Magazine article The Spectator

Let Us Leave the 'Centre Ground', and Believe

Magazine article The Spectator

Let Us Leave the 'Centre Ground', and Believe

Article excerpt

All proponents of 'the centre ground' in politics take satisfaction from analogy with the game of chess. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official world chess champion, on whose scientific principles chess is now based, said it was always good, on principle, to take an opponent's centre pawn. In the geometry of the chessboard, control of the centre -- the four central squares and the eight squares round it -- takes precedence; control of the centre is needed to maintain communication between the two wings, enabling a player to bring unrivalled power to bear over the whole board.

The chess analogy proved attractive to politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, who decided, as a matter of electoral calculation, that they were better off in the centre.

President Clinton made the opening gambit -- a smart Left to Right move praising profit, tax breaks, the market economy, etc. Tony Blair copied the move. Eager to avoid contamination with what Marx called 'the Spectre of Communism', he invented New Labour, which would combine compassion with competition, freedom with fairness, etc.

Between them, they won five elections in a row -- a tribute, all agreed, to the power of 'the centre ground'.

Fuelled by their electoral success, reinforced by the rise of globalisation (if barriers between countries could come down, why not between political parties? ), symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall (so that there were no dragons left to slay) and endorsed by academic works such as The End of History and Beyond Left and Right, the myth of the centre ground was born and became the conspicuous feature of the age -- the equivalent of a political law of gravity. The myth grew and grew until it achieved the level of dinner-party platitude in London and New York -- as in the popular injunction: 'You can only win elections from the centre ground.' Even the Conservative party succumbed.

Hurt by long years of condemnation for ice-cold brutishness, and anxious to avoid contamination with the Spectre of Thatcherism, it was relieved to shed its 'nasty' image with a simple move from Right to Left. Everyone hoped, like Jack Nicholson's American president in the movie Mars Attacks, that if we could put aside our philosophical differences and come closer together, then perhaps, at last, we could all just get along. How much better, anyway, than insisting 'My ideology is better than yours!' Lenin and Mao were the dog-eared trump cards of those opposed to 'ideology'. They remind us what happens when Utopian visionaries are let loose on the world, and that, Great wits are sure to madness near allied, And thin partitions do their bounds divide.

But if all ideologies are indefensible, then all ideologies are equal, and the centre ground becomes a moral void.

The first consequence can be seen in domestic politics. The last 20 years have seen a dramatic increase in public sophistication and awareness. People can now spot a Left/Right 'positioning exercise' a mile off.

The motive for these moves is too transparent. Voters always suspected that politicians would say anything to get elected. Now they know it's true.

Applied to politics today, the great Hollywood law, 'Nobody knows anything', should read: 'Nobody believes anything'.

One proof of this can be seen in public attitudes to UK government spending. Eightysix per cent agree with the statement, 'There is too much government bureaucracy and waste.' But when asked which party is most likely to reduce government waste, the majority choose: 'Neither'.

The same scepticism applies to the question of which party has the best economic policies. …

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