Centrist political thinking is surprisingly thin in Britain. An example from America shows that it can be more than difference-splitting between left and rightby John Gray / October 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
Book: The Radical Center Author: Ted Halstead and Michael Lind Price: New America Foundation, ?8.50 New Labour has always defined itself as a centrist party, but it is surprising how thin on the ground centrist thinking is in this country. The phenomenal electoral success of New Labour has come not from the government’s policies but from the self-immolation of the Tories and Tony Blair’s skill in altering the public perception of his party. Voters who used to be frightened of Labour are afraid no longer, while the Tories are viewed with a mixture of pity and contempt. Labour is seen as basically competent, the Tories as faintly batty. This is a triumph of high politics, not new thinking. British politics remains as barren of new ideas as it was in the dim, wasted years of John Major. Why this should be so is an interesting question. The accommodating style of Blairite politics is surely part of the explanation. A strategy designed to avoid offending any major interest may or may not succeed, but it is almost inevitable that it should leave society fundamentally unchanged. So it has proved. Underneath all the rhetoric about New Britain an extremely old country will be found lurking, with all its unregenerate attitudes and ancient divisions. Over five years since Labour came to power, we still have a two-nation school system. Industry is reverting to class war. A government whose defining commitment is breaking with the past is finding the past rising up against it. For all its success in occupying the centre ground, New Labour has never displayed anything resembling a coherent centrist outlook. To see what we lack, we need look no further than the US. At the New America Foundation in Washington, a venture capitalist and a political theorist have published a centrist manifesto that beats anything available in Britain. Ted Halstead’s and Michael Lind’s The Radical Centre: The Future of American Politics really achieves what the early Blairite period briefly promised-a political programme that transcends the old categories of right and left. Their starting point is the fact that New Deal policies belong to an industrial era that has passed. The American system of social security and Medicare made sense when the working-age population greatly outnumbered the elderly, whom they subsidised, and large numbers of workers were employees who aspired to long-term employment by a single company. Policies are needed that reflect post-industrial realities: growing numbers of retirees and average job tenures of three to five years. Halstead and Lind advocate severing the provision of healthcare from employment and dividing the responsibility for health insurance between the individual and the government; business should play no role. In a similar fashion, the intergenerational transfer system embodied in social security should be replaced by a system based on mandatory individual saving, supplemented by a guaranteed government safety net. In education, Halstead and Lind propose a system in which funds are allocated to pupils rather than schools-a version of the educational voucher. Such proposals cannot be simply transplanted into the quite different environment of Britain, but they still have relevance. In the first place, they are useful in scotching half-baked reforms. The NHS, for example, is in trouble. It may be that we will eventually be driven towards some sort of mandatory self-insurance system-though the difficulties of making such a system work are daunting at a time when advancing scientific knowledge is making it ever easier to identify genetic health hazards. In any event no reform of health care could be more regressive than a version of the continental system linking health care to job tenure. At a time when self-employment and part-time work are becoming so common, even the NHS is better than that. But Halstead and Lind should encourage us to be more radical in our thinking on education. The government believes that investment in state education will persuade parents to desert private schools-a prospect that is so remote as hardly to be worth discussing. The only way that the inequalities of opportunity that are inherent in British education can be reduced is by policies that blur the difference between state schools and the private sector. The free market right has tarnished the case for school vouchers by representing them solely as an instrument of consumer choice, but there is no reason why they should not also serve the values of equal opportunity and meritocracy. In education policy, the voucher scheme may be the only route to these goals. Halstead and Lind maintain that liberal principles need far-reaching reinterpretation if they are to guide us today. Liberty is a vital good, but it cannot mean-as the right has supposed-a fixed set of market freedoms and a reflex of hostility against state power. Equality belongs in the pantheon of liberal values, but-contrary to New Labour’s critics on the old left-it does not entail an attempt to equalise end-states. A genuinely centrist policy would promote and equalise opportunity, and do so while fostering social cohesion. It is often argued that centrism means no more than splitting the difference between right and left. Understood like that, it is incoherent, a moving target, shifting here and there as rival parties compete to respond to the demands of an increasingly fickle electorate. At worst, centrism can degenerate into an unprincipled pick and mix of unrelated or dissonant policies. New Labour has come close to adopting this approach-hence the impression that its policy agenda somehow adds up to less than the sum of all its parts. Halstead and Lind demonstrate that centrism can mean something more durable. Writing from the fresher perspective of a younger country, they show how a firm grip on core liberal values can underpin an unorthodox and highly effective package of policies. Centrist thinking cannot supply solutions for every dilemma facing governments. In some cases-terrorism and climate change, for example-there may be no complete solutions. But Halstead and Lind have shown that we can do better than drift.