Against "sensible" politics

In spite of the fact most people think their own politics are "sensible," appeals to common sense are mostly about preserving the status quo—however broken it is

February 25, 2019
Just because you think you occupy the centre ground doesn't mean you're actually there. Photo: PA/Prospect composite
Just because you think you occupy the centre ground doesn't mean you're actually there. Photo: PA/Prospect composite

In 1945, before Labour’s first ever landslide victory would set the Attlee government on course to be the most radical left-wing government the country had ever seen, the Labour manifesto proclaimed that “Britain's coming Election will be the greatest test in our history of the judgement and common sense of our people.”

The 1997 manifesto included the word “sensible” three times—in reference to trade union reforms, media regulation, and the need to deal with a national crisis of confidence in Britain’s political system. Even the 1983 manifesto, that apparent bastion of radicalism, called for a “sensible” defence policy, and defended the NHS as a “commonsense example of democratic socialism in action.”

Being able to claim one’s politics are “sensible” is important, rhetorically and practically. Maybe this explains why Labour has historically split towards the centre: the self-defined moderate voices can see a potential mainstream political space outside the party, but those on the left have mostly been kept within its boundaries even as they grew increasingly uncomfortable with its policies.

Whilst people across the political spectrum can self-identify as sensible, the label is perhaps most easily applied to those who broadly identify as “centrist.” After all, centrism, as a political position, is about identifying the centre-ground between two extremes and hoping to pull in voters from both sides. It is easy to jump from this to the idea that centrist policies might be merely common sense.

Of course, denying the vote to women was simply common sense until 1918 and then 1928; Section 28 was defended as a sensible policy by its supporters, and ruined countless lives until it was repealed in 2003. But the fact there are many historical examples of “sensible” policies that we would now condemn as completely unreasonable does not seem to affect such thinking.

Claims to a sensible centre are particularly important in today’s moment of political polarisation. As the British political class is divided and paralysed by the Brexit debate, so too is the voting public. Ordinary people are growing tired of what they see as childish partisan posturing on this issue. The call for sensible politics—for the “grown-ups” to intervene and set the country on the right path—have been growing for some time.

Deriding both sides of the Brexit debate as childish can be cathartic, but it is also often counterproductive; certainly, Leave voters are not going to be won over to the idea that the “adults” in Brussels should step in and save Britain from itself. We like to think we want our politicians to be competent, capable and efficient — but of course, in reality, we only want these attributes in politicians who share our values. (Who could argue, hand on heart, that they really want their opposition to be competent?)

A poll by Opinium released just before the launch of the new “Independent Group” of MPs proclaimed that three-fifths of the British public would consider voting for a new centre-ground party if one were formed in the next election. Contrary to what some commentators believe, this does not herald the start of a new consensus moment in British politics. After all, if there were a huge number of voters crying out for an actually centrist political party, it would be difficult to understand why there were not all already voting for the Liberal Democrats.

Standing against “sensible” politics doesn’t mean espousing a politics that is unreasonable, or undemocratic, or violent. The murder of Jo Cox reminds us of the power and danger of divisive political rhetoric. But consensus is not always a positive force in politics, either. It can be exclusionary—the vision of a relatively homogeneous political class, with shared interests across party lines, makes voters feel disempowered and alienated from Westminster. The long period of consensus in British party politics, stretching from the wartime coalition of the 1940s to the advent of Thatcherism at the end of the 1970s, has been blamed for falling British electoral turnout and the apparent trend towards civic disengagement.

Of course, from 1940 to 1979 there was actually plenty of disagreement between the Conservatives and Labour at the policy level. And this highlights another problem, which is that claims to sensible middle-ground start to break down when parties need to develop policies.

Broad claims are easier: Britain should be a place of rights and freedoms; British people should be empowered and prosperous; the NHS is probably, on balance, a good thing. But once parties try to come up with policies, they find out quickly that one person’s sensible pragmatism is another’s alarming radicalism or stale status quo.

Most people believe their own politics to be sensible, and most people, therefore, see their own ideas for how to govern the country as occupying the centre-ground. This can be conjugated as follows: my ideas are sensible; your ideas are naively partisan; their ideas are dangerously radical. A self-defined “sensible” political party that tried to occupy the “centre ground” on all the key issues might find itself quickly condemned to inertia, able only to support the status quo, with all change defined as radical by some group other.

The new Independent Group frames itself as “evidence-based, not led by ideology.” This looks, on the face of it, to be a reasonable aim but it is essentially meaningless. All parties would argue that their policies are based on evidence; all voters believe that they are motivated by common sense. Evidence does not sit outside politics: the evidence you pick and choose to support your claims is governed by your ideology and your interpretation of that evidence, and decisions about what issues to prioritise and which to ignore, are fundamentally ideological. A technocracy, which operated based on ‘evidence’ with no care for the people affected by its policies, would create a pretty bleak political landscape.

Rather than conciliatory, then, these claims are actually quite politically dangerous: defining your political position as evidence-based, common sense, and broadly sensible is also defining your critics as cranks, radicals, weirdos. It is difficult to hear or acknowledge critique if you self-define as the most sensible voice in the room. And calls to reason have often been used to undermine the valid emotion expressed by marginalised groups—creating the image of the “hysterical” woman, the “angry” black activist.

It is necessary, therefore, to think critically about claims to sensibleness. It is vital to interrogate what is meant by common sense. And it is important to remember that just because you think you occupy the centre ground, that doesn’t mean that you’re actually there.