“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” – WB Yeats, The Second Coming
Without wanting to start on too bleak a tone, this quote from Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ does seem to resonate effortlessly with the political scene today. As we find ourselves amidst heated and all-consuming debate on the EU referendum, we are often too swift to neglect the wider political context. It seems patently clear, even to the least erudite political observer, that Cameron is, as many are describing him, “a dead man walking”. But it would be too simplistic to attribute the Prime Minister’s impending overthrow to his desperate, and frankly idiotic, EU campaign. Cameron’s demise will be less the demise of one man but rather, the crumbling of an entire political project, one that sought to bring the Conservatives into the electable grounds of the Centre. Some saw Blair as Thatcher’s greatest achievement: quite the opposite, the greatest legacy of Tony Blair was David Cameron.
1995 witnessed a radical change in direction of Labour Party Policy. Tony Blair adapted Labour’s vision of Socialism to the actualities of post-Thatcherite society and economy. He pulled a party deeply out of step with public opinion to political breakthrough and he did so by appealing to the centrist sensibilities of the average voter. Cameron too sought to drag a party for too long viewed as behind the times of modernising, liberalising society, to the centre. The Cameroon ploys of hugging hoodies and huskies, and his notion of a ‘Big Society’ alloying the free market to a commitment to social justice and opportunity, witnessed Cameron occupy the centre ground – the centre was all beginning to look a bit crowded.
With a Labour Party drawn to the pragmatic centre-Left, and a Conservative opposition dragged to a personable centre-Right, UK politics found itself confined to a rather narrow portion of the ideological spectrum. Whilst to some it represented a progressive departure from ideological politics, focusing on the wants and needs of voters, to many it seemed a vacuous and lifeless form of centrism. From thence developed the political term ‘Blameronism’, a rather fatuous portmanteau denoting the supposed identicality of Blair and Cameron’s agendas. Even today you would not be hard pressed to find some UKIP MEP deploying the hackneyed platitude that not a “cigarette paper” could have passed between them.
But ultimately, what both the 1997 and 2010 General Election proved to us was that, in a first-past-the-post voting system, positioning oneself in the political centre-ground was effective. The public seemed to be wooed by a Labour Party liberated from the shackles of nuclear unilateralism and mass nationalisation, and it was courted by a Conservative Party that had abandoned its former draconian stances on welfare, the environment, and crime. Political centrism and electoral expedience were all the rage.
But what today’s party politics is proving is that this was just a fad, a short-lived experiment ended by the Labour party membership, and soon-to-be ended by a Tory faction, both of which seem more interested in returning to ‘ideological roots’ than embracing a vacuous and ultimately uninspiring form of centrism. Emanating from both the current Labour Party leadership and the Tory civil war over Europe is therefore the impression that both parties value ideology and political purism over electoral necessity. The Centre-ground is being rapidly vacated by a Labour Left and Tory Right striding in opposite directions.
I am by no means a fan of our current Prime Minister, and am equally sceptical about many of the policies, particularly regarding foreign policy, advanced by New Labour, but what Cameron and Blair recognised was a need to bring the party to the voters, and to apply the values of Conservatism and Socialism to the actualities of the modern world and crucially, the realities of the voters. After the election of Jeremy Corbyn, Blair has been almost exiled from his own party, a disgrace to the values of Socialism in a similar way that the likely outcome of the EU referendum will see Cameron howled out of office, viscerally berated as the man who destroyed the soul of Conservatism and represented what Douglas Carswell described as “every failed orthodoxy of the age”.
Whether the Tories shall be taken over by a more radically conservative leadership after June 24th seems unlikely – after all, the Conservative leadership is selected by its contingent of MPs, the majority of whom are far from right-wing ideologues. Nonetheless, Cameron’s Europhilia has left many Tory MPs sceptical of a return to what many would see as metropolitan bourgeois liberalism and this may, in fact, embolden them to place their trust in politicians who may represent a more traditional strand of Conservatism, particularly in regards to justice, education, the environment, and immigration.
In light of this, and of the leftwards shift in Labour Party direction, what the EU referendum will spell is the end of an era in which there existed a bi-partisan scramble for the political centre-ground. What may happen in 2020 is a General Election in which both major parties seem a world away from the priorities and beliefs of the average voter. 2016 will prove a chastening experience but politically, what it will teach us is precisely what Yeats warned: that political parties will be simply unable to hear the demands of the voter, that the falcon will not hear the falconer, and that “the centre cannot hold”.
Image: Creative Commons