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April 26, 2005

On the Political "Centre"

Posted by Michael Bentley

Tony Blair has been remarkably successful at rhetorically claiming the centre ground of British politics for himself and New Labour. Historical experience, however, shows that the British political centre is a chimera that can be claimed but not inhabited. This is the argument of Michael Bentley, Professor of History at the University of St Andrews.

Our House of Commons contains, unlike so many European parliaments, an evacuated centre. It arranges itself in two oppositional banks of seats separated by sword-lines; and to cross one of those brings an immediate and non-consensual braying of "Withdraw!" Behind this assertive architecture stands a history once familiar to schoolchildren who nowadays know nothing of parliament beyond Hitler's Reichstag. It reflects a past in which liberties, not liberty, had been ground out of conflict over centuries or won, as F.E. Smith said in his celebrated maiden speech, at the point of the very sword still symbolized on the floor of the chamber. Behind it, too, lies metaphor. Just as parliament itself, apart from the cross benches of the House of Lords, renders the centre uninhabitable, so too in the wider political arena the British "centre" seems an unavailable point d'appui: there is no place for it to be, as first the Liberal party and more recently less historic political groupings have tended to find. Like Eliot's "unimaginable zero summer", the very idea suffers from oxymoron. Yet precisely because the centre is nowhere, it exercises a rhetorical and poetic power which can make an appeal to its virtues persuasive simply by virtue of its wispiness. The vacuum invites politicians and public intellectuals less to occupy it than to fill it with good things.

The past perhaps presses with particular force in a world dominated by Mr Blair. To a degree not seen in Britain since the abortive centrist adventures of Lloyd George following the First World War, the prime minister has pretended to live in New Labour's sea of tranquillity and presented for the British public a picture of politics as a place where extremes call for reconciliation and in which only he has the mind of Middle England – itself a centrist trope – which is the place of common sense, moderation and modernization whose inhabitants are sceptical of ideology and dangerous commitments.

Pushing away Old Labour's closed shop and sympathetic strikes on the one side and Tory claims to defend outmoded styles of individuality on the other, the thrust of New Labour is to stake out the centre by saying that it is staking it out – a device both electorally successful and highly helpful to the personal performance of a transcendent words-spinner. Mrs Thatcher had once made her presence felt by decrying centrality as a confession of soft-centredness. Mr Blair declares himself to be the soft centre except when history calls him to greatness as over the Iraq invasion. Of course he bats all round the wicket and aims for various parts of the boundary when bowlers make them inviting; but the guard is middle stump and he never plays better than when hitting through the bowling with the straight bat that the Centre seemingly puts in his hands.

What is "new" about all of this is simply New Labour's instrumental use of the centre in order to camouflage a radical form of social engineering aimed at replacing those institutions, conventions and protocols that the centrism claims to endorse. It has worked supremely well in the face of a passive and under-informed electorate, the rationalistic chirping of Social Democrats who want Blair's space for their own Enlightenment platitudes and a Conservative party that has faced the heat with all the resilience of a chocolate fireguard.

But then Tory politicians never saw him coming as Blair ran round their back to take up a position that they thought they owned. Historically, and ironically, this craftiness began with them when they stole Palmerston's clothes in the mid-1860s and gave rise to a twentieth-century legacy in Macmillan's insistence that the Tory party had to be led by its left hand precisely in order to hold onto whatever the centre was supposed to represent for its audience. When Gladstone tried, in 1866, to move gingerly towards political reform with a centrist language about citizenship, education and morality, Disraeli pulled the centre leftwards, ran up his flag on it with a Reform prospectus far more radical than any that the Liberals dared to write and drove the future Liberal leader towards the recognition that he was supposed to be a populist and had better start behaving like one. You don't become the People's William or lady not for turning, by talking about the Centre. But for the mid-Victorian Tory party the assumption of centrality (in both senses) made an enormous difference to its language and helped dangle a fig-leaf over misfortune in the Empire and a social policy that a more overtly "ideological" frame of reference would have rendered less plausible.

This strategy ceased to offer plausibility when Ireland became unavoidable as an issue and when returning the centre to its former status as vacuum seemed a promising response to party difficulty. Lord Salisbury's success in achieving that polarization after 1885 may be set alongside Baldwin's no less impressive performance in the shadow of Soviet politics and its alleged threats to an English way of life in the 1920s. Subtracting the possibility of a centre-language from these contexts, draining what Leo Amery was sweetly to call "the ditchwater of liberalism", gave Tories an edge in the public discourse during decades when external interventions on the political scene made it a thinkable tactic.

It is hard to see it as thinkable now, during the current election campaign. For a while it looked conceivable that "Iraq" (not the situation but the rhetorical opportunities that it affords) would give Michael Howard a foot-pump. The hoped-for rifts in the party of progressive opinion never quite opened up, however, and the centrist slogans of you-know-it-makes-sense and see-it-through promise to leave New Labour where it is. Internal developments, most especially the trajectory of government towards a style of étatisme, offer better long-term prospects. The attack on the liberties of rural people, the agendas of repression and control, could and should be driven into the language of opposition in order to suggest that the resistance to Blair is a freedom-fight. New Labour's creeping authoritarianism and centralisation dressed up as a project of Modernisierung and shrouded in the figments of a centre-ground defence of liberty is itself as vacuous as the political space it glorifies. It is becoming urgent for an intelligent politics to demonstrate both the unreality of the fiction and the danger of the fact.

Michael Bentley is Professor of History, University of St Andrews. He is the author of Politics Without Democracy 1815-1914, (Blackwell Publishers, 2nd Edition 1999).

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