One of the reasons recent debates about centrism have become so heated is because people haven’t realised they’re talking about two different thingsby Nick Barlow / August 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
Right now, centrism is the Rorschach test of British politics. Almost everyone agrees that it exists, but what they see when they look at it varies wildly. In the eyes of some, it’s what British politics needs a lot more of to solve the political and economic crises of Brexit—while to others, it’s something that Britain has already had far too much of and is the root cause of those and many other crises.
At this point in the debate over what a political term actually means, we might normally turn to academia to provide us with an accepted definition of the term. Unfortunately, the general academic way of defining centrism has been to borrow the method of a US Supreme Court justice defining pornography: “I know it when I see it.” For once, academic and populist discourse are united in accepting that centrism exists, but leaving what it actually is to the eye of the beholder.
I would suggest that centrism is actually two concepts that have become overlapped and intertwined but still refer to different things—and one reason some of the recent debates about centrism have become heated is because people haven’t realised they’re talking about two different things. On the one hand we have what I’ll call for now “practical centrism,” and on the other we have “centrist tendencies.”
Practical centrism is essentially a form of political pragmatism that believes the best way to solve political problems is with a mix of the ideas of the left and the right. This centrism has a belief in balance, and a sense that politics swinging too far to the left or right is dangerous for society.
In Europe, it manifests itself most clearly in the post-war Christian Democrat tradition, which sought to industrially develop the continent’s shattered economies and prevent the extremes that had led to war. This balance between extremes was the strategy followed by Christian Democracy in its decades running Italy, and is also behind Angela Merkel’s positioning of the CDU at the centre of German politics.
One problem for understanding this form of centrism in Britain is that we often confuse Christian Democracy with conservatism, and associate centrism with liberalism because of its association with the Liberals and Liberals Democrats.