The comedian Eddie Izzard used to do a standup routine about showers. In particular, the fine art of getting the water temperature right. Turn the dial a tad too far to one side, and you sustain third-degree burns. A fraction too much the other way, and you enter the sort of cryogenic stasis that messianic tycoons hoping to cheat death pay good money for. The target, the grail, is a “nano-millimetre” in the middle.
I have what you might call shower-dial politics. Anything left or right of dead centre elicits a shudder. Put it down to being reared in the Clinton-Blair era of technocratic moderation. Or to having to leave other countries because the politics was too raw. Either way, short of walking Regent Street in a sandwich board that says “The System Works”, I couldn’t be more conventional.
I am, to use a coinage of the previous decade, a centrist dad. No, you needn’t have children to qualify. And yes, women can like vanilla politics, too. The phrase was not meant to capture biographic specifics so much as an outlook: complacent, self-satisfied, forever passing off as common-sense views that are reactionary or metro-liberal. Circa 2017, centrist dads weren’t just wrong. We were losers. Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn were signs that history’s tide was against us.
Just checking about that tide. Which western nation now isn’t run by someone in the thin philosophical band from centre-left to centre-right? Italy? Even there, Giorgia Meloni has had to trim and tame her populism. Her peers are Emmanuel Macron, Joe Biden, Olaf Scholz, Ursula von der Leyen. It could be a gathering at the school gates at 3.30pm. Mark Rutte, the most under-analysed politician in the democratic world, is still prime minister of the Netherlands. When a centrist dad surveys the world scene now, he sees mostly friends. Our hearts, under all that chest pudge, soar.
And then there’s Rishi Sunak. Nothing brings more paternal pride than watching an ideological tearaway accept the centrist truth in the end. The UK premier is coming on nicely. All that jejune libertarianism, all that early support for Brexit, and now look. A deal over Northern Ireland. Implicit praise for the European single market. It is cruel that such a young man should have to give up his innocent dreams in the face of intransigent reality. But how else do they learn?
There is one argument against centrist dads worth taking seriously. That is, an opinion equidistant between two others on the political spectrum is not always the correct one. What would a centrist view on slavery have been in the mid-19th century US? And who would now admire it? Give me the abolitionists in all their zeal.
Splitting the difference, issue by issue, isn’t smart. But then whoever behaved like that? Centrist dads don’t take the middle way on everything. (I am near-libertarian on planning, and the opposite on crime.) Some have no direct interest in policy at all. What they do is read human beings, and bet on the least wild-seeming ones. As a way of choosing national leaders, it is unintellectual: more a heuristic than a thought process. But the results stand comparison with whatever mental procedure induces one to elevate a Corbyn.
The “centre” was never primarily about policy. Ultimately, countries elect people. And over a long enough period, over a large enough sample size of issues, radical people run aground. They do so in familiar ways. They are underbriefed: detail gets in the way of a priori certainties. They succumb to scandal, precisely because they fancy themselves immune to it. (How can one be corrupt, or debauched, or antisemitic, when one’s cause is righteous?)
Radicals are useful to a nation as a sort of dissenting Greek chorus: saying what is true-but-controversial, wailing at orthodoxies that no longer make sense. The trouble starts when they become prime characters. Leave that to centrist dads. Their verities, so out of favour in the past decade, have proven resilient, and not just in frontline politics. Some of the most successful podcasts of the day star centrist dads. Having strayed from the family home, some people are knocking sheepishly on the door. And look, all is forgiven. Come to papa.
Email Janan at email@example.com