Brian Monteith: Beware the shifting centre ground

Prime Minister David Cameron with wife Samantha after his speech to the Tory conference last week. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister David Cameron with wife Samantha after his speech to the Tory conference last week. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

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IT IS a territory that was shunned by successful leaders who sought out ‘common ground’ instead, writes Brian Monteith

After the speeches of David Cameron and George Osborne at the Conservative Party conference last week there was much astonishment across the media about how they were taking the party to the left on a host of different policies. Even Michael Gove was accused of going all soft on penal reform, making Theresa May’s speech on controlled immigration rather jarring and out of step.

By occupying some political territory previously held by Labour, such as equality and poverty, the Conservatives must now be a party of the centre, straddling the centre-left over to the centre-right – or so the theory goes.

The BBC could not get enough of the idea and filled much time discussing it on Daily Politics, Newsnight and news bulletins. But then it would, wouldn’t it, for the BBC by its necessary observance of broadcasting rules also occupies the so-called centre ground. How wonderful that others might see fit to sign up to the received wisdom that the BBC pumps out on a daily basis. It was as if Cameron was endorsing the BBC and so they were happy to make merry with it without too much critical analysis.

The concept of the centre ground is, in my humble opinion, self-indulgent and self-deluding tosh that tends to come from politicians and institutions of the establishment but does not stand up to inspection when tested by the evidence.

The political theorists who press for either Labour or the Conservatives to occupy the centre ground do so because they think this hallowed turf is where elections are won, but it’s illusory.

Consider Clement Attlee and his programme of nationalisation of British industry and various social services such as hospitals (doctors were never nationalised). Did Attlee occupy the centre-ground? Hardly. He marched the country over to what might be termed the left and he did it with a landslide majority.

Consider Edward Heath and his right-wing “Selsdon” manifesto advocating denationalisation and free markets that helped him win the general election of 1970 – and consider how, after he almost immediately abandoned it and moved to a centre ground of reflationary public spending, and prices and incomes policies, he lost two elections in February and October 1974.

Margaret Thatcher then won the 1979 general election on a manifesto not dissimilar to Heath’s original but earned the respect of the British electorate by having the guile to deliver it in the face of trade union militancy. She then went on to advocate even more privatisation, further council house sales and a hawkish foreign policy towards Soviet expansionism, including strengthening our nuclear deterrence. There was nothing centrist about Thatcher, but she won again in 1983 and 1987 – and those that stood in the middle of the road, the Social Democrats and the Liberals, were, as Thatcher predicted, run over by the electorate.

It is put about that Tony Blair won because he took Labour over to the centre ground, but I would dispute this. What Blair did was simply reassure the British public that he would not reverse the Thatcherite reforms but would continue much the same as before but with a more caring, compassionate face – and without the arrogance and scandals of the Tory ministers.

What we witnessed was Blair identifying that place on the political landscape that is far more elusive and should be more highly prized – it is the common ground, establishing a political bond over common beliefs with the British electorate.

The common ground is, however, very different from the centre ground. The centre ground is transitory and highly dangerous; it is the equivalent of a political sandbank that moves across a vast electoral estuary as the tides from left and right repeatedly shift its position. If the centre ground is a belief in the mixed economy, is it the mixed economy of nationalised industries and private enterprise – like the Seventies – or is it the mixed economy of privatised industries and contracting-out of today in the health service and local councils?

The centre ground of the Fifties, those days of Empire, unionist politicians in bowler hats and never having it so good are in a completely different place to the African wind of change, permissiveness and student demonstrations of the Sixties. Likewise the industrial unrest, Irish or Palestinian terrorism and three-day-week of the Seventies seemed like a bygone age once the council houses were sold, the unions lost their legal privileges and taxes were cut year after year in the Eighties.

Every decade, sometimes more often than that, the charts showing the centre ground have to be reprinted. Why? Because brave politicians, those few that are leaders rather than followers, offer change to the established way of doing things and so what was once an impossible thought becomes that accepted normality – the new centre ground – but only until it is moved again.

When the late Geoffrey Howe removed exchange controls many economic commentators (and Labour) thought it would bring ruin to Britain, that there would be capital flight – instead, the UK began to attract funds and today receives more foreign direct investment than the rest of the EU put together.

The common ground is not about policies, it is about values – which is why politicians of violently contrasting colours can sometimes join together for a common goal, such as maintaining Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.

If David Cameron is seeking the centre ground, where will he find it in regard to Scotland and especially Scottish constitutional politics? Devolution, or even the extension of devolution, can hardly be called the centre ground when nearly 45 per cent of those that voted in the referendum preferred independence, but devolution is certainly a value that provides common ground between politicians of practically all parties and the Scottish electorate.

If David Cameron and George Osborne wish to stand on the centre ground, then that’s fine by me, but it doesn’t really matter for it is no guarantee of electoral success. They and Conservative Party supporters should not be surprised if a confluence of turbulent tides rode by Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage shift the soft centre ground they are standing on.

Like yesterday’s flotsam and jetsam, they could both be washed up along the shores to be picked over by beachcombing biographers. All because they mistook the centre ground for the common ground.

• Brian Monteith is director of ThinkScotland.org

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