Peter Bye

The past two years or so have seen an alarming departure from the political centre ground in many democracies. Brexit has polarised the UK, where the major parties and indeed the whole population are split into Remainers and Leavers. Even those wanting to leave the EU are divided between so-called hard and soft approaches, such as whether or not to remain in the Customs Union and Single Market after Brexit. The Conservative Party is the most egregious example of internal division. But the Labour Party is not immune: it’s noticeable that Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party and would-be Prime Minister, remains largely silent about Brexit. He is lucky to be able to hide behind the open warfare in the government and among backbench Conservative MPs.

The UK is not alone. Far-right political parties are present in a number of countries, for example in France, Germany and the Netherlands. They promote fear of, and hostility to, immigrants, with talk of national culture being under threat. Muslims are a favourite target. Poland and Hungary now have somewhat nationalist governments. Russia and Turkey have succumbed to oligarchy, if not dictatorship. And division in the USA under President Trump has reached poisonous levels. Mr Trump’s erratic behaviour makes it hard to see exactly what he stands for, apart from promoting himself. There is one clear trend in his behaviour, though: he exhibits a worrying enthusiasm for authoritarianism. His recent clashes with the FBI[1] suggest he wants to move into dangerous ground by interfering with the US legal system.

There is one clear victim of these trends: truth, based on evidence, goes out of the window. The Brexit campaign in the UK was marked by lies and half-truths, some issuing from both sides but mainly from the leave campaign[2]. Inconvenient facts continue to be ignored or simply denied. Wishful thinking, bordering on fantasy, has flourished, such as the amount of trade the UK will get with the rest of the world once it has separated from the EU. And the Trump campaign and his subsequent administration have taken untruth to new levels, creating gems such as ‘alternative facts’[3].

Lies and propaganda are the stuff of authoritarians, leading to dictatorship. I believe we have to take a stand in favour of what I will call the liberal centre, which in my opinion is the basis of democracy. I’ll try to justify it.

One view of a liberal society is that people are free to say and do what they want, without fear of reprisals of some form. There are limits to this freedom: individuals should not have liberty at the expense of others. Different opinions must be respected. It’s not easy to draw a line between acceptable levels of liberty and unacceptable actions, such as incitement to violence against individuals or groups. But we have to try. Making progress will require an acceptance that the world is complicated and that difficult problems are not amenable to simple solutions[4]. Hard evidence and respect for facts are necessary to make progress. An international perspective is required because the world’s big problems, such as climate change, cannot be solved by nations acting alone.

But while these freedoms may be necessary attributes of a liberal society, they are not sufficient. Freedom to hold elections to throw out governments who fail to improve the lot of their citizens is a crucial requirement.

This brings me to the need for politics to return to the centre ground. There will always be a wide spectrum of views in any society. It’s not possible to satisfy everyone as some views will be mutually inconsistent. For example, should utilities such as water supply and railways be state owned and run, or left to the private sector? And even two things, each regarded as good in itself, such as freedom and security, may be inconsistent: how far should freedom be limited to combat serious security threats[5]? The UK and many other democratic countries face this problem today.

Polarised societies with widely opposing elements run the risk of ending up with a government representing one extreme or the other. There is a danger of a winner-takes-all attitude, unfortunately all too common in some developing countries but now creeping into democracies. The middle ground is where necessary compromises are made and explained, using evidence to justify policies. A step-wise approach of incremental improvement, where new policies are tested and modified if they don’t work, is needed. This may sound unexciting but we could all do with a bit less of the excitement currently around in our increasingly polarised nations.

Notes and sources

[1] See for example https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/feb/02/donald-trump-fbi-justice-department-russia-investigation

[2] One notorious example was the promise that the National Health Service (NHS) would get an extra GBP 350 M per week, which was alleged to be the UK’s contribution to the EU budget. Liverpool University’s Professor Michael Dougan, who specialises in European constitutional law, remarked in a lecture given before the referendum that the leave campaign was guilty of ‘dishonesty on an industrial scale’. His lecture is still available at https://www.youtube.com/embed/USTypBKEd8Y

[3] In 1986, Professor Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University published a paper entitled ‘On bullshit’, in the Raritan Quarterly Review. In the paper, he argues that the liar knows what truth is because he knows he is lying. The bullshitter, however, does not have a concept of truth: truth is what is convenient at the time for the bullshitter. This rather fits a number of current leaders. A copy of the paper can be downloaded from https://www.stoa.org.uk/topics/bullshit/pdf/on-bullshit.pdf

[4] H L Mencken expressed this point amusingly: ‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.’

[5] For an elegant exposition of this view, see Isaiah Berlin’s 1988 Agnelli Prize lecture ‘The pursuit of the ideal’, published in a book of his essays entitled ‘The Crooked Timber of Humanity’.

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Comments

  1. Peter,

    As you know on March 4th there will be the Italian political elections. We Italians are now debating at full speed about everything. Of course in a way that your blog, aimed at “promoting respect for facts and numbers”, would never endorse (nor … understand).

    Truth is that before Internet idiots existed, but they were either silent or unable to gather together. Now we live inside a noisy Cloud made by rules, habits, hetics (and Services) invented daily by idiots. Facts, numbers and truth have been replaced by fakes, opinions and Marketing.
    To put this back on track, in a pure Democracy, sounds extremeky challenging: all the democracies are slow, while the idiots galop at the speed of a click. The only thing that the idiots pay attention to is money. So money drives. Democracies have not been invented in order to master money, but large Corporations have it as an implicit mission. If the future is inequality, you know where we will end up to (starting from hopelessness down to slavery).

    You and I spent our working life making technology work. It seems that a large portion of our world did not progress at the same speed mastering facts and numbers. Hopefully you did not start your blog too late.

  2. Peter,
    In your final paragraph you refer to a ‘winner takes all’ attitude in ‘developing democracies’.
    With our current UK electoral system, do you not think that is exactly how our democracy works?

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