Mon 28 September 2020

Does the UK need more centrism or has it been the cause of the current malaise facing the nation?

Since the EU Referendum in June 2016, Westminster has regularly been awash with rumours of a new centrist party.

With polls showing increasing disaffection with the leadership of the traditional parties and distrust in wider politics, the opportunities for a new Macron-style party are all the greater.

The New Statesman is reporting that half a dozen MPs are willing to leave the parliamentary Labour party over anti-Semitism and Brexit. Tory Remainers have spoken of breaking away in the event of a hard Brexit. With so much uncertainty, the advent of a new moderate party can’t be ruled out.

But, is more centrism the solution to our problems? Or has it been the cause of the current fractious state of British politics?

Arguably, many of our woes could be laid at the door of the philosophy of centrist consensus. Following the fall of Thatcher, British politics settled into an accommodation of market forces and social provision. New Labour picked up where John Major left off, harnessing the booming service economy, particularly financial services, to improve education and health expenditure. In social affairs, the Clinton-ite ‘Third Way’ dominated, with triangulation around issues such as the criminal justice system – who can forget Blair’s famous vow to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”?

Until 2008, the Tory Opposition also modelled itself on those tactics. David Cameron and George Osborne openly mimicked the model of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

This all came crashing down with the banking crisis of 2008 when it became apparent that Britain was overly-reliant on financial services, with both the public and private spheres having developed an unsustainable credit addiction.

Cameron’s Coalition Government focused only on reducing public debt, at the expense of all else. Following the centrist, IMF-recommended austerity model has turned out to be completely counter-productive and – like the paradox of thrift – has led to both a diminution of public services and an increase in debt. This was all done in Coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg.

This failed consensus was rejected in the EU Referendum and again in 2017’s snap General Election.

While it is difficult to see how more of this failed consensus can be the solution, the polarisation of British politics does leave many voters homeless.

And the crisis of a hard Brexit is looming. With the arming of troops, discussions of martial law, a flight of investment, relocation of core businesses outside of the UK, a plunge in the pound and emergency provisions for medicine and food all on the table, many see this as the worst crisis facing our country since the 1940s.

If any of this comes to pass, there is an argument, not for another centrist party, but genuine cross-party renewal and reform. For a grand coalition that could effect real change. In the 1940s Clement Atlee sat alongside Winston Churchill in a cabinet faced with getting Britain through the Second World War.

Now, the enemy is not Europe, but ourselves. How do we create a government of national unity for a population so thoroughly divided?

The last time a new break-out parliamentary party was created – the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the early 1980s – it ended up splitting the opposition and ensured 11 years of uninterrupted Thatcherism.

What makes this time any different?

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