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Why does a new middle-of-the-road party have to be a liberal one?

Jacob W. Frank/Zuma Press/PA Images

Jacob W. Frank/Zuma Press/PA Images

April 24, 2018   3 mins

Political terminology can be confusing.

For instance, in America, a liberal Democrat is someone on the centre-left of the more left-wing of the two big parties. In Japan, the Liberal Democrats are the main conservative party (and the natural party of government). In Russia, the Liberal Democrats are an ultranationalist party, permanently in opposition. In the UK, the Liberal Democrats are a centrist party of protest that joined a Conservative-led government – and are now, very firmly, back in opposition.

According to a poll from ComRes, 47% of British voters believe there is a need for a new centre party. There is, it is reported, £50 million in funding lined-up for anyone who can do to British politics what Emmanuel Macron did to French politics.

‘En Marche UK’ would be anti-Brexit, pro-immigration and socially liberal. Rather like the Liberal Democrats, in fact. The main difference is that the new party would be new. This would, apparently, change everything.

Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist (writing as ‘Bagehot’) is awake to the absurdities:

“Those who say the mooted new party would be different point out that it is garlanded with big names. But the names are the very opposite of what you want in a disruptive party: fallen Goliaths rather than plucky Davids.”

He is dismissive of the potential British Macronistes – such as David Miliband (“Davos man incarnate”) and Sir Nick Clegg (“a titled throwback to the Cameron years”).

Wooldridge wonders why, in an age of disruption, the British political system seems so hard to disrupt. I would argue it has been disrupted, but from within the established party system (it’s a similar story in America).

Disruptors can only disrupt with a genuinely new product, but the much-discussed ‘new’ centre party only serves to repackage an old and dilapidated one (which, by the way, is much better described as liberalism than centrism):

“At the start of the century, centrists were convinced that they had a winning formula: a free market in morals as well as economics, and a determination to use the proceeds of growth to help the poor. This philosophy colonised all three main parties. But today it lies in ruins. The financial crisis has destroyed the centre’s reputation for economic competence. The concentration of wealth in London has undermined its claim to stand for social justice…”

Wooldridge posits a centrist split between “fundamentalists, who dismiss criticisms of the old model as manifestations of closed-mindedness, if not outright racism; and reformers, who recognise the need to fix the model’s weaknesses.”

So what is it that centrists need to fix?

“How do you remain in the sensible centre while leading a revolution against Britain’s new oligarchy, the clique of second-rate people in both the public and private sectors who have got rich by sitting on each other’s boards and marking each other’s homework? How do you address technocratic questions about the wiring of capitalism (stock options, public listings, takeover rules) while fashioning a compelling vision of a capitalism that works for everyone?”

That’s a great list, if not an exhaustive one. As an agenda for action, there really is room for a new centre party here – but not a liberal one.

This is for three main reasons:

  • Firstly, as I’ve explained before, liberalism – i.e. the maximisation of economic and social freedom as if nothing else matters – is not centrist. It is extremist.
  • Secondly, the problems on Adrian Wooldridge’s to-do list are the consequence of liberalism; more of the same cannot be the solution.
  • Thirdly, the idea that there is a better, stronger form of liberalism to be had is a delusion – akin to the old lefty excuse that ‘real socialism has never been tried’.

That doesn’t mean that Wooldridge’s reformist project is a waste of time, just that it will, if faithfully pursued, lead to something other than liberalism.

Ensuring that the post-liberal future is not anti-liberal is what matters now.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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