Maurice Saatchi: The centre ground is a barren wasteland

People of all classes and ages find idealism more satisfying than pragmatism


Millions of people in Britain have lost hope in politics. One explanation for this is that politicians of all parties have decided they are better off in the centre. "The centre ground" has become the conspicuous feature of the age - the equivalent of a political law of gravity - as in the popular injunction: "You can only win elections from the centre ground."

En route to the centre ground, the pragmatic politician wears, as badge of merit, a sign reading: I am not an ideologue. Faced with calls to state "your aim", or "what you stand for", occupants of the centre ground instinctively recoil. They are held back by the fine old political tradition of pragmatism.

Pragmatic politicians mistrust theories or blueprints. They will catch the morning tide wherever it takes them. The pragmatic tradition holds that "what matters is what works". That is how the centre ground turns politics into a commodity market - because pragmatism leads to opportunism, which leads to cynicism. As one student said during the last election: They just tell you what you want to hear. There's no actual ideology.

The centre ground has ground the ideology out of politics. But if all ideologies are indefensible, then all ideologies are equal, and the centre ground becomes a moral void. Without ideology, political discourse is reduced to claim and counter-claim about "delivery". But in that arena today, there is only one winner: Neither.

"Neither" is now the most popular party in Britain. This can be seen in public attitudes to UK government spending: 86 per cent agree with the statement: There is too much government bureaucracy and waste. But when asked which party is most likely to reduce government waste, the majority choose: Neither.

Asked which party has "the best policies on prisons", 44 per cent of the popular vote - more than Labour and Conservative combined - goes to the landslide winner: Neither.

The same applies to the key question of which party has the best economic policies. Labour has recently lost its 20-point lead over the Conservatives on this measure. However, the Conservatives have gained only 2 points. The other 18 points have gone to: Neither.

Late in his life, Napoleon summed up how great wars are won and lost: Three parts moral. One part physical. The pragmatic approach to politics overlooks the fact that lofty thoughts and nobler impulses touch the workaday lives of everyone.

When a man or woman stands up for an ideal, or strikes out against injustice, people are filled with hope. People of all classes and ages, and at all levels of intelligence, find idealism more satisfying than pragmatism. Our firmest beliefs are those to which we are most committed, in which we have invested everything. They make up our ideology - take them away and you take away the keystone of the arch or the base of the pyramid.

Consider the drama of a head-on ideological clash between Labour and Conservative. Labour makes as many people as possible dependent on it. So Labour has absorbed nearly a million more citizens on to its payroll. In Britain today, it employs 7 million people, 28 per cent of the working population. Meanwhile, Labour has nearly doubled the percentage of households in receipt of state benefits, up from 24 per cent to 40 per cent. So now, the majority of people in Britain are financially beholden to the Government.

Labour likes it that way. The people as dependent children. Itself the master. The complicated tax/benefit system the chief instrument of its power. With this system, as Lord Butler, the former head of the Civil Service, said: The Government can do what it likes.

Conservatives despise such a system. Conservatism meets the claim of men, as Aristotle put it, to be ruled by none, if possible. Or, if this is impossible, to be as independent as they can reasonably be. Conservatism is practical idealism. Its aims, instead of being merely materialistic and mechanical, are idealistic to the point of being utopian.

Despite Conservative protestations of ideological innocence, all Conservatives do have one deep belief - in a free and independent individual. The driving ideology of Conservatism is a belief in self-determination, individuality, independence. Like gravity, you don't have to invent it. You only have to discover it. And then express it.

The last 20 years have seen a dramatic increase in public sophistication and awareness. Voters can now spot a left/right "positioning exercise" a mile off. The motive for these chess moves is too transparent.

The British people have seen that the centre ground is low and flat - a barren landscape. What they want to see now is two ideological opponents in strenuous, philosophical opposition. That is what is needed to reignite the political commitment of the millions of people who have lost hope in politics.

The writer is a former co-chairman of the Conservative Party (2003-5)

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