What is meant by the centre in political analysis?

There are good grounds for thinking that the concept rests at heart on an acceptance of what Weber called ‘an ethic of responsibility’

Tony PayneAll the talk at the moment is about the centre ground in politics, especially in Britain but also more widely too in other parts of Europe. Conventionally, this is understood as the central part of an ideological spectrum running from left to right. It can be debated (endlessly) where the centre stops and the left and right begin and it is acknowledged that the location of the centre in relation to left and right can be pulled in different directions – and thus in effect re-located to advantage – by clever politicians. Indeed, in large part that is what politics is all about, as past masters of the art, such as Tony Blair and more recently his pupil on this front David Cameron, demonstrate.

But is this enough of a definition to sustain the weight of usage of the concept of the centre? Obviously, once located as it were, its existence enables politicians, parties and citizens to proclaim that they are left or right of centre in their orientation. This has long been the meat and drink of political discussion and it clearly tells us something of interest and importance. So far, so good, one might say, except that the concept of the centre still doesn’t specify anything very precisely. It all depends on where you think the centre is and that is nearly always a moving feast, apparent only to each beholder.

We often deploy as well other (seemingly similar) phrases, asserting perhaps that we sit on the centre-left or the centre-right of politics. This reiterates the conventional left-right spectrum, but seeks to firm up just a little the element that makes someone centre-left or centre-right as opposed to (real?) left or (real?) right. So can these turns of phrase be given firmer underpinning?

I think they can. I’ve come to this view after watching closely over the summer two fascinating political processes that eventually came to a head within a week of each other just last month. One was the election of a new leader of the Labour Party in Britain which took place on 12 September and the other was the outcome of Greece’s fifth poll in six years of economic and political crisis which occurred on 20 September.

We know only too well the outcome in the Labour race and it clearly constitutes a transformation in the position and mode of the party. Corbyn’s victory was unquestionably a phenomenon, representing the capture of an established party by a tide of left populist sentiment. In the telling words used by Rafael Behr, Corbynism is ‘a kind of Faragism of the left – an oxymoronic mix of reactionary radicalism led by an anti-politics politician’. But it was what Labour’s members and supporters overwhelmingly wanted and everybody has heard delighted party members displaying their excitement that, at last, they have a leader whose views and stances they enthusiastically endorse. As some of those who attended Corbyn’s campaign meetings reported, there developed an air of revivalist, almost religious, fervour about the movement he generated, albeit that much of it was refracted via the multiple echo chambers of the world of social media.

There is a crucial link here to Greece, because the British left, inside and outside of Labour, has gone out of its way to offer consistent support to the Syriza party in Greece, both before and after it entered government in January 2015. Even though, by any sensible analysis, Syriza made many huge mistakes in government and ended up accepting an EU-imposed austerity deal worse in substance than one it had successfully called upon the beleaguered Greek people to reject in a referendum in July this year, it nevertheless succeeded in winning re-election to office in September, securing only four fewer seats than it had done in its great victory of January.

I was fortunate enough to be in Thessaloniki on the day of the election and I watched the results come in that night on television with Greek friends. The losers gave their various concession speeches and the stage was clearly set for the Syriza leader, Alexis Tsipras, to address his jubilant supporters in Athens. He did so in expected fashion, but then something very interesting happened. The spotlight moved from Tsipras to the crowd and there could be seen pushing his way through the people to the stage and into the arms of the victorious Syriza leader none other than Panos Kammenos, the head of the right-wing, nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL) party with which Syriza had been in coalition since January. It was manifestly a pre-planned move that signalled Syriza’s preference to govern again in conjunction with ANEL rather than, say, with Pasok (which won 17 seats) and Potami (which won 13). Both of the latter are parties of the ‘centre-left’ by conventional definition and could have given Syriza a bigger majority in the Greek parliament and a broader ideological platform from which to withstand the strains of more austerity to come.

My reflection as I flew home the next day was that there still existed in Greece a significant gap between left nationalist populism, on the one hand, and social democracy, even radical social democracy, on the other.

What does all this mean for the better definition of the centre in politics, the issue with which this post seeks to grapple? It suggests to me that what underpins and ultimately characterises centrist politics (whether in its left or right variant) is a rejection of what I see as the easy moral simplicities of populist politics in favour of the complex, awkward and often unsatisfying and unsatisfactory world of governing, of trying to find the best way through the most difficult problems, even if that involves compromise. The latter is of course the dirtiest of words in the lexicon of the populist left (and right).

In fact, what I am arguing here is not original at all: it’s just too frequently forgotten. Max Weber in fact said it all as long ago as January 1919 in a brave lecture to students in Munich at a time when that city was briefly the capital of the Bavarian Socialist Republic. His lecture was subsequently published under the title of Politics as a Vocation and has become a classic of political writing. In his lecture Weber declared that ‘all ethically oriented conduct’ was guided by ‘one of two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims’ which he described and contrasted as an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ and an ‘ethic of responsibility’.

The former did not necessarily imply irresponsibility, but it did assert ‘the flame of pure attentions’ and rested on the satisfaction of being morally right, avoiding consensus, pragmatism and compromise in favour of the retention of moral and ideological purity and the belief that political acts ‘can and shall have only exemplary value’. For its part, the latter ethic was not to be confused with unprincipled opportunism. Nevertheless, the politician who believes in an ethic of responsibility ‘takes account of precisely the average deficiencies of people’. He or she faces up to hard choices in government, accepts the language and reality of priorities and is prepared to work away in the cause of reforms and political changes that seek to improve lives and alter conditions, even if only partially and incrementally.

This is a vital distinction in styles of politics, in my view, and one that carries through from Bavaria in 1919 to remain highly relevant in Britain and Greece and indeed many other comparable states and societies in the present day. What’s more, it defines for me what it is to pursue a politics of the centre, whether that is centre-left or centre-right. The key common element is a ready acceptance of Weber’s ethic of responsibility.