There’s an old joke in which a man laments how all the achievements of his life are overshadowed by a single act of gross sexual perversion, for which he is forever known. “Do they call me MacGregor the bridge-builder? No!”
The moral of the story is that, however much you achieve, you will always be remembered for your most extreme and eye-catching behaviour.
According to a poll in yesterday’s Sunday Times, the two main political parties in Britain are now regarded as “extreme” by half the population. Some 46% of voters said they felt that way about the Tories and 52% about Labour.
“Extreme” is in the eye of the beholder, but the general understanding of the term is of dangerous political ideas that lie beyond normal parameters. We regard as extreme those things we hate, and so the population viewing mainstream political opponents as “extreme” could just be a symptom of growing partisan hostility, as in the States, where 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans believe their rivals “so misguided that they threatened the wellbeing of the nation”.
However, Labour has quite clearly moved to the Left since 2015 and some of the political causes with which their leader has associated himself with are extreme in the most basic sense of being violent. Some of their proposed economic policies also violate private property, such as John McDonnell’s mooted “requisitioning” of houses after the Grenfell fire, and legislating to allow tenants the automatic right to buy property.
But what about the Conservatives? The Brexit vote was in some ways tied to the culture war, but since David Cameron’s resignation, the Government has only accelerated his modernisation programme. The Tories have outflanked Labour on the transgender issue, supported votes for prisoners, allowed further liberalisation of abortion and promoted LGBT teaching in schools. One of Theresa May’s final acts was to establish a new body to tackle social injustice and achieve equality of outcomes.
You may or may not agree with these policies, and some Tories will support them, but they certainly aren’t “extreme Right-wing”.
On economics, the Conservatives have also shifted considerably to the Left, abandoning previous fiscal controls.
Over the weekend, Boris Johnson’s media supporters hit back at Philip Hammond’s claims that Brexiteers had turned the party into “an extreme Right-wing faction”. They pointed out that Hammond, unlike Boris, opposed same-sex marriage, and – unlike Boris – also favours austerity. Indeed, Hammond is more Right-wing than Boris on pretty much every issue there is — which is not that hard because Boris is a liberal.
But, then, it doesn’t really matter how much the Tories move to the centre, when keeping alive the possibility of leaving the EU without a deal is considered extreme enough to merit the label among half the population – especially if the Government takes ever hardline measures to overcome opposition in Parliament.
As the joke goes, “no one calls me Boris the bridge-builder…”