Yesterday's moderate is today's extremist

Most consider it moderate to suggest renationalising the railways, whereas most politicians think it extreme

Michael Howard is going to lead the Conservatives "from the centre". Which fits with the accepted view that no politician can win an election in Britain unless they are "moderate", just as Tony Blair could only win by ditching Labour's extremism.

The problem with this theory is that everyone thinks they are moderate. To take one example, there can be no more cuddly moderate organisation than the Catholic Church, home to such jewels of universal goodness as the Pope and Mother Theresa. Yet this is an institution that preaches the punishment for using a condom is an eternity in molten agony, which to an outsider could be interpreted as mildly extreme. A Pope would be considered an extremist radical if he suggested the punishment should be amended from eternity to a mere 30 billion years. Then Howard would probably scream "this proves the Pope is the sperm-waster's friend", because "brimstone works" and "if you can't do the eternity, don't prevent the maternity".

What is moderate changes from one time to the next. Abraham Lincoln was selected as a moderate candidate for the 1860 election in America, because although he was opposed to slavery, he wasn't all that bothered about it. So he made lots of speeches along the lines of leading from the centre, and this attitude, it was thought, would comfort the white Southerners. Later, he changed his mind and led a war that abolished slavery altogether. So at which point was he at his most moderate? Incidentally, you have to be grateful it wasn't Blair that won in 1860, as he'd just about now be commissioning another inquiry into whether slavery could be abolished without costing thousands of jobs in the whip-making industry.

Even revolutions appear moderate to those involved in them. During the French Revolution, when a people's militia was set up to storm the Bastille, the organisers issued an order that "all unemployed and vagrants are to be excluded". They were saying, in effect, "no riff-raff - this is a respectable armed uprising".

This is why the most ridiculous poll I saw recently was in The Times, which asked people to mark a dot on a line, according to whether they considered themselves to the left or right. And most people, they deduced, were "moderate". But this tells you nothing. One hundred and forty years ago you were an extremist if you believed in evolution and giving women the vote. You might as well ask "if your political ideas were a fish, which one would they be" and conclude "Britain plumps for pike".

A couple of weeks ago I witnessed an example of how the moderate centre can shift about, while watching the England versus Turkey match on a giant screen in a pub in Burnley. The start was ominous, when the picture showed a group of Turkish fans, at which point a couple of lads walked to the screen and beckoned them, with that "come on then" gesture.

How hard, on a scale of one to 10, did they think that made them? Did they brag about it afterwards? "We fronted up to this TV image of these Turks, about ten thousand of them there was, they bottled it, just turned into an image of Trevor Brooking". Perhaps they'll make a habit of it: "Here, I gobbed on a poster of Mike Tyson last night, he just stood there, he's nothing." But then a crowd of about 12 started singing "I'd rather be a Paki than a Turk". There were about 300 people in this pub, all white, and while no others joined in, they just carried on unfazed, as if this was perfectly normal.

Conversely, 20 ago, for someone over 40 and not part of the left to suggest they were going on an anti-war demonstration, would have seemed as implausible as the old woman from the village chemist asking you to feed her cat while she went riding across Germany with a biker gang. Now to take part in such a protest has become a respectable part of British society. Similarly, to most people it would appear moderate to suggest re-nationalising the railways, whereas most politicians would regard this as extreme, and the same could be said for most major issues.

As this gap between political parties and the population gets wider, a growing number admire solutions that were once considered "extreme", with some protesting and others attracted by the racists. And to all this, the traditional politicians seem utterly oblivious. New Labour was created, according to Blair, so that there could never again be a debacle such as the 1983 election, when Labour was humiliated with only 8 million votes. But if the turnout at elections continues on its current trend, there's every chance Labour's vote at the next election could well beless than that.

Or perhaps Howard and Blair are really going to compete for the moderate centre, in which case the pair of them will resign as politicians and be up the front next Thursday leading the protest against the moderate George Bush.

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