Monday 5 June 2023

The centre is a movable feast


For long periods in British politics, the differences between the two major English parties – Labour and the Tories – have been more imagined than real, and it has sometimes felt as though the smaller the differences become, the more fire and fury surrounds them. Last week, Larry Elliot in the Guardian analysed this phenomenon, suggesting that what used to be called ‘Butskellism’ is back, and the differences between Starmer and Sunak are rapidly diminishing, making the next election more about managerial competence than serious policy disagreements (not that a bit of managerial competence would be exactly unwelcome). Much of his analysis rings true; Butskellism continued, one way or another, through the Wilson/Heath years, until the arrival of Thatcher and a clear break with the broadly social democratic consensus of the previous decades.

His suggestion is that a form of consensus is re-emerging under Sunak and Starmer. There did seem to me, though, to be a missing link in the process: Thatcher’s real success was not so much in breaking the old consensus as in establishing a new one, with Blair largely picking up where she left off. Not for nothing did she once proclaim that her greatest achievement was New Labour. The ever-closer alignment of policy between Sunak and Starmer is simply a reversion to the post-war norm of British politics, where elections are fought out on the centre ground between the two parties. The point to note, however, is that the ‘centre’ is not, and never has been, a fixed point. Whilst it’s arguable that the immediate post-war consensus was based on the Tories moving towards the left and taking the ‘centre’ with them, the trend since then has been for the Tories to move to the right and for Labour to follow them, taking the ‘centre’ along with them.

For those involved in the immediate post-war consensus, which included an acceptance that certain major industries (coal, steel, gas, water, the railways, the post office) belonged in public ownership (although steel was an ongoing bone of contention), the idea of a properly-funded NHS providing free health care for all (even if imperfectly implemented), a social security system which protected the weakest (although, again, far from perfect), the government taking responsibility for a massive programme of social housing (with Tory PMs taking pride in the number of council houses built under their governments), and the UK finding a new role in the world rather than hanging on to pretensions of Empire, today’s consensus would be unrecognisable. Whilst a growing consensus around Brexit, demonising refugees and asylum-seekers, and fiscal rectitude might be a fact of political life, Butskellism it certainly is not.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with ‘centrism’. It is not the fixed point as which it often appears in political discourse, it’s more the point at which politics stood at the last change of government. Whilst oppositions will move towards that centre to fight an election, once in power they tend to start moving away from it. Or, at least, some of them do. The reality is that, apart from a brief blip in the aftermath of the war when they succeeded the reforming Attlee government, the Tories are rather better at shifting the centre than are Labour. It’s a history which Starmer seems destined to repeat.

1 comment:

dafis said...

Your detailed observations can be more succinctly put as "neither party have a bloody clue. They trot out lofty ideals which are then promptly ignores as they proceed to dig themselves deeper into a mess"
Now the Tories are most guilty because they have run the show for the last 13 years but the preceding 13 years under Blair/Brown were also a catalogue of lost opportunities, missed goals and downright misrepresentation.
Your remark about a bit of management competence being most welcome ranks as possibly the understatement of the year, maybe decade!.