John Bercow, the former Speaker, will be remembered for remarks more controversial than what he once described as his leftward drift towards “the centre of the political spectrum”. But as we witness the hardening of the Conservative Party’s nationalist-populist wing, it’s this statement that helps explain the party’s long-term grip on power. When they merged with Liberal Unionists in 1912, parochial Tories forged a rainbow coalition with laissez-faire Whigs, made up of social conservatives and libertarians, free-traders and protectionists. Out of necessity, they built a brand around core values, not ideologies, always better at stating what they’re against than for, and campaigning mostly on an often-undeserved reputation for competence, stability and pragmatism.

The truth is that Bercow’s centre ground isn’t just a political marker; it’s the place where the messy reality of a diverse society based on liberal-democratic values is thrashed out. It doesn’t matter where we find our tribe (see Kate Devlin, The joy of text) or how we define our ethnicity, gender or sexual identity. Whether we’re Scottish or British or, like Anas Sarwar, both (see Gavin Esler’s interview, Anas Sarwar, Leader of the Scottish Labour Party); English or British or, like Simon Heffer (The essence of Englishness), both; or even foreign-born British, like our cover writer Sydney Nash (Legacy of empire) – it’s the Venn Diagram of values where these identities overlap that provides the social glue. True liberalism has no truck with absolutes: it’s not for or against Brexit; it might want tax cuts to stimulate enterprise, or prefer taxes to fund social welfare. Some liberals will celebrate the royal traditions represented by the coronation, others will rail against its cost, believing the money better spent on alleviating poverty. But they’ll all acknowledges everyone else’s right to the “pursuit of happiness” within the law, even if that doesn’t chime with their own moral code.

It’s not what we argue about, but how we argue that matters

In his 2019 book of the same name, the American essayist Adam Gopnik called liberalism “a thousand small sanities” – not an ideological drive towards utopia, not the rantings of conspiracists, but the never-ending debate over the causes of suffering and the attempts to remedy them. It understands that no solution will be perfect, and counsels vigilance against state over-reach. In short, it’s the art of compromise, the free but fair-minded participation of every individual in the common-sense search for the common good.

That search can only take place inside a democracy, which is why liberalism’s always been a dirty word for extremists. Ideologues label centrists wishy-washy, but it’s our inclination to know our own minds, and our willingness to change them, that they really despise. It’s not what we argue about, but how we argue that matters. The current danger lies in the amplification, in headlines and on the hustings, of absolutist positions on fatuous wedge-issues, instead of real debate. There’s no doubt this has increased polarisation and left the centre ground under siege from both left and right.

There’s also erosion from within: the de rigueur pronouncement of the “end of liberalism” and the need for a narrative of fatalistic and “tragic” realism. Writing in the New Statesman, John Gray recently warned against the “liberal ideology” he sees behind the indictments of both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Gray makes the fair point that Putin has a lot of nukes, and no doubt we’ll eventually need to engage in “reality-based diplomacy” with Russia. But we’ll find the Ukrainians’ view of reality is more like our “fight-them-on-the-beaches” stoicism of 1940, and perhaps we should first ask the Poles their thoughts on the outcome of the “reality-based diplomacy” of 1945. And to say, as Gray does, that the “defensible” legal case against Trump is “partisan” proof-positive of the “weapon[isation]” of the American legal system, is to repeat the rhetoric of fanatics with no interest in shared values. Some Trump supporters might well be eager for more violence, but it’s not our job to incite them. Rather, even if we must accept that Putin will never go down, we can be glad for the half-chance that Trump – whose narcissism, dishonesty and misogyny we’ve all witnessed – might. And we can save our liberal breath for the defence of those whose genuine liberties are under threat.

What the former-cheerleaders-turned-doom-mongers mean is that “western” hegemony is over, and with it the fantasy of an emergent universal liberal-democracy incubated by Plato and culminating in NATO – as historian David Gress put it. In short, what his fellow-historian Norman Davies named the “allied school of history”, has been called out. But just because the Democrats there and the Tories here can be seen as elitists who’ve lost touch with the voters, thus creating the conditions for bigoted bacteria like Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson to emerge from the political petri dish and be labelled “heroes of the people”, doesn’t mean we should all become fifth columnists.

Gopnik cites the threefold mantra for reform of the activist Bayard Rustin, whose identity included being black and gay in 1960s America: non-violent, constitutional, democratic. That should be our mantra also. Our task is to argue passionately but rationally, and without cancelling one another, about the things that are wrong, and then to search for viable compromises to solve them. Real change is sometimes circular, sometimes linear, but always flows from the ground up. And not everything needs changing. Liberal democracy is a messy business, but its values are our centre, the stuff that holds us all together.

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Columns, May 2023, Soapbox

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