Few columnists are wrong in such a consistently interesting way as Janan Ganesh. His weekend piece for the Financial Times is no exception – an inner core of wrongness, bejewelled with scintillating observations.
It is hard, for instance, to disagree with the following:
“Politics has got small, and so have the politicians. This is a nation in which William Hague, the retiring leader of the House of Commons, counts as an elder statesman. He is 53.
“The result: a country that likes single-party government does not want any single party to govern, owing to a forgivable suspicion that they are all somehow inadequate.”
And then there’s this, on the potential for political realignment:
“There is nothing immutable about any set of political arrangements. Labour and the Tories grew from deep social roots that have atrophied since the second world war: industry, Anglicanism, a rigid class system. The parties now look like artificial protuberances grafted on to an indifferent country.”
For a long time, the Lib Dems were, by default, the beneficiaries of this withering away. But that only concealed the fact that they too are rooted in depleted soil. Now that they’ve forfeited the protest vote, could a Lib Dem collapse bring about wider changes to the party system?
The rise of UKIP would seem to suggest that a transformation is already underway:
“Ukip’s growth spurt has led to big talk of four-party politics, but the four might not look as they do now. Yes, there will be a populist party – and there should be, to speak for the millions who have not done well out of globalisation. But there might also be a resurgence of the reforming centre.”
A resurgent reforming centre would speak for those of us who don’t want populism, but do want a genuine alternative:
“At the centre of British politics is a widening space, and voters are almost audibly imploring someone to fill it.”
The question is who and what with? Naturally, the author’s suggestions reflect the kind of policies and politicians that he approves of – i.e. pro-European; pro-business; socially and economically liberal. But is this really the new kind of politics that voters want?
Parties fitting this description do exist in other countries. Yet, even with the benefit of proportional representation, they’re not doing very well. Some, like the German Free Democrats, are in terminal decline; others like the Irish Progressive Democrats, are already extinct. Widening the criteria to Europhile parties of the centre-right and centre-left, one finds that a densely-populated centre-ground hasn’t stopped the rise of populist and extremist parties across Europe.
Though liberals like Janan Ganesh may dream of a new force capable of constellating the talents of Tristram Hunt and his Tory equivalents (I’d rather not name names), I’m guessing that such a party wouldn’t get very far.
Ganesh’s basic mistake is to identify the “zealots” of the existing party system exclusively with the left and right, while seeing only sweet reason at the centre. In fact, liberals can be every bit as doctrinaire as their socialist and conservative opponents. When one considers the great economic catastrophes of the previous decade – above all the banking crisis and the Eurozone – one can hardly claim that the political blindness that led us to disaster was limited to the extremes. The cheerleaders for banking deregulation may have leaned to the right and the supporters of the single currency to the left, but so-called ‘moderates’ had a leading role in both cases.
Therefore, in contemplating a new centre party, one would surely wish to locate it beyond these ideological wastelands, not at their intersection.