There are few labels in politics I hate more than ‘centrist’ and ‘moderate’ – and I shout from the rooftops my refutation of being either. I am radical but sensible – which is very different.
Let’s dispose of ‘moderates’ first. Anyone who believes anything of importance ‘moderately’ is wet and a drip. There are a lot of such people in politics – the Conservative pro-Europeans are wet almost to a man and woman – but I’m not one of them. How can you be moderate about freedom, justice – or Europe and hatred of Brexit? Only if you don’t really care.
The great surprise of my political life is how few politicians, even at the highest level, really care about big issues. They drift with the consensus of their colleagues and party, and when it changes they drift with the new consensus too, usually without an intervening murmur.
I was a young passionate idealist; now I’m an older passionate idealist. I also came from a very poor and precarious background. So it took me a long time to appreciate the two reasons why most politicians couldn’t care less.
First, most politicians come from economically secure backgrounds, especially Tories, obviously. Non-revolutionary political change tends to affect them personally little if at all.
When I was a reforming minister for schools, my guiding motivation was the great injunction of the socialist philosopher R.H. Tawney: ‘What the wise parent would wish for their child, so the state should wish for all children.’ For me this had a burning intensity. I had literally been in the care of the state as a boy and knew that for millions of people life and death, success and failure, depend upon the state and its officials and institutions working well. But for those who went to private schools, and sent their children to private schools, there is little of this experience or urgency.
The second source of political anaesthesia is careerism. Another 20th century philosopher, Max Weber, made a profound observation about modern politics when he said that most paid politicians are essentially bureaucrats. Their main concern is their jobs, salaries and pensions – not big ideas and principles. And if they start off with the passion at university, it drains rapidly as they get on the political career ladder.
I have been fortunate in having alternative careers to politics – journalism and public policy – and so have rarely worried about losing political salaries. But this isn’t just a matter of money: the constant quest for promotion is a big disincentive to making a stand on principle. This is a constant concern of today’s Tory MPs and ministers who fear their careers will be over if they defy the Brexiters who have taken over their party.
‘Centrism’ is equally insidious: the idea that virtue lies in splitting the difference between extremes. Sometimes this is true – for example, combining the best of the public and private sectors is far better than a wholly nationalised or wholly privatised economy.
However, on many issues virtue lies not in the middle, and splitting the difference makes all the difference. This is preeminently true of Brexit. There may be only a few inches in legal status between being ‘just’ in or out of the EU – the current difference between Britain and Norway – but practically and politically, they are miles apart.
This brings me to my great hero, Roy Jenkins. No-one was more ‘at the centre’ than Jenkins, chancellor of Oxford University, Order of Merit, peer, biographer of Churchill, Attlee and Gladstone, the greatest leaders of all three political parties in the last 150 years.
But Roy was emphatically neither centrist nor moderate. He was immoderately liberal – the most liberal home secretary in history, legalising abortion and homosexuality in the 1960s, way ahead of majority public opinion. He was equally immoderate in being pro-European and internationalist.
Jenkins was equally bold in seeking to realign politics by creating the SDP in 1981. When he did so, he famously said he was attempting to boost the ‘radical centre’ – which appears to contradict all I have just said.
But he told me afterwards that he regretted using the word ‘centre’, for all the reasons above. He did so because in the crucial lecture in which he launched the SDP he wanted to end with the famous Yeats poem:
‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity’
Yeats was so right – and so right today. The answer is not a new centrism but a new radicalism. We need the best, not the worst, to be full of passionate intensity.