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The Unexpected Return of the Centre Ground

Author: Christopher Gooding

Editor: Ruth Lucas

Two articles caught my eye recently. The first, a piece in The Telegraph by Madeline Grant titled, ‘The Centrist Dads are back – and they’re smugger than ever’. There, she decries the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of self-proclaimed centrists: “smug and intellectually lazy, they assume that the middle position must automatically be correct”. The second, Andrew Marr’s politics column in the New Statesman. There he details the UK’s recent shift towards more centre-ground politics, while simultaneously critiquing what he sees as the delusional political rationalism that underpins it. Two pieces, from opposite sides of the political spectrum, yet united in their criticism of the centre-ground.

Now this shared disdain for centrism has always seemed to me a rather peculiar phenomenon. Why are our political classes and media commentariat so determined to perpetuate a pugnacious game of divide and conquer? Why do we not only participate in adversarial politics but actively encourage it?

There are two fundamental ontological axioms underpinning our adversarial political discourse. The first, that ideas exist in binary; the second, that those binaries are inevitably in opposition.

Take the policy area of Immigration – an area of which I have written about previously (see a previous piece on why we should give asylum seekers the right to work). In popular political discourse, every party or politician is automatically categorised as being either pro or ­anti immigration. Yet such a basic typology not only assumes that ‘immigration’ is something that we can be unilaterally for or against (heads-up, it isn’t), but it also assumes that ‘immigration’ is a singular, universally understood concept, the meaning of which is not in dispute.

Yet, such a claim is patently absurd. Immigration is multifaceted. There’s legal immigration and illegal immigration. There’s economic immigration and asylum seeking. Now admittedly these are binaries, but the thing to note is that these binaries don’t neatly align. Take for example, a UK voter who says they are in favour of legal immigration, but not illegal immigration; and in favour of asylum seeking, but not economic migration. A simple enough position one would assume. Yet what happens when such a view is held up to harsh light of reality. In practice we see that many asylum seekers must arrive here ‘illegally’ since there are few, if any, safe and legal routes by which they could enter this country legally; and conversely that many economic migrants arrive here ‘legally’. What appeared to be a simple binary problem is in fact far more complex. And what appeared a simple policy position – most likely a not uncommon view among the electorate – is in fact inherently contradictory.

And these are just the abstract binaries. Immigration is a movement of people into a country. People that can differ in their gender, their culture, their religion, their race, their values, their age… ad infinitum.

How one deals with the integration and housing of single men into a community will differ from how one deals with single women. How one integrates those who speak English will differ from how one deals with those who speak French or Arabic. High volumes of immigration of people from cultures similar to the receiving country’s culture will affect the receiving country differently to high volumes of immigration of people from different cultures. None of these are normative, value-laden claims. And none of them are intended to support or oppose a particular policy position. These are simply the social scientific facts.

All that to say, reality is complex. Immigration is a complex issue. So too is health, or tax, or climate change. The identified problems, and any attempted solutions, must grapple with this complexity. That’s not to say that the solutions themselves need to be complex. In the world of mathematics and natural sciences the most complex problems often have the most elegant and simple solutions. Yet such simplicity is only achieved after a scientist’s long hard grapple with the magnitude of the natural world’s complexity. A grapple our current generation of politicians and policymakers appear unable, or indeed unwilling, to undertake with regards the social world. It is much easier to pander our ill-thought through but nice-sounding policy ideas, than to actually engage with the complex reality of policy problems to achieve sustainable and effective solutions.

And so to return, somewhat circuitously, to the manifest disdain of both sides of the political spectrum for so-called ‘centre-ground’ politics. There is undoubtedly a popular brand of ‘centrist’ politics that is intellectually lazy, undeservedly self-righteous, and boorishly compromising in its self-defined ‘middle ground’ positions. But there is another brand of ‘centrist’ politics that is defined not by its positionality, but by its ontology. That sees reality not as simple binaries, but instead as complex plenaries; and moreover is willing to wrestle with, talk about, and engage with that complexity. Such a state of seeing and engaging with the world often bends towards balance. Both in specific policy areas as well as in grand political visions. Andrew Marr’s description of our current “tilt away from ideology towards a more consensual agenda in the centre ground” ought to be something to be welcomed. A political discourse that is more nuanced, inclusive, and considerate, will be better able to generate the necessary policy solutions to our most intractable problems.

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