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If David Cameron Wants the Political 'Centre', He Can Have It

Who wants to be a moderate in a world of relentless human suffering?

by Sam Kriss
09 October 2015, 11:00am

David Cameron walks into the conference centre with his wife Samantha (Photo by Simon Childs) (Thumbnail image via Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

More from the Conservative Party conference:

A Pessimist's Guide to David Cameron's Conference Speech

Chatting to Some Tories About David Cameron's Big Conference Speech

Are the Tories Actually Looking Out for Britain's Workers?

At the end of David Cameron's speech to this year's Conservative party conference, he read out a letter sent to him from one Bernard from Leicester, in which the 82-year-old laments that "in my life I have foolishly voted Labour, believing it served the working class. How wrong I was. Labour is against all I aspire to." Cameron's entire speech was a calculated attempt to snap up people like Bernard from Leicester into his greasily pantophagous jaws, jaws that for over an hour gurgled happily about doing ill-defined somethings about climate change, being pleasant to The Gays, and getting rid of all the pesky poverty that sometimes happens to other people. The message was clear: with Labour under Corbyn briefly turning itself into one of those autonomous soviet republics that briefly mushroomed up across Europe around 1920, the Tories have claimed the middle ground of British politics.

Amazingly, some people seem to believe him. And not just ordinary rubes, but those supposedly hired for their perceptual acuity, whose opinions are so wise that they must be broadcast across the nation. In The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland writes that, "the prime minister was throwing down a challenge to liberal and even centre-left voters: What really, besides habit or ingrained prejudice, is preventing you from supporting me?" Meanwhile Dan Hodges, a talking asparagus that's somehow landed a job at The Daily Telegraph, declares "the socially progressive Left has a new leader. His name is David Cameron." The conference might have been surrounded by a steel-plate fence to keep out the gobbing proles, but inside it's a haven of radical egalitarianism.

The obvious response is that it's all very well to say these nice things, but Cameron and his chortling cohort don't seem to be doing much to put them in practice. The Prime Minister went onstage to announce "an NHS safe because of us" while actually cutting tens of billions from healthcare. He promised to end racial inequality without any indication of how he'd go about doing it. He laid out plans for thousands of affordable homes to buy, while carefully omitting the fact that in London, they'd only be affordable for people earning over £77,000 a year. He talks a lot about "common ground", but there hasn't been much common ground in this country since the Acts of Enclosure. Cameron may as well have rounded off his speech by decrying the mistreatment of animals with a pig's head clamped tight around his dick. It takes a particular kind of stupidity to be drawn in by all of this, to forget all the actual deprivations taking place as soon as the speeches start; it's possible that some of the British media classes haven't quite developed object permanence yet.

Besides, there was plenty about the speech that was pure Toryism. Cameron spent a good portion of his allotted time vowing to eradicate foreign death cults with his big new aircraft carrier, backed by a picture of a waving British flag and the words "SECURITY STABILITY OPPORTUNITY", one of those vaguely fascist tricolons beloved by the authors of schlocky dystopian fiction. He said he wanted to turn Great Britain into Greater Britain, as if our tanks would shortly be rolling through the streets of Dublin. He promised "less Britain-bashing" and "more national pride", gloated over the extrajudicial execution of two UK citizens in Syria, and proudly pointed to the destructive TTIP deal as part of the country's positive influence in Europe. Is this what the centre-left looks like?

But really, what does being centre-left even mean? Left-wing politics are generally predicated on the understanding that the world we're living in doesn't just leave some room for improvement, it's all utterly, monstrously wrong. Somewhere down the line, history took a bad turning, and ever since then we've been bombarded with constant horrors: children drowning in the Mediterranean, people sleeping rough by the heating vents of empty apartment blocks, the giant faces of politicians leering at you from your television, in full HD so you can see every rubbery fold in their injection-moulded skin – isn't there some way we can abolish it all and start again? There's no way that one could go about moderating this kind of ethical stance without betraying it entirely. Centre-left politics essentially means taking the position that even though the world is a ghastly living nightmare out of Hieronymus Bosch, we should only change it just a little bit, and then everything will be fine.

According to David Cameron, the Conservatives won the last election because the British people aren't "obsessives, arguing at the fringes of the debate", but are actually "decent, sensible, [and] reasonable". In other words, he thinks we're all idiots. I don't know any decent, sensible, reasonable people. Perhaps you do. But I see them, sometimes. People who go out in the evening to drink exactly one glass of wine and then head home. People who think Mock the Week is funny and wear t-shirts that say "Keep Calm, I'm An Accountant", who might not be interesting, but at least they're normal. People who somehow manage to exist in a world gone to shit without developing the habit of crying at parties, prescription drug addictions, vague and unexplained sexual guilt, massive social anxiety, or a hunchback. People who look out at a whirlwind of human suffering and decide that their stance towards it is one of moderation. Surely it's impossible to live happily among all this wrongness without being some kind of maniac. Is it any surprise that they'd vote Tory? Are these really the people we want deciding who runs our country?

In fact, the political centre-ground is for the most part a statistical fantasy: it's what happens when you take an average of two highly polarised groups and find it somewhere in the middle, whether or not anyone actually lives there. But who would want to live there? The centre is a desert, and the sea is very far away; whenever anything really interesting happens, it tends to be around the edges. "There I am", Jean Rhys writes in Good Morning Midnight, "like one of those straws which floats round the edge of a whirlpool and is gradually sucked into the centre, the dead centre, where everything is stagnant, everything is calm." Jacques Derrida concurs: "Why would one mourn for the centre? Is not the centre, the absence of play and difference, another name for death?" If David Cameron wants the centre-left, he can have it.

By the way, that Bernard from Leicester? Turns out he's been voting Tory since 1987.

@sam_kriss