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The Centrist Charade

For many in today’s commentariat, politics is about mediation between irrational tribes rather than conflict between competing interests.

Former US president Bill Clinton holds hands with former British prime minister Tony Blair as they attend an event to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement at Queens University on April 10, 2018 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Charles McQuillan / Getty

Not a day goes by without a so-called “centrist” lamenting the rise of populism and the “polarization of politics” on social media and across comment page diatribes, where the last samurais of Blairism express their longing for a return to the good old days when politicians told the truth.

It’s a somewhat delusional premise that Tony Blair was the beacon of facts and evidence-based policy. That particular rose-tinted nostalgia seems to be confined to newspaper columnists who, perhaps not surprisingly, are happy to forget the run-up to the Iraq War and the policy decision for which Tony Blair is most widely remembered.

The same phenomenon seems to underpin the quest for a British Macron, which persists despite Britain already having endured more than a decade under forty-something-year-old centrist prime ministers Blair and Cameron. These one-time saviors of the political center actually presided over the collapse of their own brands of economic liberalism, which is now widely associated with squeezed living standards, stagnant pay, and cuts to public services.

Their years in No. 10 might have worked wonders for Britain’s commentariat, but they certainly didn’t for the public at large. With a majority of British people believing the country is headed in the wrong direction and with household debt at the worst level on record, it should not come as a surprise that so many are attracted to what commentators deride as “populist” alternatives, or that polling on Labour’s economic policies shows overwhelming public support.

These policies are considered populist because they create an antagonism. Put simply, they are proposals it is possible to disagree with. Unlike the vague platitudes that filled election campaigns under centrists, where politics seemed to be the art of trying to appeal to everyone all at once, here there are clear winners and losers. Labour is going to tax corporations to pay for the National Health Service, and the top 5 percent of earners to abolish tuition fees. This, they say, is “divisive.”

Talking about a rigged system, or the richest 1 percent taking the country for a ride, is unacceptable rhetoric for centrists whose politics rests on a belief that politics is about mediation between irrational tribes rather than conflict between competing interests. This in turn is underpinned by a faith in the fundamentals of our democracy and economy, which prevents any real engagement with structural or systemic criticisms.

This confidence in the integrity of the system informs much of the panicked commentary about how it is being corrupted by populism. But have centrist politicians ever shown much concern for rational political outcomes being corrupted by vested interests in the past? Successive governments under Tony Blair and David Cameron peddled cozy deregulation deals, liberalized sectors of our economy that caused great harm, and allowed corporations to benefit from shady privatization. The latter included many cases where, as we saw with the facilities management company Carillion, services were passed onto the market out of a religious conviction in its efficiency rather than any evidence demonstrating its superiority to the public sector.

The inability of centrists to provide meaningful solutions to the country’s problems stems from a desire to accommodate the interests that are propping up and benefiting from the current economic system. This has led to an intellectual vacuum that produces an endless charade of purportedly new initiatives — from parties to campaigns to think tanks — promoting the same old policies.

The latest of these, Chuka Umunna’s Progressive Centre, may be the most feeble to date. Its launch on Tuesday lionized Spain’s center-left government as an alternative for centrists. It forgot to mention, however, that the very policies it cited as progressive — an increase in the minimum wage and taxes on the super-rich — were concessions made by that government to the leftist party Podemos.

Umunna’s only other input of note was a level of political insight that can be summarized as: “Doesn’t Macron look the part, I wish we had a prime minister who looked like him.” Unfortunately for Britain’s centrists, we’ve already had two. And like him they were both technocrats, both liars, and are both now deeply unpopular. They can lament the rise of populism all they like, but they’ll never understand it without a little introspection.