Centrism as political vapourware: Nick Barlow and the importance of ideology

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The Planet Money podcast from NPR in the US has a lovely tradition each February to make Valentines Day. It honours those they are envious of:

We’re back for our annual tradition: Channeling another year’s worth of jealousy and self-loathing into a whole episode just for you. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Here at Planet Money, we spend a lot of time digging around for stories and new ideas. So when we come across something that we think brilliantly explains our economy – we’re often like, “Why the heck didn’t we come up with that?!”

So in the same spirit, here is a shout out for Nick Barlow’s excellent piece from earlier this year, “Centrism as political vapourware“.

Vapourware here is adapted from the field of IT where it refers to a promised wonderful new product that is shrouded in secrecy save for tantalising hints and occasional prototypes, frequently never quite sees the light of day but is always repeatedly promised as coming soon and going to be amazing. Which rather brings to mind all the talk of Shiny New Centre Party coming soon (maybe) to a polling station near you.

As Nick says:

That’s why all these ideas for Bold New Centrist Movements To Change Politics are political vapourware — when you look at any of them in depth, there’s no there there. Unlike existing and successful political parties there’s no unifying idea or principle there to bring people in and then hold them together. “Things would be great if everyone agreed with me” is all well and good until you find out that not only are you now in a party with people who all think that, they don’t all agree with you and they even have disagreements on what things being great looks like. What these plans for centrist revivals miss is that centrism is not an ideology, but a form of political practice, a way of doing things that emphasises building consensus rather than conflict as a way to achieve your goals, but successful centrists are those that tie it to specific, and often ideological, political goals, not those who see it as an end in itself.

It’s for a variation on this that, despite my love of experts and evidence, I firmly believe there is a key role in policy making for ideology. Not all choices can be boiled down to a technocratic decision based on evidence.

Key choices require decisions based on values – such as how important is it to look after people today compared with preparing to look after people tomorrow?

Absent a magic money tree, a King Midas and Frank Bourassa all being found in 10 Downing Street this Thursday afternoon, you have to make a choice on how to balance those competing, desirable claims.

When I wrote about the role of ideology before I highlighted how ideology is often used as a form of intolerant insult – if someone disagrees with you, they are being ideological and so wrong:

As The Economist once put it: “Ideology is just a pejorative word for principles in which you happen not to believe.”

It’s the Henry Ford approach to acceptable politics – you can believe whatever you want as long as you believe the same as me.

Far from being a sign of failure, ideology is an essential part of success.

4 responses to “Centrism as political vapourware: Nick Barlow and the importance of ideology”

  1. Those that are willing to take the economic hit from leaving the EU seem to forget that the World is slowly entering recession. It follows that if recession comes to the UK after we leave and the problems of that even if the hit is not as bad as predicted we will also be hit by the Global recession a double hit that cannot do the country any good.
    It would also follow that those with money (Tories ?) will be able to ride any storm that arrives but the rest of us will absorb most of the damage.

  2. The problem with ideology is, like the Force, it has both a light side and a dark side. When you say “Not all choices can be boiled down to a technocratic decision based on evidence”; it is also true that for some, perhaps all, of those choices a technocratic decision would be possible in the future. We dignify making certain decisions in the absence of evidence by the term ‘the precautionary principle’, but it is always clear that we are aware that we use it because there are dangers in making certain decisions. Ideology, by its nature rejects this possibility because it is belief-based.

    If you want to call evidence-based decision-making with adoption of the precautionary principle where evidence is inadequate or totally lacking, an ideology, then I think that you are stretching the meaning of ideology too far.

  3. Centrism as an ideology can be defined as “the idea that just because a little of something might be a good thing, a lot of it is not necessarily better.” This is an idea that not only chimes with a huge number of people, it is self-evidently true in so many respects.

  4. Ideology is like a principle in physics (no exceptions to the rules). Life throws up exceptions to the rules all the time. Policies meanwhile are like laws in physics (allow for exceptions). It stands to reason therefore that in a democracy most voters would support policy-driven centrist parties. Yet most people want to feel an emotional response to political messages and switch off the parties that do not “stir them” at the precise time when they are most vulnerable and in need of political stability. Why is it so? Is it a pack animal instinct? Or a gambler’s nature?

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