Tiggers, Melts and Radical Centrists
James Chapman of The Independent Group (you know “politics is broken, lets fix it”) has just issued its first answer to the British constitutional crisis and its predictably shallow and useless. It’s a mix of populist ideas and pure nonsense, like someone who has just suddenly woken up to their being a problem and has rattled off a series of ideas on a post-it note on the way to the morning meeting:
.@TheIndGroup policy idea 4: full devo over everything to Scotland; elected second chamber based in Edinburgh, and @NicolaSturgeon offered a seat in Cabinet as Scottish Secretary in return for remaining in a loose federation of UK nations
— James Chapman (@jameschappers) April 15, 2019
Despite the profile given to them by the media the Tiggers are probably better ignored, after the frenzy of their launch “they went up like a rocket and came down like a stick”, but Chapman’s tweeted mini-manifesto can be read like an exemplar of a lost generation of radical centrists.
Chapman is the former political editor of the Daily Mail and used to be Osborne’s right hand man at HM Treasury. But his political voice sounds exactly the same as Chris Deerin or Kenny Farquharson or a host of other commentators. These are people whose job it is to keep-up with and articulate the shifting sands of political reality.
“For those of us who self-identify as centrists – call us Blairites, moderates, melts, whatever – these are barren times. There is nowhere to go. Most of us are anti-Brexit on the basis that it’s a bloody stupid idea and watch the self-serving pivots and shimmies of Davis/Johnson/Fox etc. with something close to contempt. We cannot vote for this incarnation of the Tory party, even if we found a decent number of policies to praise over the course of the Cameron administration. Labour are still worse: led by a stomach-turning ragbag of Trots and chancers who have mounted a hostile takeover of their party and its machinery and watched gleefully as the internal opposition tossed its weapons away and hit the deck in abject surrender.”
“We are living through the most radical transformation of society and of our way of life since the industrial revolution. The existing parties were set up in and for a different world – Labour, especially, even down to its name, is a strange anachronism. They are Heath-Robinson contraptions, held together by sticky tape and moist-eyed emotion, that seem constitutionally unable to cope with the pace of change, to offer sensible, convincing policies that can ease us through the necessary adjustments. They are hamstrung by history, dogma and tradition. They are holding Britain back.”
“British politics and our public space would benefit from a party formed specifically to deal with the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Free from the constrictions imposed by history, legacy and special interest loyalties, it could aggressively get to grips with intergenerational unfairness, the rise of AI and its impact on lifestyle and the workplace, devise a sustainable model for funding public services, develop a grown-up conversation about immigration, and the rest. It could do so honestly and in a language that explodes the carefully calculated jargon that so envelops and strangles our debate.”
Deerin’s is the worst/best of the genre. But others return to the fray with predictable regularity.
Kenny Farquharson returns to Federalism like a metronome. Last month he became over-excited at the work of Baroness Pauline Bryan of Partick, a constitutional reform adviser appointed by Jeremy Corbyn, who launched a paper which sets out her plans for reform at the Labour conference in Dundee.
It proposed a new Chamber of the Nations and Regions which should be elected and be fully accountable. It also proposed the “future relationship between Holyrood and Westminster should be based on partnership and not hierarchy”.
Apart from this all being fringe froth it didn’t seem to trouble anyone the deep irony of an ermine-clad “socialist” announcing again) how Labour would reform the House of Lords or any cursory glance at Labours lack of commitment to strengthening devolved powers.
For many of these politicians and lobbyists/columnists
Talking endlessly about Federalism seems to be a displacement activity for engaging with the reality of Broken Britain.
As Deerin writes: “A new, modern party of the centre would have its work cut out, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It would give many of us a cause to champion over the long term. It could be something to be proud of – a muscular, liberal centrism that makes its case with all the swagger of its rivals, and that is built – and fit – for the 21st century.”
— George Eaton (@georgeeaton) February 18, 2019
For all the talk of endless Blair-style innovation and modernity, this strand of forgotten political scribes has two or three ideas on shuffle: New Party, Federalism and Ruth Davidson (or similar empty saviour). It is political analysis without political analysis, policy without power, vision without memory.
It’s like they are trying to put together the comforting certainties of their childhood; when politicians and the media were given automatic respect; briefings and events gave them unique access; and stability and paternalism were the mark of a sterile but confident Britain; Scotland was a marginal concern for Munro-bagging and Hogmanay and all was well.
It feels like a slightly lazy psychological defense from either coming to terms with the constitutional divide – or having to defend the status quo which these people fought for in 2014. It also feels like a completely inadequate response to the depth of political and social crisis that’s been laid bare in 2019.