The centrist as saviour

  • Themes: Politics

Rory Stewart joins a long line of figures who have portrayed enlightened technocracy as the centre-ground solution for British politics.

Rory Stewart speaks to the media on College Green outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

In the late spring of 2019, the British International Development Secretary Rory Stewart launched his campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party in a circus tent. I lived a few hundred feet away and, after convincing the security guard that I was not an assassin, I was able to watch the aspiring Prime Minister set out his case to lead the country: an optimistic, enlightened, and moderate form of conservatism, drawn in contrast to the bombast and bluster of the eventual winner, Boris Johnson.

Articulated in the shadow of Theresa May’s political demise, it was a case for Downing Street dissenting from the tenor of the period in its sheer, proud mundanity. Brexit had cracked open the workings of British politics to make space for a figure like Stewart to placate the segment of the public disdainful of bellicose, right-wing populism. Like a Remainer Fury, Steve Bray – the ostentatious anti-Brexit campaigner famous for standing outside Parliament with a megaphone – stalked Stewart around the circular stage as he spoke, a Union Jack cloak trailing behind, berating and beseeching him that the Conservative Party atone for its apparent crime against Britain.

Rory Stewart was the consummate Insider’s Outsider, bearing an establishment pedigree but heterodox inclinations; though he would loathe to admit it, he shares that ambiguous quality with Boris Johnson. Stewart, who propelled through Eton, the army and Oxford, was the honest minister, the Chatwinesque wanderer, the cultivated envoy whose past service for Queen and Country rested in a murky enigma. At every opportunity in his leadership campaign, he would remove his tie and speak directly to a shakily-held iPhone streamed to Twitter, transcending the traditional press – who just happened to love it all anyway.

Now out of Parliament, working in the charity sector and offering regular commentary on British and international affairs, Stewart is a fixation of restorationist sentiment for a certain sect of the British public. With the success of his podcast, ‘The Rest is Politics’, and the publication of his memoir – two prime ministers after his own leadership campaign – Stewart holds the mantle of modern British centrism, embodying the speculations of what could have been. Yet Politics on the Edge is perhaps an ironic title for a memoir from a figure so firmly entrenched in the political middle, safely away from any issues that might invite fierce opposition.

Stewart is not the first, and nor will he be the last, figure in British politics to assume the role of the centrist king under the mountain. In the interwar period it was David Lloyd George; in the 1970s-80s, Roy Jenkins was the experienced, intellectual beacon for a rejuvenated centre. A solidified binary of two parties, that have often been led by their more dogmatic fringes, has left space for a consistent thread of centrism throughout British history. Ever since the usurpation of the Liberal Party by the Labour Party in the 1920s, the centre ground has primarily been the contested area of political battles, rather than the home of a single party explicitly promising a centrist platform.

Every election for the leadership of a major political party invites speculation as to what sunlit uplands a defeated candidate might have brought the country to. The idea of a centrist saviour is different, however. What distinguishes Stewart from, say, David Miliband – the former Labour Foreign Secretary and 2010 leadership candidate – is the caesura between him and the party he once hoped to lead. Stewart is no longer a Conservative – he was expelled by Johnson – and the Conservative Party has lost its strain of Stewartism.

Detached from the necessities of government, contemporary centrism is unmoored from any particular ideological foundations, sitting above the fray. Its defining qualities are its presumed seriousness and outsider status over connections to thinkers or established traditions. Stewart is the latest exhibit of an icon for whom centrism is less an ideology than a synonym for enlightened managerialism. Consistently, across the last century of British history, centrism has been defined by its technocratic elitism that promises stability over radical policy proposals; it is, though many would not choose to use the term, fundamentally conservative. In the British consciousness, the principal advocates of such moderation have been intellectuals and experienced policymakers, who were once the ultimate insiders until the paradigm of politics shifted, rejecting their expertise and experience. They are exiles in time and their potential return a constant hope for salvation through history.

David Lloyd George’s exit from office in 1922 meant a realignment of British politics and the opening of the space for a figure or party that could crack the dualism of conservatism and socialism. The former Prime Minister, and leader of Britain through the First World War, was the first figure to represent the possibilities of a revivified, experienced liberalism. Because, as his biographer writes, Lloyd George ‘never did return to office after 1922, it has been too easy for posterity to assume he could not have returned’. Figures, from George V downwards, believed, however, that his time in opposition would be temporary and, over the final decades of his life, Lloyd George was a constant potential returnee to Downing Street in the minds of the British public. From 1924 onwards, with the first Labour government under Ramsay McDonald, both the governing and opposition parties understood that their future successes would be premised upon the annihilation of Lloyd George’s Liberal Party. ‘I am sure that the real health and natural division of parties in this country is between constructive Conservatism on the one side… and on the other hand Labour Socialism’, Leo Amery wrote to Stanley Baldwin. ‘Meanwhile it is to the interest of both of us to clear the ground of the Liberal Party,’ he continued. ‘We may each hope to get the larger share of the carcase but meanwhile the great thing is to get the beast killed and on that we can be agreed.’

With the constriction of the Liberal Party under first past the post, it was perceived that a new centrist force in British politics would have to come from a new place. In November 1979, Roy Jenkins, the former Labour Minister and then President of the European Commission, urged a revitalisation of the ‘radical centre’ to ‘break the mould’ and that mission was embodied in the launch of the Social Democratic Party two years later, when Jenkins joined David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers in its formation. The political orientation of the SDP was a contentious matter within the party, but Jenkins in particular encapsulated ideas and emotions similar to those associated with Stewart. His debonair intelligence and legacy of radical reforms in government inspired a devoted following in the media and among many young defectors from the Labour Party. Furthermore, his years in Brussels, away from the economic difficulties of the Callaghan government, sheltered him from the Thatcher revolution and, in the heady days of 1981, it appeared the mould could be broken.

Yet how much of the devotion surrounding Jenkins concerned what he said over what he stood for? He embodied the promise of an earlier, easier time transplanted for the crises of the 1980s. In the lecture in which he spoke of the ‘radical centre’, he invoked WB Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ – a popular target for pillage and appropriation in the 1960s and 1970s. Written for the chaos of post-First World War Europe, Yeats’ words mapped onto the contemporary crises of the West. For Jenkins, the wrenching chaos of the 1970s cautioned against ‘too much dogmatism’ and he urged an escape from Yeats’ line that ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’.

Stewart’s prominence is attributable to a similar phenomenon: a frantic search for comfortable safety amid a torrent of radicalism. Like the Yeats’ quote of Jenkins’ speech, Stewart’s title, Politics on the Edge conveys the caution so fundamental to modern centrism, defined more against the prospect that ‘Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’, than an aspirational alternative. Building upon a long heritage through the middle ground of politics, Stewart propagates high-minded and experienced technocracy as the solution for Britain. That conservative sensibility means that Stewart says much but means little, dealing in tut-tuts and platitudes, equating intellectualism with inspiration, diligence with direction.

Reviewers of Politics on the Edge might speculate on Stewart’s future return but there is little prospect of that. Lloyd George remained on the backbenches; Jenkins could not break the mould. The fortunes of Change UK – a breakaway group of Labour and Conservative MPs – in 2019 attest to the difficulties of mobilising popular support for centrism into an electoral force. Such a restrictive system is, in many regards, a distinctly British occurrence; the vestiging of power in the UK to Westminster precludes localised power bases, and it exists alongside a media elite fixated on its machinations. By contrast, in the United States, federalism and open primaries diversifies the potential pool of candidates for the presidency.

Stewart’s enduring potency is a reflection of his undoubted talent and intelligence but also a fear of excess radicalism in a tenebrous time. He is the product of a repetitive process through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that yearns for a voice for the middle ground, unattached to dogma and the disconcerting fringe. The Brexit referendum animated discontentment with the political establishment, on both sides, and much of the energy of the remainer minority channelled into protests, podcasts and hopes for a second vote to remedy the first. That desperate wish for a pause to decline summoned centrist technocrats and intellectuals to the fore, revanchists for a brighter past.


Angus Reilly