Consensus politics will have to resort to radical action to wrest the debate from the extremists, writes Euan McColm
An especially exasperating aspect of contemporary political debate is the tendency of those most passionately involved to ascribe membership of an opposing tribe to anyone who disagrees with them.
To commit support to one of the main parties right now is to make peace with some pretty appalling views
If one is not a Scottish nationalist, one must be a British nationalist (with all that implies); if one doesn’t support the politics of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, one must be at the very least a Tory and, quite possibly, a warmonger; if one does not favour remaining in the European Union, one must be a fool and likely a racist one at that.
The zealot, consumed by his beliefs, trembling with excitement at the truth he has found, cannot comprehend that not everyone thinks like him. If you are not part of his gang, you must be part of another one. This is how his world works. It’s Us vs Them, and if you’re not one of Us then you must be an active one of Them.
In his excellent show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the stand-up Matt Forde identifies the SNP as masters of this technique. Anyone who paid the slightest attention to the 2014 independence referendum will recognise the truth in Forde’s brutally funny routine. Wasn’t it the case that anyone who did not support a Yes vote four years ago was a “red Tory” who wanted to privatise the NHS while investing all the money that might save in nuclear weapons?
But when it comes to misrepresenting and then attacking the positions of opponents, the Labour Party makes the SNP look decidedly amateurish. Under the glorious reign of Comrade Corbyn, straw-man production has reached record levels.
Those now raising concerns about anti-Semitism in the party should expect to be accused of participation in a cynical campaign. You may slap a Corbynista in the face with countless photos of their leader laying wreaths by memorials to terrorists and they will stand their ground, repeating the lie that he is a victim of the shadowy powers that control the media.
Those who enjoy the acquired taste of bitter irony may savour the fact that accusations of anti-Semitism are rejected with the use of one of the classic anti-Semitic tropes.
Before they were hounding Jews – an online campaign belittling the concerns of Jewish MP Dame Margaret Hodge is, at the time of writing, the newly plumbed low to which Corbyn’s loyal foot soldiers have descended – devotees of the dear leader spent most of their time attacking any party members who did not share their enthusiasm for a man who has spent his political career rubbing shoulders with assorted cranks and anti-Semites.
There was the shrill approach – anyone who had not given themselves completely to Corbyn was a Blairite, which by implication meant one was in favour of the Iraq War, which meant one was basically a war criminal. These people should leave the Labour Party and join the Conservatives.
A gentler – and, I think, more effective – tactic was the creation of the “centrist dad” brand. For very good reasons – the frequent abuse of our disproportionate power, our leading role in economic crises around the world, our sense of entitlement – middle class, middle aged white men were encouraged to shut up and listen. This is not an unreasonable demand.
And so describing someone as a “centrist dad” was to point out that he was part of the problem, that everything that’s wrong with the world was down to men like him. It’s difficult to mount a compelling case against that charge. Fortunately, the politics of the centrist dad is not exclusive to centrist dads. There are young activists, experienced women in the House of Commons – Caroline Flint, Liz Kendall, the especially impressive Yvette Cooper – and a new generation of political candidates who could just as easily be described as centrist dads.
Centrist Dadism isn’t really a thing. It’s just centrism, the dad bit is pure sleight of hand.
Centrism is deeply unfashionable, right now. It’s not tribal enough, for one thing. It allows for the belief that a political opponent might be speaking and acting in good faith.
Look at where we now are. Two divisive referendums – on Scottish independence and membership of the European Union – and a backlash (driven by anger over the Iraq War) against the politics of the New Labour years have created political battalions, prepared to argue black is white in defence of their identity-focused beliefs. Labour Party members are, right now, excusing anti-Semitism in their party. Some are actively propagating it.
Meanwhile, the Tory right is quite prepared to accommodate a spot of Islamophobia – always in the name of free speech, you understand.
Centrism might be rather squeezed out, it might be ritually mocked by those infected with the disease of certainty, but it is needed now.
Not every person who joins the Labour Party is an anti-Semite but they will have to stomach the truth that some of their comrades are. Not every person who joins the Tory Party is an Islamophobe or a racist but…
To commit support to one of the main parties right now is to make peace with some pretty appalling views.
Speculation about the creation of a new centrist political party rumbles on. The Liberal Democrat brand, damaged by participation in the 2010-15 coalition with the Tories and not repaired under the comically poor leadership of Vince Cable, means there is certainly space for a party willing to come third in the next general election.
The inevitability that a new party would be squeezed by Labour and Tories, alike, remains the stumbling block to its creation.
But how long can those who don’t share the extreme views of those who dominate their parties remain and fight internal battles they will not win?
If the offer at the next general election is a choice between two varieties of extremists, one variety of extremists will win.
It’s time for centrists – dads or not – to break away from the competing cults of British politics.