A personally vain and (in their previous life) accomplished individual promises to ‘shake up’ the ‘old politics’ of ‘left and right’. The country needs ‘modernisation’, and for our general approach to be ‘smart’ and ‘strategic’. Their critics accuse them of trampling the normal checks on power and on concentrating decision-making in their own hands. Their personality is supposed to say something about the changed sensibilities of modern masculinity, but they undoubtedly have some residual element of machismo and a profound belief in their own destiny.
This could be any one of Bill Clinton (the first), Tony Blair, or Emmanuel Macron, or even their poor imitators Matteo Renzi and Chuka Umunna. Troublingly, all of them share, as well as broad politics, a rhetoric and a style. This is not something you can say, or even really imagine beginning to say, about any other political tradition. Despite sharing a tradition of conservatism, Ronald Reagan was a very different person to Margaret Thatcher. Likewise, Clement Atlee and Leon Blum shared socialism, but hardly personalities.
Political traditions often have ‘types’ who tend to gather under their umbrella. The ‘firebrand radical’ of the David Lloyd George-Ramsay MacDonald-Nye Bevan style, the ‘crusty establishment paternalist’ of the Chris Pattern-Rab Butler variety – but these are always only an element of their movement, not its defining feature. Centrists, by contrast, are primarily defined by personality types. The centrist leader is almost king-like, led by a belief in their own insight into the electorate, force of individual will, and an indefinable but definitely present element of Fortuna.
You can point to a few common principles beyond general political cadence – free trade, free markets, pro globalization, tempered with some sense that government should care and people shouldn’t just be left to fend for themselves. But what all of these characters have in common, and this is what their critics often miss, is that even this newer set of principles are basically malleable and can be selectively jettisoned for political advantage. For every gesture Clinton made towards gay rights (the first president to mention it in the State of the Union), there is a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. For every expansion of the EU into the former Eastern Bloc, there is a Dover speech. For every wish of penance for France’s colonial-era crimes, a tirade against ‘Islamo-leftism’.
What guides these trade offs? It all comes back to being smart. Centrism is the celebration of the performance of picking and choosing, and (by extension) the person doing that picking and choosing himself. (It’s usually a he.) During his least successful incarnation as a People’s Voter Blair was fond of saying he fought and won an election on immigration; by being clever in running on a message of Tough on asylum seekers, Tough on the causes of asylum seekers, while refusing to cede the general principle of freedom of movement. All while not exactly dispelling the accusation the Tories were stoking up racist sentiment in their own campaign.
This electoral manipulation is a kind of snooker trick shot, while seen by some debatably as a necessity, it is hardly a spectacle to valorise in and of itself. And yet this is exactly what we were expected to do; laud the contrivance of necessity to its maximum benefit. No ideology can dictate this course, no ideology can constrain it. It’s conception is the pure discretion of the leader, its metric is its electoral success.
In centrism’s purest form, as with En Marche, there is nothing within the party machine that can challenge the political wisdom of the leader. When Macron’s prime minister was becoming more popular than him, he was dispatched. What was originally meant to be a new force and a genuine “movement” has seen chunks of its MPs leave the party over frustration at their lack of input. A supposed heralding of a redrawing of French politics has generally failed to trickle down onto any campaign where Macron himself is not the candidate.
During Tony Blair’s premiership there were a lot of earnest think-pieces about the decline of “issues” in politics at the expense of “personalities”. When Blair announced his resignation one BBC news anchor asked a bemiffed Tony Benn if he thought issues were going to be debated in the upcoming leadership election, rather than it be just another episode in the New Labour soap opera. Well, issues have returned, but personality has become the issue. The crisis of the Donald Trump presidency was the personality of Trump himself; critics of Boris Johnson attack the extraordinary reliance on donors to purchase even his personal possessions, leading back to the supposed real culprit, the polluted character of the leader.
The centrist opposition to populism is that it is its inverted mirror image; a leader that, instead of cherry picking pieces of left-right ideology to share with the crude population, actually draws his strength (Le Pen aside, populists are usually men as well) from the one side of the divide and indulges in it with as much gusto. The centrist objections to these men are premised on their unfitness for office and what they themselves represent and ‘embody’.
Even genuine ideological fissures, like attitudes to the EU, are often articulated in terms of ‘who we are’. They are two sides of the same coin of politics moving towards a kind of contest of the vanities whereby jostling strongmen supposedly have some mystical connection to either ‘the people’ on the one hand or ‘the science’, ‘the evidence’, or just being plain ‘smart’ on the other. It is only together they can peel apart a conception of democracy whereby people come together to effect change themselves.