t amount to very much more than New Blair (but without Iraq) or New Cameron (but without a Brexit referendum) or even New Clegg (but without tuition fees and the painful experience of being in government). All nice ideas, I suppose, but all in the past and, in any case, impossible now.

“Why can’t we blow everything up and start again?” the centrists cry, oblivious to the manner in which revolutionary destruction rarely ends well. In any case radical centrism is, if not quite a contradiction in terms, something that lacks a natural constituency in the country as a whole. Moreover, again, it defines itself by what it is not. A position of equidistance between the Tories and Labour sounds all very well and good but leaves you exposed when either of those parties shift their own position. They, not you, determine your space.

Moreover, it is hard to escape the contempt with which the new centrist movement — however much I might find its policy preferences appealing — holds the people it aspires to enthuse. Brexit may prove the calamity elite Remainers fear but cancelling it is not a serious option. For better or worse the people — the stubborn oafs — voted for it and, in H L Mencken’s unimproveable description “Democracy is the theory the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard”.

Brexit was not about economics, but economics is the lens through which too many diehard Remainers still see the matter. They may be proved correct in terms of Brexit’s ability to leave Britain poorer than it might otherwise have been, but they find themselves in the position of a man who turns up to play a round of golf armed with a hockey stick. You can hack your way round; you won’t win.

In recent decades centrism, or at least “centrism” of the Blair-Cameron variety, has only prevailed when one of the two main parties has exhausted all other possibilities and is so desperate for power that it will contemplate allowing that the other party might not have been wrong about everything. This is not such a moment. True, you might think that since Labour and the Conservatives each seem exhausted this should be a moment for a centrist renewal. But it is not because each side spies the weakness in the other and thinks it can win. And since each is so weak, this is not an altogether foolish idea. Neither, in other words, is desperate enough for moderation.

What about the creation of a new centrist party? Even if we allowed that such a party was created, who would be in it and where could it win? It is true that you could crate a fantasy party in which Ken Clarke and Yvette Cooper appreciate they have more in common than what divides them but beyond reverting to something like the ancien regime, what would this party actually stand for? And where, in point of fact, would it win?

Combining social and economic liberalism has rarely been a profitable venture and its chances of success look especially bleak after a decade in which many people’s real wages have barely risen and during which there has been, shall we say, considerable constitutional turmoil. “Trust us, we know what we’re doing” is precisely how we entered this swamp in the first place.

Back to Ms Tyler:

Somewhere after midnight
In my wildest fantasy
Somewhere just beyond my reach
There’s someone reaching back for me
Racing on the thunder and rising with the heat
It’s gonna take a superman to sweep me off my feet

There are plenty of Remainers — here we may cite the likes of Lord Adonis — who would do well to step away from social media before as well as after midnight. Adonis has taken to pillorying the BBC, describing it as the #BrexitBroadcastingCorporation, the kind of hashtag activism that is a sure sign of derangement. If only the BBC were better, if only the media had not hoodwinked the otherwise sensible British people, salvation might be at hand. Superman may yet arrive to save us all. It is, I suppose, an idea but not, alas, a persuasive one.

A better Remain organisation campaigning during a period of general prosperity might have won the referendum. But the British people, damn them, were never hugely enamoured of the European project in the first place. Besides, other EU-related referendums in Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and France have invariably resulted in a bloody nose for the pro-EU side even on those occasions when it has prevailed. This, you might think, is something David Cameron should have paid more attention to, but there is little use in going over all that again.

A new paradigm for a new politics is the sort of fanciness that sounds appealing until such time as you ask people to vote for it. The example of Emmanuel Macron tells us less than rien since, in the first place, France’s presidential system does not map across to Britain’s parliamentary traditions and, secondly, because Macron’s popularity has cratered since he swapped promises for government.

So, to the chorus. Join in if you feel like singing:

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong
And he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight
I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the morning light
He’s gotta be sure
And it’s gotta be soon
And he’s gotta be larger than life!
Larger than life

Fine. But you will note that even Ms Tyler couches these demands in purely aspirational terms. There is no evidence she expects them to be met. On the contrary, it is the probability they will not that bestows a certain pathos to her torch-bearing quest.

Remainers searching for a hero also know, deep down, they can’t have one. Sometimes fires must be left to burn themselves out. Such is the case with both Brexit and the hard-left’s capture of the Labour Party. This is not a centrist moment and even if there were a hero — or a heroine — available he, or she, would be Cassandra not Hercules or Superman. And so it makes sense for moderates in every party to wait for a more appropriate and useful moment. There is no use being a damn hero in the here and now if doing so just leaves you dead.

Better, much better, to wait for others to fail before launching a doomed bid yourself. If that means things will have to get worse before they can get better then so be it.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.