2007 - 2020

Cloth caps and Quagmires: Locating the “Centre”

Mhairi Black MP was interviewed in ‘The Times’ (25th July). The newspaper chose to refer to the clothes she wore; they had been purchased in ASDA. I was immediately reminded of Keir Hardie’s first appearance in the House of Commons in a cloth-cap, surrounded exclusively by the conventional Top-hats. We thought such references, such an emphasis on clothes as a distinctive mark of social status, might have changed? That Hardie had begun a revolution in status, and a battle was won? We did not realise he was merely a leader in style, a neo-Brummel, moving fashion towards a new, different, less formal wear, fit for the dawning 20th century; and that, it now seems was all. We had come so far, only in order that the subtler and more ‘defining’ social conventions and priorities that remain hidden below the mere world of ‘appearances’ could safely, knowingly survive largely unchanged, even into the 21st century. This is the nature of ‘progress’ in British politics; it is mostly a matter of ‘appearance’ over ‘substance’. The names change, the fashions change, the words change, but the desire to retain an old and persistent sense of social status, entitlement, expectation or hierarchy; but above all to preserve a powerful, critical, iron demand for conformity, persists to this day.

In politics conformity is demanded in order to establish a “centre” ground: the ground that allegedly wins elections. The purpose of those in power, currently in our intellectually and morally threadbare British politics, is twofold: first, to retain the illusion of a traditional ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ politics that is still meaningful and viable, in spite of the fact that it has fairly obviously shot its bolt; since WWII both ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have spectacularly failed in office, but our Westminster political parties cannot afford to admit it; and in the far-fetched, fantasist world of Westminster, this anxiety persists in the egregious delusion that the public somehow has not really noticed the abject failure of the main Parliamentary institutions of the Union.

Secondly, and more adroitly the purpose is to allow opinion-formers (represented by Westminster, the Media and the City – the Cartel) to define for everyone else where the political “centre” is to be located. The public is supposed to believe that the “centre” is an absolute, Newtonian fixed point between Right and Left, set for all by the wisest minds in British politics. Once stated baldly in this way the absurdity becomes fairly obvious. It is not merely doubt about the ability accurately to establish such a “centre” point (by some George Osborne or Liz Kendall figure), but the spurious attempt to locate any “centre” point at all, in what is quite clearly not a fixed or absolute, but a relativistic political world; the “centre” in reality depends entirely on the location of the observer; on the relative positioning of other points that are not fixed. The “centre” we will find, is constantly changing, shifting or evolving; or to express it more directly; there is no “centre”. The government of the day will always claim it is in the “centre”; Attlee, Thatcher, Blair and even Neville Chamberlain probably all persuaded themselves they reassuringly represented the true “centre” ground.

imagesThis is the desired “centre” ground. Over recent decades the support of the main UK parties has considerably decayed; the three main UK parties represent a declining proportion of the electorate, while a long-term, persistent, falling trend in turnouts reminds us that the British people are relentlessly turning away from Westminster, not towards it. Westminster is no longer the “centre” of anything, but Conservative and Labour are rather now being exposed as little more than a small, unattractive, private collection of narrow, entrenched vested interests.

The British people are not voting for a “centre”; they are rather waiting stoically for something or someone to rise above the conventional Conservative, Labour and LibDem politics of recent decades: which have principally served best such lofty ideals as: the aspiration to avoid tax; to facilitate profits disappearing into Britain’s countless tax-havens; to make it easy to rip-off the public; to make money out of usury; to facilitate the growth of mis-selling, or over-charging the ordinary public by large corporations which no longer have any sense of public responsibility beyond PR whitewash; to facilitate cost-cutting without innovating; to sneer at the public sector, and nationalise private losses; to foot-drag or under resource the pursuit of tax-evasion, but vilify and prosecute welfare benefit fraud to the maximum; to under-resource and under-legislate all forms of consumer-first regulation; and to allow the banking sector and the City to survive the Credit Crunch, not only virtually unscathed, and with the losses handsomely transferred to the public sector, but for the banks actually to emerge quietly from the TBTF settlement more powerful and independent from control than ever. There is the “centre-ground”: the centre of a quagmire in which the public is invited slowly to drown.

Meanwhile in Scotland the three main UK parties have been virtually annihilated electorally, and the electoral turnout there is at unprecedented levels of participation. The absurdity of the emphasis by all Westminster parties on their narrow ‘centre-of-nowhere’ theology, merely reminds us of the inadequacy of Westminster politics, of the UK Parties; and not least the profound inadequacy of the current crop of UK politicians.

The strange logic of the “centre” presents another logical puzzle. Westminster is constructed to serve a conflict between Government and Opposition; and thus relies on being openly adversarial as the basis for its claim to be a genuine representative democracy; for the British people are not uniform, they do not all have the same opinions on the major issues of the day. Adversarial politics, not consensus IS the British system. Westminster, however, wishes at the same time to claim precisely the opposite. There is a necessary consensus required; a fixed political “centre” which it is necessary to occupy in order to be electable. It follows (at least as a matter of practical politics, if not also theory) that all parties will tend to gravitate toward offering precisely the same prescriptions. There is be no choice in this politics, the adversarialism is mere window-dressing, and presumably intended only to deceive the public: and (Lo! by some miracle!) that is precisely what we find. There is no choice offered to the electorate by the UK parties, save at the margin and to pretext essentially trivial differences; different Party names but they all represent precisely the same government. And so, the Labour Party (the Official Opposition) does not vote against welfare cuts. They wouldn’t, would they?

Whatever you, as a voter may want, or aspire to achieve in a General Election; whatever and whomsoever you vote for among the three main UK parties, you will now always receive the same Government, whether it is Conservative, Labour or Coalition; that is what the “centre” really means: de facto one-party government whatever government party is elected to power. They even essentially agree about what kind of person should lead any of the three parties; a conventional, dependably conformist, neo-liberal ideological clone.

Take your pick: you could probably switch the names and parties around, as in a game of chance, without effecting any noticeable policy change; Cameron could lead the Labour Party, Liz Kendall the Conservatives and Andy Burnam the LibDems. I leave you to play with the many, many teasing options such a revolving door offers. Before anyone ridicules this proposition, it is worth remembering that Churchill was a Whig-Liberal, not a Conservative; he was heartily hated and despised throughout the Conservative Party (indeed his constituency Chairman in the late 1930s not only attempted to de-select him, but tried to have him thrown out of the Conservative Party altogether. The Chairman was rewarded for this activity by becoming a Conservative MP. Meanwhile Neville Chamberlain had Churchill’s phone tapped [hacked] by the Conservative Party Director of Research, who conveniently happened to be a senior member of MI5). The current Westminster culture will always produce exactly the same government, no matter what.

You can thus have any kind of government you like in British electoral politics, provided it offers only neo-liberal austerity, welfare cuts AND a rising National Debt. This is the New Centre.

Comments (12)

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  1. C Rober says:

    Pretty well put , one policy , many parties.

    Cant remember whom it was that said it but …”politics is for the benefit of the rich – at the expense of the poor.” , might have been marx … mibbe it wiz the wan wi the cigar and glesses.

    1. John S Warren says:

      You need no longer look so far back, or so far to the left for something along the same lines. The historian Thomas Picketty has suggested something similar. Nor need we rely on the Marxist tradition. I can offer you an established, hard-line Capitalist thesis that comes to the same conclusion: Ajay Kapur of Merill Lynch/Bank of America has rather set the ‘cat among the pigeons’ by coming to broadly the same conclusions as you suggest by endorsing the Picketty thesis and silencing even Picketty’s most determined nit-picking, methodological spreadsheet critics. Actually Kapur implicitly appears to go further; it is not just the poor who are under threat but everybody: in effect democracy itself.

      1. MBC says:

        Paul Mason was saying the exact same thing in the Guardian today, that neoliberalism and democracy are mutually incompatible. For how could a project that seeks to enrich the few be compatible with a project that seeks to benefit the many? He argues that neoliberalism gets away with it by creating a propaganda machine that cons politicians and commentators who control the media and public opinion into believing that neoliberalism somehow operates in the interests of the many.

  2. George Gunn says:

    Dear John, that is it in a nutshell: it is democracy itself which is under threat. Like the god who abandons Anthony we must leave this corruption, this Alexandria, behind and protect and develop our parliament in Edinburgh. The fantasy world of financial trading has already left the real world of commodities and manufacture and in so doing ensured world wide poverty. Your article, as ever, goes straight to the heart.

    1. JBS says:

      Oooh, I like Cavafy. Did you read Robert Crawford’s recent renditions of Cavafy into Scots? Good stuff.

  3. William Steele says:

    The leaders of the UK political parties are all millionaires. Keir Hardy had been Coal Miner. He had experienced the oppression of the ship builders and mine owners. He went to parliament to represent the ordinary people. Who do the millionaire leaders of the Labour Party represent? They have never known the hardship that Keir Hardy had known. They have no idea what it’s like to live on a minimum wage, on which a family can neither live nor die with dignity.

    We’ll never see a government of the people by the people that serves the people and not the wealthy and Big Business until we stop electing millionaires as leaders of the political parties, as Prime Ministers and MPs.

    I believe the reason Nicola Sturgeon has such popular appeal is that she grew up in a working class family. She lived in a council house. She is more representative of ordinary people than the millionaire Prime Minister and the most recent millionaire leader of the Labour Party, David Milliband.

    We’re brainwashed into believing that the millionaires are better able to govern because of their Eton and Fettes education. We must stop putting our confidence in millionaires. They don’t represent us. They’re not capable of understanding us. They don’t care about us. They represent, understand and care about increasing their own wealth and that of their cronies in Big Banks and Big Business.

    Let’s get back to electing the Keir Hardies of our society to be our leaders, as the miners did in 1882. Let’s return to electing the likes of Ramsay MacDonald, who knew life as a farm labourer. They understood and passionately cared for ordinary people, poor people, disadvantaged people. We need these kind of people as our leaders in government.

  4. Neil says:

    If you were immediately reminded of Keir Hardie’s first appearance in the House of Commons you are at least 100 years old.

    1. John S Warren says:

      I sometimes feel at least 100 years old, but although there were no video recordings of such events (John Logie Baird, the first man to devise a television system capable of recording live events was only 4 years old when Keir Hardie first took his seat), the notable event is nevertheless well recorded.

  5. Neil says:

    I suppose that at least Hardie preceded ‘neoliberalism’ by 15 years or so. You would think the name would have changed by now.

    1. JBS says:

      That’s not the way things work, apparently. Neoclassicism, for instance, is c. 300 years old.

  6. John Craig says:

    So what’s to become of us if we try to break from this tradition ? Do we send Citizen Tommy or those of his persuasion to tackle the problem. The economies of the western world are inter-connected and any major disruptive force would see sanctions being imposed against anyone rocking the boat. Communism served the state well, but not the individual. Almost immediately after it’s demise in Russia, the capitalist ethos brought only modest benefits to the masses, but generated an elite, mega-rich few who promptly brought their ill gotten gains to the UK where they were received with open arms by the ” good ol’ boys”. I haven’t heard of any attempt to redress this injustice.
    Whatever happens, you can be sure the “Smart Money” in the UK will be well protected, but not necessarily in the UK.

    1. John S Warren says:

      It is true that not all problems in the world can be solved, but I do not believe our predicament falls into that particular and recalcitrant category.

      We are not confronted with brilliant (albeit cynical, ruthless and cunning) political or media manipulation, but something much more erratic and insecure; a political culture with only two modes of operation: complacency or panic. We can certainly do something about that; and we can certainly do better.

      The scales have fallen from the eyes of the Scottish public (starting with Labour and Better Together, but ending with Westminster itself). At the same time the British public are slowly beginning to view Westminster and Britain from a more candid and less romantically sentimental perspective; how could they not (?), the bad odours, and not Westminster’s honours now “reeking up to heaven”; and in spite of the efforts of so much tv drama to paint a warmer picture of Britain, set comfortably in conveniently distant, sepia-tinged, nobly austerity-laced, rationed, self-sacrificing periods of 50-80 years ago: I wonder why? The “creative impulse”? Perhaps not, or not alone.

      Such psychological transformations that are now happening a little bewilderingly to the British people are difficult, uncomfortable and take time. A little patience is required.

      I do not believe a counsel of despair is any kind of ‘counsel’ at all. Resignation is not an option.

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