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Conservativehomeeditorial_8Last week David Cameron warned that the “alternative to fighting for the centre ground" was "irrelevance, defeat and failure”.  This week’s Economist noted Norman Tebbit’s criticisms of David Cameron’s move to the centre and then set out to then parody them.

Centreground_1The Economist posited that…

"Lord Tebbit (along with other Thatcherite diehards") believes it is possible for the Conservatives to win an election by stirring up the Tory base. He reckons that there are 4m “disgruntled Tory abstainers” who can be wooed back with vigorously right-wing policies. Mr Cameron believes that is precisely the way to repel the groups the Tories must appeal to if they are to win—young, middle-class professionals and women."

That is a very partial reading of Lord Tebbit’s analysis.  The Economist is guilty of sloppy, cookie-cutter journalism.  I’m unconvinced that a core vote strategy or an appeal to the metropolitan tastes of what John O’Sullivan has called Curtisland are really opposites.  And what does David Cameron mean by "the centre ground"?  I suggest that there are three ways of thinking of "the centre ground"…

  1. The midpoint centre;
  2. The embracing centre;
  3. The perfect centre.

The midpoint centre

A politician gets to the midpoint centre by triangulating.  Clinton and Blair are masters of triangulation.

A midpoint centrist would avoid the ‘extremes’ of both right and left.  The right’s emphasis on controlled immigration and Euroscepticism would be shunned or, at least, diluted.  The left’s stealthy taxation and support for the EU Constitution would also be disowned by a midpoint centrist.

Midpoint centrism is essentially managerial.  It is largely in tune with the steady-as-you-go voices of Britain’s establishments.  Such voices include the public sector unions who oppose radical reform of schools and hospitals and the foreign office establishment which favours multilateralism and stability over pre-emption and regime change.

The embracing centre

The embracing centre represents a much more ambitious politics.  It is essentially the "politics of and" and has not been attempted in modern British politics.  Tony Blair’s "economic prosperity and social justice" rhetoric once promised to do so but New Labour has failed because its policies on the economy and poverty were very much of the establishment/ midpoint variety.

The embracing centre enthusiastically pursues many of the traditional concerns of left and right.  Equal passion is given to…

  • controlling immigration and tackling world poverty…
  • increasing economic dynamism and helping the most broken members of society find their feet…
  • faster, longer imprisonment of serious offenders and more help for young people to escape the conveyor belt to crime

If midpoint centrism is neither right nor left, embracing centrism is of the right and left.  Some of the concerns of the traditional left and right are, of course, contradictory but not all of them – as the above examples suggest.

My guess is that the British people have "right-wing" interests in immigration, Europe and crime but a "left-wing" concern for the poor, for example, although they’d never see their interests in left-right terms.  The embracing centre is, in this respect, about the common ground of politics.

The embracing centre rightly keeps faith with core conservative positions on Europe, immigration and crime – none of which (in themselves) have been shown to be unpopular.

The perfect centre

The perfect centre is a more conservative version of the embracing centre.  A perfect centrist will, for example, embrace the concerns of the left but will address them in an authentically conservative manner.  David Cameron has been an embracing centrist on the environment – taking an issue associated with the left and largely adopting the leftist green policies of Kyoto.  The Tory leader has been more of a perfect centrist on social justice.  He has driven his political tank on to Labour’s welfare turf but is determined to be distinctively conservative when it comes to finding solutions to poverty.  Hence his emphasis on stronger families and social enterprise.

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I think it’s too early to be sure what kind of centrist Mr Cameron is…

  • There have been a lot of mixed signals with boldness on police reform and poverty-fighting but a midpoint/ consensual approach to the public services and tax…
  • A lot of what Mr Cameron is doing appears to be motivated by very successful attempts to destabilise the LibDems and seperate Tony Blair from the left of his party.  It is difficult to disentangle the tactics from fundamental beliefs…

We’ll know a lot more in a year or so when the policy groups start reporting…

37 comments for: What kind of centrist are you, Mr Cameron?

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