Cloth caps and Quagmires: Locating the “Centre”
Mhairi Black MP was interviewed in ‘The Times’ (25th July). The newspaper chose to refer to the clothes she wore; they had been purchased in ASDA. I was immediately reminded of Keir Hardie’s first appearance in the House of Commons in a cloth-cap, surrounded exclusively by the conventional Top-hats. We thought such references, such an emphasis on clothes as a distinctive mark of social status, might have changed? That Hardie had begun a revolution in status, and a battle was won? We did not realise he was merely a leader in style, a neo-Brummel, moving fashion towards a new, different, less formal wear, fit for the dawning 20th century; and that, it now seems was all. We had come so far, only in order that the subtler and more ‘defining’ social conventions and priorities that remain hidden below the mere world of ‘appearances’ could safely, knowingly survive largely unchanged, even into the 21st century. This is the nature of ‘progress’ in British politics; it is mostly a matter of ‘appearance’ over ‘substance’. The names change, the fashions change, the words change, but the desire to retain an old and persistent sense of social status, entitlement, expectation or hierarchy; but above all to preserve a powerful, critical, iron demand for conformity, persists to this day.
In politics conformity is demanded in order to establish a “centre” ground: the ground that allegedly wins elections. The purpose of those in power, currently in our intellectually and morally threadbare British politics, is twofold: first, to retain the illusion of a traditional ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ politics that is still meaningful and viable, in spite of the fact that it has fairly obviously shot its bolt; since WWII both ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have spectacularly failed in office, but our Westminster political parties cannot afford to admit it; and in the far-fetched, fantasist world of Westminster, this anxiety persists in the egregious delusion that the public somehow has not really noticed the abject failure of the main Parliamentary institutions of the Union.
Secondly, and more adroitly the purpose is to allow opinion-formers (represented by Westminster, the Media and the City – the Cartel) to define for everyone else where the political “centre” is to be located. The public is supposed to believe that the “centre” is an absolute, Newtonian fixed point between Right and Left, set for all by the wisest minds in British politics. Once stated baldly in this way the absurdity becomes fairly obvious. It is not merely doubt about the ability accurately to establish such a “centre” point (by some George Osborne or Liz Kendall figure), but the spurious attempt to locate any “centre” point at all, in what is quite clearly not a fixed or absolute, but a relativistic political world; the “centre” in reality depends entirely on the location of the observer; on the relative positioning of other points that are not fixed. The “centre” we will find, is constantly changing, shifting or evolving; or to express it more directly; there is no “centre”. The government of the day will always claim it is in the “centre”; Attlee, Thatcher, Blair and even Neville Chamberlain probably all persuaded themselves they reassuringly represented the true “centre” ground.
This is the desired “centre” ground. Over recent decades the support of the main UK parties has considerably decayed; the three main UK parties represent a declining proportion of the electorate, while a long-term, persistent, falling trend in turnouts reminds us that the British people are relentlessly turning away from Westminster, not towards it. Westminster is no longer the “centre” of anything, but Conservative and Labour are rather now being exposed as little more than a small, unattractive, private collection of narrow, entrenched vested interests.
The British people are not voting for a “centre”; they are rather waiting stoically for something or someone to rise above the conventional Conservative, Labour and LibDem politics of recent decades: which have principally served best such lofty ideals as: the aspiration to avoid tax; to facilitate profits disappearing into Britain’s countless tax-havens; to make it easy to rip-off the public; to make money out of usury; to facilitate the growth of mis-selling, or over-charging the ordinary public by large corporations which no longer have any sense of public responsibility beyond PR whitewash; to facilitate cost-cutting without innovating; to sneer at the public sector, and nationalise private losses; to foot-drag or under resource the pursuit of tax-evasion, but vilify and prosecute welfare benefit fraud to the maximum; to under-resource and under-legislate all forms of consumer-first regulation; and to allow the banking sector and the City to survive the Credit Crunch, not only virtually unscathed, and with the losses handsomely transferred to the public sector, but for the banks actually to emerge quietly from the TBTF settlement more powerful and independent from control than ever. There is the “centre-ground”: the centre of a quagmire in which the public is invited slowly to drown.
Meanwhile in Scotland the three main UK parties have been virtually annihilated electorally, and the electoral turnout there is at unprecedented levels of participation. The absurdity of the emphasis by all Westminster parties on their narrow ‘centre-of-nowhere’ theology, merely reminds us of the inadequacy of Westminster politics, of the UK Parties; and not least the profound inadequacy of the current crop of UK politicians.
The strange logic of the “centre” presents another logical puzzle. Westminster is constructed to serve a conflict between Government and Opposition; and thus relies on being openly adversarial as the basis for its claim to be a genuine representative democracy; for the British people are not uniform, they do not all have the same opinions on the major issues of the day. Adversarial politics, not consensus IS the British system. Westminster, however, wishes at the same time to claim precisely the opposite. There is a necessary consensus required; a fixed political “centre” which it is necessary to occupy in order to be electable. It follows (at least as a matter of practical politics, if not also theory) that all parties will tend to gravitate toward offering precisely the same prescriptions. There is be no choice in this politics, the adversarialism is mere window-dressing, and presumably intended only to deceive the public: and (Lo! by some miracle!) that is precisely what we find. There is no choice offered to the electorate by the UK parties, save at the margin and to pretext essentially trivial differences; different Party names but they all represent precisely the same government. And so, the Labour Party (the Official Opposition) does not vote against welfare cuts. They wouldn’t, would they?
Whatever you, as a voter may want, or aspire to achieve in a General Election; whatever and whomsoever you vote for among the three main UK parties, you will now always receive the same Government, whether it is Conservative, Labour or Coalition; that is what the “centre” really means: de facto one-party government whatever government party is elected to power. They even essentially agree about what kind of person should lead any of the three parties; a conventional, dependably conformist, neo-liberal ideological clone.
Take your pick: you could probably switch the names and parties around, as in a game of chance, without effecting any noticeable policy change; Cameron could lead the Labour Party, Liz Kendall the Conservatives and Andy Burnam the LibDems. I leave you to play with the many, many teasing options such a revolving door offers. Before anyone ridicules this proposition, it is worth remembering that Churchill was a Whig-Liberal, not a Conservative; he was heartily hated and despised throughout the Conservative Party (indeed his constituency Chairman in the late 1930s not only attempted to de-select him, but tried to have him thrown out of the Conservative Party altogether. The Chairman was rewarded for this activity by becoming a Conservative MP. Meanwhile Neville Chamberlain had Churchill’s phone tapped [hacked] by the Conservative Party Director of Research, who conveniently happened to be a senior member of MI5). The current Westminster culture will always produce exactly the same government, no matter what.
You can thus have any kind of government you like in British electoral politics, provided it offers only neo-liberal austerity, welfare cuts AND a rising National Debt. This is the New Centre.