The gross inadequacy of our political taxonomy is a recurrent theme in this space, and it’s now made newsworthy again by two grossly inadequate politicians: John Major and Michael Heseltine.
These two chaps, who are as responsible as anyone for turning the Conservative party into a cynical misnomer, now lament that, in Major’s phrase, “the middle ground of politics is empty”.
It was that nebulous space, he continues, that “made it possible for me to move from rented rooms in Brixton to a life, which, as a boy, I could have only ever imagined.”
Really? I would have thought it was the skill with which Mr Major, as he then was, stuck a knife in the back of his benefactor Margaret Thatcher. Silly me, now I know it actually was that fertile middle ground.
British politics would be much healthier had Sir John stayed in that Brixton rental or, to be kind, chosen a different path out. Managing a local branch of NatWest in that same neighbourhood, for example, would have been more apposite for his modest talents, and surely such a position would have enabled him to get on the property ladder.
And Lord Heseltine, Knife-Wielder-In-Chief, is so upset with the disappearance of the centre ground that he’ll vote for the Liberal Democrats in the upcoming European elections.
Now until the advent of Jeremy Corbyn, that party was the most left-wing in the country, and even now it’s a close second. Verily I say unto you, the more one seeks the centre ground, the more it looks like a desert mirage.
And yet so many politicians the world over desperately try to stake a claim to that piece of terrain. They must be keen chess players, who realise that a command of the centre of the board gives them a good chance to win the game.
Electoral politics aside, sensible people, especially in England, tend to be wary of political extremes and, truth be told, even of strong opinions. ‘Centre ground’ thus whispers laudable moderation to their ears; it sounds like a nice cup of tea would sound if it could talk.
But what does the term actually mean outside the dog-eat-dog life of electoral politics, or heated debates on any subject? I’d suggest it means so many different things as to mean nothing at all.
It’s like average-income statistics, which offer information without expanding knowledge. For example, Warren Buffet and I may have an average income of 500 million a year, but this datum will tell you little about Buffet’s income and nothing at all about mine.
Champions of the centre ground must see a peculiar picture of politics in their mind’s eye. It looks like a straight line spanning the two extremes, right and left. The right and left sections on the line each cover about 25 per cent of its length, with the remaining 50 per cent constituting the centre ground. Are you fine with this geometry and arithmetic? In theory?
If so, you must agree that, in practice, none of this makes sense. It all depends on the exact placement of the canvas on which the two extremes are drawn.
Shifting it to the far left, one could observe that Lenin occupied the centre ground between Trotsky and Stalin; or Goebbels, between Hitler and Strasser. So let’s just say that the centre ground doesn’t automatically guarantee either virtue or indeed moderation.
Generally speaking, the canvas of the political mainstream throughout the West, emphatically including the Atlantic powers, is steadily shifting leftwards. Yesterday’s loony fringe becomes today’s centre-left; yesterday’s staid conservatives, today’s radical right-wingers.
In Britain, the impeccably moderate conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg now appears to be a right-wing fanatic against the background of the Tory party shaped in the image of Heseltines, Majors and Mays; in the US, the canvas has been shifted so far towards Ocasio-Cortez that Bernie Sanders looks just slightly left of centre, with Joe Biden bang in the middle ground.
What’s true of the political spectrum in general is doubly true of each particular issue. For, though some of them may allow a centre ground to appear, most don’t.
What is the centre ground between, say, legalising homomarriage or not? Abolishing the death penalty or not? Hitting a rogue regime with sanctions or not? Raising taxes on diesel fuel or not?
Many, I’d suggest most, vital questions in politics are binary, demanding a yes or no answer. The wording of the Brexit referendum reflected this sombre realisation: the choice was between in and out, not between those and somewhere halfway.
That was logical because what was at issue was the sovereignty of Her Majesty’s realm. Either it’s sovereign and governed by its own ancient parliament or it is, in fact if not yet in name, a province of a recently concocted contrivance with no historical, moral or constitutional legitimacy.
I don’t see any middle ground there, do you? A country can’t be a little sovereign, almost sovereign or practically sovereign. It either is or isn’t. There are only two possibilities there, each of them extreme.
Yet it’s specifically Brexit that makes Messrs Heseltine and Major lament the absence of a centre ground. Hence it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this Shangri-La of politics is defined as anything coinciding with their opinions, no matter how extreme.
The implicit syllogism is as simple as it’s dishonest. Heseltine and Major see centre ground as good. Trying to remain in the EU against the explicit wishes of the electorate is good. Ergo, this attempt resides in the centre ground.
At the time Major put his signature on the Maastricht Treaty back in 1992, I described that flourish of his pen as de facto treasonous. For what is treason if not sabotage of a country’s constitution?
Prompted by the experts, however, I’ve realised what else de facto treason can be: centre ground. I’ve got Heseltine and Major to thank for this discovery.