The Centre Ground
Politics is boring, or, at least, it ought to be. The alternative to boredom has all too frequently been terror, in which grey suits are replaced by snazzy Hugo Boss uniforms, and committee meetings on urban planning applications by genocidal grand designs.
I once saw the President of Switzerland sitting outside a café in Bern, drinking a latte with a vacant expression on his face. At least, I think I did. Obviously, I wouldn’t know the President of Switzerland if I saw him. I didn’t even know Switzerland had a President. I only noticed the man because a friend of mine, who knew his son, pointed him out to me.
“He doesn’t have a bodyguard,” I objected. “Where are the muscular fellows in sunglasses and headsets?”
“Why bother?” My friend was dismissive. “Who wants to kill the President of Switzerland? He has no power.”
I recalled this underwhelming incident a few years ago, while going through what must have been the fifth security check to get into my own office on the day when the President of Iraqi Kurdistan visited the university where I worked at the time. At least a hundred men with machine guns patrolled the campus. Their motorcade spilled out of our usually ample parking space. Helicopters circled overhead.
The Kurds, alas, are forced to care about politics in a way that the Swiss are not. Where politics is concerned, ignorance truly is bliss. I am always rather heartened by surveys that show the average teenager doesn’t know the name of the Prime Minister. I wish I didn’t.
This is why the centre ground is so important in politics. No one wants to be a middle-of-the-road poet or a mediocre composer. Bland inoffensiveness is the death of art. In politics, however, it is the highest desideratum. The blander the better. I want politicians with the charisma of speak-your-weight-machines, politicians whose spouses and children forget their names. I should add, before you point out that in that case I ought to be delighted with Matt Hancock and Gavin Williamson, that it would also be nice if they could do their jobs. Being nondescript is desirable, not sufficient.
Extremist politics is invariably intrusive. Fascists and Communists want to make everything political, a recipe for tedium as well as for terror. Move to the centre ground, and you have anonymous, efficient administrators who look after the running of the trains and the drains, without bothering the rest of us with too much ideology. Having privatised both trains and drains, the British government has long had too much time to make a nuisance of itself.
The centre ground in politics is so obviously superior that extremists rush to claim it, sometimes with remarkable success. Nowhere is this more striking than in the way that reactions to the coronavirus are presented in the public sphere. If your heart sank at this reference to the world’s most boring news story, then so did mine as I wrote it. I regard you instantly as a brother or sister in arms, and will happily buy you a large drink as long as the pubs remain open. There are those, however, who do not share our boredom. These people are curiously reluctant to let the pandemic subside, and allow this now not terribly novel virus to join the pantheon of not particularly deadly diseases with which we have to live. Now that there are so few deaths for them to gloat over, they wait breathlessly for news of infections, outbreaks and ‘R’ numbers, all the while pondering whether this breathlessness is due to sheer excitement at the joy of Covid, or if it might possibly be a symptom.
These people are extremists. As is often the case with extremists, there probably are not nearly as many of them as there seem to be, but they are so noisy that it is difficult to tell. There are certainly not very many extremists on the other side of the argument: people who say that the pandemic is a hoax or a Chinese plot, or who embrace various conspiracy theories about its effect on the electoral prospects of President Trump, as though the virus were not boring enough on its own, and had to be combined with something else tedious. I have not yet heard anyone saying that the virus is a ploy to stop Brexit, but you know, don’t you, in your heart of hearts, that there are groups of people with nothing better to do constructing such elaborate theories at this very moment?
The latter group, the conspiracy theorists, are universally treated as lunatics in the media, on social media, and throughout the public sphere. The former contingent, however, the Covid enthusiasts who seem to believe that a garden-variety pandemic is the most terrible curse ever to afflict the human race, are permitted to claim the centre ground. In fact, they are just as extreme as those who deny the existence of the virus. The centre ground belongs to those who are aware that the virus exists and that it has killed many people, who are prepared to take reasonable precautions against it, but who do not want to panic, put entire populations under house arrest, or shut down the global economy whenever they hear a cough.
The technique used by the Covid enthusiasts is invariably to try to align all those who question the proportionality of public fear with those who deny the existence of the virus completely. Peter Hitchens, who occupies what may be the most sensible and central platform of any public commentator, is repeatedly dismissed as a fringe figure and a perverse controversialist. Mr. Hitchens, so far as I know, has never opined that the virus does not exist, or that it is not serious. Nor has he advanced any conspiracy theory. He has simply said, along with a small band of other centrists, that the panic-driven reactions of the British government, and other governments around the world, have done far more harm than good, and clearly ruined many lives without demonstrably saving any. Even if you disagree with this view, it is scarcely the position of a crackpot, and it is rather galling to hear those whose panic over a single illness has caused such widespread havoc arrogantly dismissing it as such.