The epochal tetchiness of Anglo-American centrists

In his wonderful October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, China Miéville uses the phrase ‘epochal tetchiness’ to describe the political contribution of Russian liberals prior to 1917. Their angry, disjointed responses to events failed to influence the changes which provoked their outrage, leaving them acting frantically without consequence as they were superseded by history. While the political context couldn’t be more different, it strikes me this is a remarkably apt description of contemporary centrists in the UK and the USA.

It is a political emotion, irritability conjoined with concern, reflecting political coordinates which are disintegrating while it feels more urgent than ever to have an adequate grasp on what is going on. Understanding this political emotion is important because it plays a part in how centrists are adapting to shifting political ground, regardless of how much stress we place on it as the explanation of their actions. What does it feel like to be a self-identified centrist when the centre ground feels under threat? What does it feel like when your experienced certainties, things any fool knows, bewilderingly seem to be called into question by unpredictable events?

I’m not offering this as an explanation of contemporary centrism, as much as a speculative interrogation of what it feels like to have your assumptions about politics repudiated, facing the prospect of being left behind while remaining determined to avoid this. I suggest it plays a part in a whole array of current trends, ranging from the recalcitrant centrism of Labour moderates through to the increasingly bellicose rhetoric of American democrats towards Russia and the shrill proclamations of the post-truth era by liberal commentators. I was delighted to find Evan Davies describing the latter as “an expression of frustration and anguish from a liberal class discombobulated by the political disruptions of 2016”.

There’s a wonderful description by Alex Nunns on loc 4468 of The Candidate, an incisive account of Jeremy Corbyn’s path to the Labour leadership, conveying the role of the ‘centre ground’ as touch stone for the Blair and Brown establishment. It is where you are supposed to be and it is where you should always return to:

The political centre ground, in this view, appears as a clearing in a forest—a fixed location—and politics is a simple orienteering exercise where the parties are given a map and a compass and told to go and find it. Occasionally they inexplicably wander off into the woods and have to be scolded by journalists until they take their navigation task seriously again. The great, unpredictable social and economic forces that constantly sculpt new historical terrain are, in this Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme version of politics, merely gusts of wind that must not blow the parties off course. Nothing changes.

What happens if you find yourself in the centre ground and nothing happens? What happens if you find yourself in the centre ground and no one recognises you’re where you’re supposed to be? What happens if you find yourself in the centre-ground and people begin to query whether you are where you think you are? Perhaps your compass is broken, you’ve forgotten how to navigate or the map itself is somehow flawed? This would be a disconcerting experience and I suspect a frustrating one. This accounts for the tetchiness and its epochal character stems from the fact that the times are indeed changing, as opposed too this being a misunderstanding that has resulted from insignificant contingencies.

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