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 isby Charlotte Lydia Riley / February 25, 2019 / Leave a comment
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and then 1928; Section 28 was defended as a sensible policy by its supporters, and ruined countless lives until it was repealed in 2003.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…