Attempts are being made to reinvigorate the centre of British politics with a new party. “Potential policy proposals include asking the rich to pay a fairer share of tax, better funding for the NHS and improved social mobility,” reported The Observer last weekend. “However, it also backs centre-right ideas on wealth creation and entrepreneurship.”
Now, perhaps that’s all to the good. You may think these are all necessary and desirable goals. But how achievable are they? It seems doubtful whether this kind of ‘soft’ liberalism, with its heavy focus on economics, can resolve some of the really quite deep divisions in the British body politic that Brexit opened up and expressed.
Britain is a hodgepodge of different interests and values – Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, North and South, and city and country. We don’t really have a dominant national culture but rather retain a raucous and demotic public sphere that rarely comes together with one voice. The two camps in the Brexit vote split pretty much in line with those long-standing divisions
Some of the picture was, of course, complicated by the economic picture that informed Brexit. Many of those who have no real power in the economy voted to leave. Across the UK, 47 of the 50 poorest areas of Britain with the highest numbers of people in social classes D and E voted Leave in June 2016.
The toxic combination of identity grievances and economic stagnation will be hard to address – and it certainly won’t be healed by a further #finalsay second referendum vote on the European question. No, centrists need to do some hard thinking about how a sensible ‘centrist’ style politics might emerge that goes far beyond a liberalism that only deals in economic motivations.
Stephen Bush of the New Statesman commented this week: “The thing about the ‘gap in British politics’ is it exists, but it ain’t where most commentators think it is.”
He referenced polling carried out for the British Election Survey 2017. Of those who feel ‘left out’ of British politics (“Percentage ‘strongly agree’ or ‘agree’ with ‘politicians don’t care what people like me thing’ across value space”), over 70 percent of left-wing voters who agreed were classed as ‘authoritarian’ as opposed to centre and liberal. Over 50 percent of ‘centre’ voters who ticked the box were classed as authoritarian and, on the right, it was 50 percent again.
The soft centre needs to wake up to reality. It needs to offer a robust liberalism that speaks to audiences for whom a sense of economic marginalization is inseparable from claims that national security and self-confidence have been neglected by the political class.
That trick is being pulled off – just not in the UK. Emmanuel Macron articulates an extremely traditional interpretation of the Republican vision of French nationhood alongside a profoundly liberal worldview. His is a robust liberalism that should provoke a radical rethink in the politics of the British centre.
His refusal to recognize Corsican in place of French as the official language of Corsica is a new version of the nineteenth century French state’s visceral intolerance of minority cultures. Breton culture, with its distinctive language and folk traditions rubbed against Jacobin notions of modernity and progress and the dominant French-speaking majority.
The Republic was built around the absolute authority of the school teacher, who educated the provinces in the national curriculum, the French language and drew them into the symbolic world of French literature and philosophy. True to form, Macron has argued for a compulsory earlier age of entry into school to prevent home schooling.
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The French Republic was also built around the vitality of the armed forces. Macron has proposed – although it is unclear how it will be done – compulsory military service for all French citizens.
But while articulating a specifically French worldview, he also talks in the modern language of global liberalism. He speaks English well and is as comfortable in Anglo-American business speak as he is in the over-abundant rhetoric characteristic of France’s political discourse. Sic. “I wasn’t born to quiet political times. I’m the fruit of history’s brutality.”
He talks eloquently about our obligation to the natural environment and the necessity of a global response to the threat of climate change.
So he combines two things – a traditional vision of nationhood that speaks to the concerns of the ‘left behind’ about globalization and social change and a smooth liberalism that satisfies a renewed emphasis on notions of equality, care and inclusion.
What’s not to like?