Writing in the Times today, Hugo Rifkind charges that centrists do not want to smash up the existing order and start again. As someone who runs a centrist think tank, I can only say: guilty as charged, your honour. And if it please the court, I’d like a further crime to be taken into consideration: I like Britain. By that I mean I don’t recognise the bleak caricatures of this country offered by many people who define themselves as Right or Left.
The Right’s description of a country enfeebled by regulation and tax and divided by migration is a nonsense that ignores the necessary role of the state in making markets work fairly and in providing essential services. At worst, it is a view that is dishonest about the benefits (economic and social) that come from being open to ideas and talents from other countries.
The Left’s story of a brutal neoliberal economic battlefield where the rich get richer and the poor are ground into the dust by unconstrained corporations and cackling bankers overlooks the awkward fact that income inequality has been falling. It also ignores the good that responsible businesses can do by innovating, investing and employing.
Simply, they’re both wrong, and not just about the facts. They’re wrong because they don’t like modern Britain, Britain as it is today, and they don’t like it because it doesn’t conform to the template they find in their textbooks and ideologies.
This is why being in the centre, eschewing dogma and doctrine, offers such great intellectual and political potential. Intellectually, we don’t have to worry whether an idea meets some daft purity test, whether Hayek or Marx would approve of a policy. We just do what works. Sometimes that might mean the State doing or spending more, perhaps by offering extra cash to good teachers to buy houses near schools in poor areas. Sometimes it might mean the State doing or taxing less, perhaps by giving families tax relief on the costs of caring for elderly relatives.
When it comes to markets, we neither worship nor demonise. They should neither run unchecked nor be replaced by state diktat. Instead, the state, business and society should together strike the balance where sensible regulation, informed consumers and responsible companies combine to create and share the greatest possible wealth in the fairest possible way.
Politically, we don’t start from the position of disliking or lamenting modern Britain. We celebrate it. Historically speaking, contemporary Britain balances a responsible state and dynamic markets fairly well. Socially, we are a model of toleration and unity compared to many similar nations.
This is not to say that things are working perfectly. Quite the contrary. Patriots love their country as it is, nationalists as they imagine it to be. We are patriots, so we can assess and address Britain’s strengths and weaknesses on the basis of facts, not fantasy.
Falling wages and stagnant social mobility are fuelling the anger that power the ideologues. We must solve those problems to assuage that anger in order to stop our vibrant, open Britain being broken by those who wield ideas like weapons in a war on the country the rest of us know and love.
We haven’t always done the best job in explaining our centrism in terms of patriotism and passion though. Too often, we’ve looked and sounded like bloodless technocrats or, worse, sneering elitists who either cannot understand or cannot tolerate the emotions that are a factor in many voters’ decisions.
Brexit is proving a stern test of centrists’ willingness and ability to engage and understand with voters beyond our normal comfort zone of the educated and cosmopolitan. Any centrist who expects to win the argument on Brexit simply by sitting back and waiting for Leavers to accept that leaving could have enormous costs is doomed to fail. Likewise any movement that treats Leave voters and their representatives with contempt.
Better to understand and match those voters’ feelings with emotion of our own: pride in our country, its past and its potential. Centrists can save Britain from the extremists on both sides, but to do that we have to show that we love this country, and why. That includes the bits of Britain that don’t – at the moment, at least – agree with us.
Instead of talking of the Centre as part of some common international understanding shared by others of similar education and outlook, we must find and explain the elements of our centrism that are uniquely British. This isn’t hard. Centrism is about doing common-sense things to make the country and the world more fair. Common sense and fair play are what makes Britain great. To win the argument, we must understand and explain that centrism is an expression of Britishness. Things could fall apart. The British centre must hold.