The Problem of Centrism

Last time, we established the party’s lack of identity and direction stemming from the overuse of the term “moderate”. With this in mind, we can turn our attention to the problems that the term “centrism” presents.

The centre position is one that the party has found itself in since the 1920s, as an inevitability owing to the rise of Labour, with it being officially recognised in the 1980s during the Alliance as a selling point for possible coalition government. What, then, is wrong with this?

The first problem is similar to that of moderation – the conflation of terms. The term “liberal” has been wedded with the term “centrist” in a similar fashion. This comes from the idea that centrism is, somehow, an ideology unto itself. When it is not. Centrism is a position on the political spectrum but it does not have ideals or a worldview that underpin it.

The Left, collectively, is not an ideology, and neither is the Right. Rather, they are groups of ideologies that run along similar ideas and liberalism, with its myriad and varied schools, is an ideological spectrum unto itself, able to stretch across Left and Right. One would not call a radical a right winger, and an Orange Booker is not leftward. To put it this way – if tomorrow the party dropped all of its liberal trappings and went, instead, toward social democracy and progressivism it would still find itself in the centre. Not because these are “centrist” in scope but simply because the party as an entity is squashed between Labour and the Conservatives.

But this, I acknowledge, can be seen as nothing more than pedantry. A more pressing problem is found in the inherent instability of the centre. Due to the reliance it has upon the Overton Window it is impossible to remain truly in the centre for very long. Indeed, it shifts leftwards and rightwards, or even shatters under the weight of what is considered to be “common sense” and “conventional wisdom”. The Conservatives currently claim the centre as the country occupies a status quo that favours them. Labour, once they win, will, if their plans work out, be able to claim it after the first term. The Liberal Democrats, however, occupy the same space as we did a decade ago, and therefore no longer representative of anyone in wider society, apart from some disconnected special interest groups. In short, during these polarised times, the very term “centrism” becomes meaningless.

The major criticism I will make of centrism, however, is its adherence to the status quo. One can differentiate a liberal from a centrist rather easily – a centrist begins from the presupposition that the status quo is fundamentally sound, that it only requires a little tinkering, a little nudging, to get working again. A liberal is one for whom the status quo is not good enough, that not only is it not working properly but, rather, that it cannot work on the most fundamental level. One only has to look outside, look to their locality, or the news to see that the country is in rapid decline.

So, when faced with the prospect of there being no identity to moderate and being hampered by a meaningless term, what can be done? To speak frankly, and I do not mean to demean anyone, I feel that we the membership need a good dose of courage. The party is afraid of itself. Consistently and consciously it chooses the paths most trodden and the safe options, turning ourselves from being a formidable force to being the Volvo of British politics.

The power to change the party’s direction, to get it out of its existential crisis, to drop completely from our lexicon the term “centrism” and replace it, finally, with “liberalism” lies with us alone. Instead of being a “Movement of Moderates” we ought to push for a “Liberal Union”, a big tent of all liberal thinking and schools, united in our revolutionary reformist cause.

* Edwin Black is a keen Lib Dem activist in Sheffield whose interests include reading, writing, amateur cartooning and research into the history of British politics.

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17 Comments

  • David Warren 4th Dec '18 - 7:31pm

    Very well put @David Raw

    The Liberal Party Triumph and Disintegration 1886 – 1929 by G R Searle is a useful read for those wanting to know more about how the party nearly destroyed itself.

    Interesting that this fine publication mentions the failure of the Liberals to run working class candidates as one of the many contributing factors to their decline.

    One of the ways the modern day Liberal Democrats can expend their voting base is by recruiting candidates from a more diverse set of backgrounds.

  • Richard Easter 4th Dec '18 - 9:19pm

    “Centrism” in the term in which much of the media uses is an ideology itself – largely the politics which falls between Blair and Osborne – liberal economics are good, migration is good, the EU status quo is good, privatisation and free markets are good, global finance capitalism is always good, unfettered free trade is good, outsourcing and sending jobs overseas is positive, foreign intervention and wars in the Middle East are needed, and so on. In that world someone like Charles Kennedy would be viewed as fairly extreme.

    I prefer the idea of the centre ground being a case of “what works”, rather than fixed ideology. Sometimes what works will be to the left of Corbyn. Sometimes it will be a New Labour style solution. Sometimes even UKIP might have the right idea! It seems to me that centrism is simply fitting into the jacket of what global finance capitalism finds acceptable – and if that is all we can offer, then why bother.

  • Richard Underhill 4th Dec '18 - 10:25pm

    “David Raw 4th Dec ’18 – 6:25pm Got into a War”
    The invasion of neutral and poorly defended Belgium by a larger power on our doorstep was an important reason. If you doubt that come down to Kent and see the display of Belgium refugees in the entrance to the town hall in Tunbridge Wells.

  • I think David Raw’s analysis is in line with most historical analysis of the causes of demise of the old Liberal Party. It is also worth mentioning – The nonconformist conscience – as it was called. It was repeatedly called upon by Gladstone for support for his ethical foreign policy. In election after election, Protestant ministers rallied their congregations to the Liberal ticket. In Scotland, the Presbyterians played a similar role to the Nonconformist Methodists, Baptists and other groups in England and Wales The political strength of Dissenters faded sharply after 1920 with the secularization of British society in the 20th century. The rise of the Labour Party reduced the Liberal Party strongholds into the nonconformist and remote “Celtic Fringe”, where it survived by an emphasis on localism and historic religious identity, thereby neutralizing much of the class pressure on behalf of the Labour movement. Meanwhile, the Anglican church remained a bastion of strength for the Conservative party.

  • Peter Watson 4th Dec '18 - 11:54pm

    @Geoffrey Payne “I object to the term centrist because I think we should … not have to get out a tape measure to find some kind of middle position between the 2 other parties.”
    I don’t think that centrism has to be defined by the left and right positions of the other parties. Lib Dems should be able to define a distinctive and consistent political position without reference to Labour and Conservative contortions. But I think the party has failed to demonstrate that it can do that, perhaps because it has preferred to emphasise what it opposes instead of what it stands for, perhaps because it has tried to present itself opportunistically as an alternative to any of the other parties in different ways in different constituencies.
    But perhaps also because the political centre is less tangible than we might like to think. Polls have shown that most people consider themselves centrist (or moderate, to link to a parallel thread) and end up defining left and right relative to their own “sensible” views. And despite being closer to the “centre”, Lib Dems can still find themselves divided between left and right positions on individual issues with the same passion as Labour and Conservative politicians.
    So if “centrist” and “moderate” aren’t helpful terms and “liberal” is weighed down by various preconceptions and misconceptions, perhaps the party should avoid other adjectives and simply concentrate on defining clearly what a “Liberal Democrat” is. Use the Preamble as the basis of a scorecard to choose between alternative policies and make it a little easier to predict what would be the natural “Lib Dem” position on any given issue, then get out there and say “Because we are Liberal Democrats, we believe …”.

  • David Evershed 5th Dec '18 - 1:40am

    Surely the best way of describing the Party’s attitude is ‘Liberal’ which to me means free – freedom of the individual, free markets, free trade, free schooling, free health care.

  • Peter Watson 5th Dec '18 - 9:59am

    @David Evershed
    Free speech, free lunch, Free Willy, … 🙂
    Previous discussions on this site have highlighted that “free” can carry just as many different interpretations as “liberal”. The English language does not help with “free” being quite an overloaded word.
    In discussions about “free software” people often distinguish between “free as in beer” and “free as in speech”, sometimes using “libre” to identify the latter.
    In terms of Lib Dem politics, I was most struck by somebody who distinguished between “freedom from” and “freedom to” as leading to an emphasis on very different types of policies. Also, often one person’s freedom can impinge upon that of another, requiring compromise and the curtailing of some freedoms.
    Combining all this with the fact that no major political party is going to claim that it opposes freedom, I don’t think it is a sufficient way to define LibDemmery. Perhaps no single word or phrase is.

  • Glenn Andrews 5th Dec '18 - 10:22am

    How about not using terms like moderate or centrist – just call yourself a Liberal Democrat, explain party policy and why you think they are good things to vote for.

  • Michael Bukola 5th Dec '18 - 11:41pm

    When will be learn…….under Nick Clegg’s leadership, centrism was placed at the forefront of how the Party positioned itself to the public. While he was correct to recognise that the main dynamic in British politics is currently not illiberal/ authoritarian versus liberal, but right versus left, he was wrong to conclude that the Party’s response should be centrism. The 2015 General Election showed us that pursuing a centrist strategy was a catastrophic error. As Cambridge’s former MP and City Council Leader Professor David Howarth told us immediately after the General Election in 2015, it is something ‘we must never do again’.

    Liberal Democrats who still think centrism can take the Party to success hold a paradoxical stance where their preference over the Party’s positioning is incompatible with it achieving a General Election breakthrough. More generally, many do not fully understand why centrism will not work, failing to realise its impact upon wider strategy and thinking. The electoral reality for most minor parties means that they need to pick a left/ right side and work within it – especially one whose support is geographically dissipated and which operates under a First-Past-The-Post system.

  • Michael Bukola 5th Dec '18 - 11:42pm

    When will we learn…….under Nick Clegg’s leadership, centrism was placed at the forefront of how the Party positioned itself to the public. While he was correct to recognise that the main dynamic in British politics is currently not illiberal/ authoritarian versus liberal, but right versus left, he was wrong to conclude that the Party’s response should be centrism. The 2015 General Election showed us that pursuing a centrist strategy was a catastrophic error. As Cambridge’s former MP and City Council Leader Professor David Howarth told us immediately after the General Election in 2015, it is something ‘we must never do again’.

    Liberal Democrats who still think centrism can take the Party to success hold a paradoxical stance where their preference over the Party’s positioning is incompatible with it achieving a General Election breakthrough. More generally, many do not fully understand why centrism will not work, failing to realise its impact upon wider strategy and thinking. The electoral reality for most minor parties means that they need to pick a left/ right side and work within it – especially one whose support is geographically dissipated and which operates under a First-Past-The-Post system.

  • David Evershed 6th Dec '18 - 12:00pm

    In response to Peter Watson, I would suggest that ‘Freedom from’ would normally take precedence over ‘Freedom to’, where they conflict.

    There does seem to be a tendency within all parties for the government to be asked to solve every problem and to intervene in an authoritarian way. So reversion to our traditional liberal or ‘freedom’ attitude could differentiate the Lib Dems from other parties.

  • David Raw – I think joining the war was the biggest cause. It drove many radical MPs, notably Trevelyan and Haldane, many of whom could have formed the most solid support for later radical ideas like the Summer School, to the Labour Party. Worse, these radicals usually turned out to be the party’s nextgen MPs, like Trevelyan.

    Next, Asquith being an incompetent war leader did not help. A better leader could have done much more to drive the British war effort, and to deal with the Easter Rising, which was preventable with better leadership. The arrested guys were initially considered as troublemakers, but their execution turned them into martyrs. The rest was history.

    The third one is the split. The Asquithian Liberals controlled party funding, so when DLG went into the government, he resorted to Cash for Peerage to raise funds. More complicated, most radical members actually followed Asquith to the Opposition while many right-leaning members supported the war, but Asquith had never been their natural leader. Besides, Asquith by that time was old, was a heavy drinker, and no longer had “fire in the belly”. DLG with his energy and dynamism could have been a great choice to lead an united Liberal party during the hard time, but he ended up gave it the biggest blow. DLG’s ideas when in the Coalition were actually great, but he was the minority in a Coalition dominated by the Tories, who championed Geddes Axe. Instead of “A country fit for heroes”, a Geddes Axe was delivered. Additionally, DLG spend much of his effort during the khaki election in Labour bashing.

  • David Raw – Ironically, had the Liberals been in opposition from the beginning of war, they could have avoided numerous blows, many of which went directly to its principles, such as conscriptions, while stille being able to join the Government late to steal some credit for war victory. The time in Opposition during the war could have been used to rebuild the relationship with Labour.
    The Tories, for all of their flaws, were actually a better party to run a war, since running the war effort always requires authoritarian decisions, which they had no problems with. I am sure that even Gladstone would have been a terrible war leaders. Yes, Gladstone, a laissez-faire idealogue, and his “peace, retrenchment and reform” would have been terrible in running the war, which requires massive increases in taxation and government intervention.

    Meanwhile, the Liberals would have been great in Versailles and in dealing with the Russian Civil War, and the Ottoman Empire. The Tories would have certainly tried to prop up the Austrian Empire, which would have been unpopular, while the Liberals could have called dismembering Austria-Hungary, which was popular among various folks in Central Europe and also fit Wilson’s 14 points.

    I think Asquith should called an election to go into Opposition in 1914 (yes, the Tories would have won, but without a majority) and only join the War Government after American entry in the war (i.e. when victory was secured).

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