Liberalism, Centrism, and the Difference

Today I’m not very well — I’ve had what is either three separate extremely bad colds in close succession or one lingering infection that dies down and comes back, since Christmas, and today is one of the bad days, so I’m not going to write anything which requires much in the nature of thought or intelligence.

Instead, I’m going to write a pre-canned rant that I’ve had in my head for so long that I can type it without actually thinking about what the words are. This is based around something I said on Twitter a few days ago, and Jennie Rigg and Richard Gadsden both asked me to expand it into a blog post, so here it is.

I want to talk about why I don’t think the Lib Dems should position themselves as a centrist party, and about the fundamental difference between centrism and liberalism.

Before we go any further, a disclaimer, because people have a tendency to read things into my writing that I’m not saying. So in this piece I am *not* saying that the Lib Dems should kick out centrists, I am not saying that centrists are bad people, I am not even saying that centrism is incompatible with liberalism (I know several people who would consider themselves both liberal and centrist). What I am saying is that liberalism and centrism are not the same thing, that they’re fundamentally in conflict, and that while the party should welcome one it will on occasion have to choose one or the other, and that on those occasions it should choose liberalism, rather than the centrism it so often chooses.

The proximate cause for this particular iteration of the rant is Jolyon Maugham on Twitter. For those who don’t know, Maugham is the epitome of the Centrist Dad — he tweets regularly and at length about Brexit, and is of the correct opinion that it’s a terrible, terrible, idea. His analysis of Brexit, as far as it goes, is accurate enough.

But then he publicly donated to a transphobic crowdfunding campaign, and many liberals I know who had seen him as a kindred spirit were horrified. Why was someone who agreed with them doing this? Maugham later requested that his donation be returned, but an analysis of his tweets since shows that he still agrees that the transphobes’ narrow aim of trying to exclude trans women from public life was correct, he just doesn’t also agree with them that trans people should be refused medical treatment. Which is a typical example of centrist fence-sitting.

And that is, more or less, what centrism is. At its heart, centrism is a conservative ideology. In fact it may as well be another name for Burkean conservatism — the idea that the status quo is more or less correct, that no radical changes are necessary, and that basically all that is needed is tweaking around the edges. .Reforms may be needed, but they should be as minor as possible to avoid unforseen negative consequences.

So, in a transphobic society, centrism thinks that the current levels of transphobia are roughly correct. Maybe some rules need tweaking in one direction or another slightly, but we certainly shouldn’t do anything so radical as just not hurt trans people altogether, and nor should we go so far as to actually commit genocide against them. Just, you know, keep things as they are.

So understanding Maugham as a centrist rather than a liberal should have shown straight away that he was likely to have been a bit of a transphobe. (Liberalism, on the other hand, is trans-affirming.)

The same analysis also explains all the “Remain” politicians and pundits who say things like “we need to respect the result” and “we need to try to persuade the EU to modify free movement so we can stay in” and so on. They want to stay in the EU not out of any deep-held principle, but because it’s the least disruptive possible option, and so if they can find a way to keep immigrants out like the anti-EU people want, while staying in the EU, that’s best for them. Centrism is fundamentally about keeping the existing power structure, and retaining existing privilege. It’s Panglossianism as political philosophy, the idea that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, and it’s generally a philosophy that can only be seriously held by immensely privileged people.

So what is liberalism, and why does it get confused so easily for centrism?

I’m still planning a whole series of posts on what exactly I mean by liberalism, but very roughly what I mean by liberalism is the political philosophy that has been imperfectly embodied by the Liberal Democrats in the UK and before them the Liberal Party, supporting a society “in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”. It’s a philosophy of the left, with more in common, on paper, with anarcho-syndicalism, libertarian socialism, or the forms of Marxism espoused by people like Chris Dillow than with centrism, though at times it also seems to have a lot in common with right-libertarianism, and in its more moderate forms it can be indistinguishable from social democracy.

It values individual freedom and liberty of conscience, and wants to create a society without privilege. It’s suspicious of the state, but recognises the necessity of the state as a means to redistribute entrenched power more widely. It sees the need to fundamentally restructure Britain’s political and economic systems, moving towards a more federal, truly democratic, political system, with localised decision-making and with elected bodies chosen by STV and no appointed or hereditary legislators, and towards an economic system built around worker-owned co-operatives and with minimal or no rent-seeking. It tends to support a basic income, set at a relatively high level, and funded by property taxes, rather than current welfare systems funded by income taxes. It’s internationalist and environmentalist.

For liberalism the highest possible goal is to allow everyone to be the version of themselves they would most wish to be, so long as they’re not harming anyone else by so doing. As such liberalism values differences in race, sexuality, gender, gender expression, neurotype, family and relationship structure, religion, and so on as innate goods in themselves.

Now, no-one is wholly a liberal as I’ve just described, though a few people come close (no-one is wholly a subscriber to any political system, if they’ve thought about the subject for more than five minutes, and liberals more than most have a tendency to disagree with things out of pure orneriness and wish to be different). But that above is, roughly, what at least a majority of the people I know who call themselves liberals are pointing at when they’re pointing at liberalism.

Now, at first glance, that looks like it would have no connection at all with centrism, and that the two would be so incompatible that it would be impossible to confuse them. It certainly looks like there should be no way for centrists and liberals to share a party — but in fact we have, for many decades. So how has that been possible?

Well, there are two reasons. Firstly, liberals tend to be progressives rather than revolutionaries — we tend to support making progress towards a goal in steps rather than overthrowing the whole system all in one go and damn the consequences (that’s actually what “progressive” meant, originally, before it became a catch-all meaningless term). There’s a spectrum of beliefs about how fast progress should go, and while I’m at the end that’s closest to the revolutionary one (I have no patience at all, especially when it comes to issues of justice, and so I want to know why the world hasn’t already been made into utopia now now now!) other liberals are more cautious. At the limit, cautious progressivism tends to support the same individual changes as centrism — the difference merely being that the centrist sees them as “the one little change that’s needed to fix things” while the progressive sees them as “the first small step to something better”.

The second reason is to do with historical contingency. For the last few decades, at least in the UK, the leaderships of both major political parties have been reactionary. First Thatcher started the process of destroying the social-democratic post-war economic consensus, which New Labour equally happily continued, and then the current government started Brexit, a process of dismantling Britain’s post-war internationalist, socially liberal (relative to history if not to ideals) consensus, which Corbyn’s Labour are aiding and abetting.

Now liberalism and centrism both have, in reactionaries, a common enemy. When you’re in a tolerable-but-not-great situation, and you have someone trying to make it much, much, worse in power, the people who want things to stay the same and the people who want things to get much better both have, as a short-term goal, stopping things getting much worse or at least slowing it down.

So in the case of Brexit, for example, a liberal would see the EU as a good, if flawed, start, a stepping stone on the way to a greater international community, a transitional step to a Europe where the regions might end up having far more power than they have now, and the countries far less, but with a federal, democratically-elected, government to ensure co-operation between them.

As the Lib Dem constitution puts it “Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries; we are committed to fight poverty, oppression, hunger, ignorance, disease and aggression wherever they occur and to promote the free movement of ideas, people, goods and services. Setting aside national sovereignty when necessary, we will work with other countries towards an equitable and peaceful international order and a durable system of common security. Within the European Community we affirm the values of federalism and integration and work for unity based on these principles.”

(And again, as I say, Liberalism is only imperfectly implemented in the Lib Dems, as anyone who looked at our woeful immigration policy and compared it to our constitutional commitment to freedom of movement would see — just as the EU is only an imperfect implementation of Liberal ideals)

A centrist would see the EU as necessary to keep the current system in place, and its benefits as primarily economic, and so would be willing to sacrifice things like freedom of movement in order to keep those economic benefits. Recognising the political difficulty of keeping things exactly as they are, they’d make concessions to keep things as close as possible. Hence many “Remain” politicians arguing instead for “Soft Brexit” — keeping the pragmatic economic benefits, but leaving the internationalist union.

And meanwhile the Quitlings just want to smash everything up because they hate the forrins.

And when you have an enemy that just wants to destroy things to see them burn, liberals and centrists have a common cause, at least in the short term. But fundamentally it’s an unstable relationship. The tenant and the landlord both have a common enemy in firebombers who want to set fire to the flat the tenant is living in, but once the arsonist has gone it’s still in the tenant’s interest to get their own home and not have to pay rent, and it’s still in the landlord’s interest to charge so much rent the tenant can’t save for a deposit.

And right now, the Lib Dems’ leadership is, pretty much without exception, focussed on appealing to centrists.

And this is a problem, because the one thing we can say with certainty about the current political situation is that the centre cannot hold. Brexit is a consequence of the failure of the Thatcherite consensus which has held for my entire life, the same failure that led to the financial crisis, and the same failure that’s led to the inability to form a stable Government in a decade.

Yes, in a decade. We had Gordon Brown and his wavering over calling an election in 2007 and the constant infighting that marked the end of the New Labour period. We then had the 2010 election, which returned a result of “don’t know” and led to a coalition cobbled together from utterly opposed parties whose differences were hidden by the centrism of both leaders, That coalition was marked by fiddling round the edges with the current system, giving up on important questions by holding referendums to make them someone else’s problem, and frantic attempts to pretend nothing needed to change. That was followed by another election that was essentially a draw, which gave a tiny Conservative majority largely because of Labour’s strategic idiocy in targetting Lib Dem seats rather than Tory ones. That Government was so unstable it, too, had to dump its most important problem into a referendum, which in turn destroyed that Government altogether. The next Prime Minister, wanting a working majority, managed to get a minority government that had to be propped up by another party. In other words, it’s been thirteen years and three elections since the last election to return a single-party government with a working majority.

The last time the current system was clearly working, in other words, was 2005. Tony Blair was Prime Minister, George W Bush was in the White House, and I was unmarried and in my mid twenties. Doctor Who was Christopher Eccleston, and “broadband” of two megabits per second was just being introduced. We’re now on our third post-Blair PM, second post-Bush President, and fourth post-Eccleston Doctor, as I type this through my 27mps broadband connection it became my twelfth wedding anniversary a few hours ago, and I turn forty this year. If the next election takes place on its scheduled date, there will be people voting who were *one year old* the last time an election returned a decisive result.

Think about that for a second. Let that sink in. Really understand what that means. There will be a generation of voters coming up who have no memory at all of the system working, even to the extent it did work for some people in the past. People in their twenties at the next election will have been in primary school for Blair’s last election and for the financial crash. Hardly anyone much under thirty, by the 2022 election, will have any real memory of what the “normal” that centrism is based on was like.

Remainers like to talk about how demographics are on our side. And they are on the side of remaining in the EU — younger people overwhelmingly want to stay in. But they’re not on the side of centrism. Centrism to an eighteen-year-old now means supporting the system that has been comprehensively fucked since they were eight.

We’re in a political mess that took decades of Thatcherism and New Labour to bring about, and which Westminster politics first spent a decade pretending wasn’t happening, before spending the last two years throwing fuel on the fire. Right now, liberals and centrists share common cause in stopping the damage getting any worse, but centrism isn’t a viable solution to the underlying problems. And it’s not something that’s going to appeal to younger voters.

Centrism as an ideology is only coherent when there is a coherent centre. Right now there isn’t. So by all means we should listen to the centrists in our party. We should welcome them as part of a broad church, and encourage their contributions. They have valid things to say, and in the fights against Brexit and the destruction of human rights they are our allies.

But they have neither answers nor political appeal. They should be part of our big tent, but they shouldn’t be the tentpoles holding it up.

The political world needs new ideas, not insistence that the old ideas are fine.

Centrism has failed. Let’s try liberalism instead.


In the absence of a liberal economy that allows autistic people to flourish, and with no basic income to fall back on, I still have to eat and pay a mortgage. My Patreon backers allow me to do that, and I am ridiculously grateful to them for their generosity. If you back me, I’ll be grateful to you too.

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8 Responses to Liberalism, Centrism, and the Difference

  1. Nick says:

    I generally agree, but a few caveats:

    First, I don’t think liberalism is a single thing, and the Liberal Democrats are very rare internationally in being a catch-all liberal party. That belief that you can combine the right and left wings of liberalism in one party leads to a kind of centrism by default as the party balances tge two wings. This then makes (or perhaps made) the party attractive to centrist and other ‘neither left nor right’ types, but as an empty vessel rather than an ideological position.

    Second, I’m not sure centrism is ever coherent as an ideology in itself. It’s more what they call a ‘thin ideology’ like populism – it needs something else to attach itself to to work. So you can have various brands of it – centrist conservatism/liberalism/social democracy/managerialism etc – but it’s never going to be a coherent ideology on its own. The question is more whether it is appealing to voters at any particular time and that’s more connected to their belief in overall competence of the system. Centrism’s problem in the UK now is that people don’t believe consensus and compromise work, so it’s advocates are left without support.

    • TAD says:

      You’ve pretty much said exactly what I wanted to say. I don’t think “centrism” can be described as an ideology. I consider myself a centrist, albeit usually a left-leaning one. That doesn’t mean I take the middle ground on every issue though, and far from it. In my case, I tend to be with liberals on social and cultural issues, and with conservatives on economic issues. I like some of the left, and some of the right, and that puts me in the center, if that makes sense.

  2. Going back a bit further, was it the rise of the Labour Party in the early 20th century that started to get the Liberal Party associated (rightly or wrongly) with centrism? I get the impression that the mixture of liberalism and centrism that you describe in today’s Lib Dems was already present in the Liberal Party in the mid-20th century. My great-grandad was an Independent Liberal councillor in Manchester from the late 1930s to early 1950s. We’ve got one of his election leaflets (undated), and it’s a very odd mix of centrism and radical liberalism. He says he believes in Liberalism but is standing as an Independent because party politics should be kept out of local government. He explicitly says that the centre is the best position. Then there’s a bit that can fairly be paraphrased as, “I’m not a socialist and I would only nationalise three things: railways, mines and land”! He expands on the third one by saying that God gave the earth to everyone and he doesn’t see why he should pay ground rent for his house to an aristocratic landlord. That puts him in a radical tradition that goes from Gerard Winstanley in the 17th century to today’s advocates of a land tax. He was also a freemason, which I wouldn’t have thought was a good fit with liberalism.

  3. glyncoch says:

    Gavin, my mother was an “independent councillor” in Somerset in the 1960s, as all councillors were in those days. It was Ted Heath, who decreed that his party would fight local elections at the end of that decade, and brought party politics into local councils, and drove many of that generation of public service councillors out. Costs of council services increased considerably, with little benefit to voters,afterwards.
    But as to Andrew’s argument, I always thought of Centrists as those who are neither Labour nor Conservatives and see themselves as being half way between. As a Liberal I have strong unchanging principles. That means that as Labour and Conservatives have galloped to the right over the last 3 decades or so, the centrists have also moved away from our Liberal position. The Centrists are now in about the same political position as Ted Heath was when he took us into the EU, and are there because they are still neither Labour nor Conservative, not because they have adopted Ted Heaths political philosophy. Centrists, for example will not defend good local business against the worst tax evading, employee abusing, environment destroying multinationals. Though Heath’s party was the party of family farms, independent shops, and SMEs, if not their employees. He even called Lonrho “the unacceptable face of capitalism.” Whereas we expected Wilson to nationalise the Banks, which would have saved us a lot of grief. But now, both Labour and the Conservatives seem incapable of doing anything to help ordinary people, and deaths of people in the care of the Government on benefits or the National Health seem to cause scarcely a ripple in parliament. When I was younger the death of one person would have resulted in the collapse of a government, now 1000s are reputed to have died, and no one takes any notice. AS Andrew says, the centrists continue to defend the status-quo

  4. DB says:

    Interesting that you think that the 2005 election “worked”, because my impression at the time was that it was a weird vacuum of an election. It seemed that the voters didn’t want New Labour any more, but whereas in previous such cycles they’d turn to the Conservatives, this time they didn’t want them either. And nobody thought the LibDems could win, so not enough people voted for them.

    The result was an election best describable as one in which all the parties lost, and Labour formed the government only because it lost least badly.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, I may have a slightly biased opinion there because of the huge Lib Dem gains made.
      But I think it “worked” in the terms that advocates of the current system mean — it produced a government with a working majority, that lasted a full five-year term, and managed to get its legislative agenda through.
      Of course, the signs of the later horrors were already there, in particular with the Conservatives’ “Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking?” posters, but it still felt like there was a normalcy there. It felt like a system that was breaking down, but still fixable with a little work.

  5. Thanks for this, too, which is very thought-provoking. I think I’ve noticed a tiny typo, though. In this phrase (fourth para):

    “while the party should welcome one it will on occasion have to choose one or the other”

    I think you meant “while the party should welcome both…”

    Just noting that for the record, because I think you’re articulating something really important here, and it’s worth making sure the details are as you meant them.

  6. Salem says:

    You’re conflating three kinds of centrism. You accurately describe the centrism of “things are pretty great as they are, no big changes please.”

    But there’s also the centrism of consensus and moderation. People who personally may or may not want to go in a radical direction, but think the government needs to reflect broad societal consensus, and try and create one where it doesn’t exist. And this may be because of concerns about legitimacy, or good faith, or stability. This is where many Remainers who say “we need to respect the result” are coming from, and also why they want to temper it with a soft Brexit. People like this tend to see themselves as the adults in the room, which is an annoying pose, but there’s something to it.

    And finally there’s ideological centrism – people whose genuine beliefs roughly split the difference between the major parties. Note that centrists are rarely about minimising change – one major party is often explicitly no-change on a given issue, and centrists don’t agree. This could be by happenstance – the old joke about how you go from radical to reactionary without changing your views – but normally it’s because – infuriatingly to the ideologues! – they see both sides as making good points, and are sufficiently open-minded (or stupid, or weak…) to be malleable as politics shift. At their best, these are the greatest statesmen like Madison. At their worst, these are low-information voters taking the path of least resistance. Plenty of the Soft Brexit brigade fall into this category.

    Actually existing centrism is a mixture of all this.

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