David Gauke (Photo by Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

The smugness of pseudo-centrism

Beware of those who dress their preferences up as simple realism

Artillery Row

Hedonism is a vice that never seems more attractive than when you are faced with a stringent puritan. Similarly, political extremism is a vice that never seems more attractive than when you are faced with a smug centrist.

David Gauke, former Conservative cabinet minister who had the whip removed in 2019 for rebelling against Boris Johnson’s government over Brexit, writes for the New Statesman about “fantasy politics”. Government, says Gauke, is about “practical policies”. It “involves trade-offs”. “Sensible governments” do not make “unrealistic promises”.

What sort of bizarre utopian dream is Gauke discussing? The idea that immigration does not have to reach ever higher record highs in Great Britain.

Now, Mr Gauke isn’t wrong that politics has to be practical. A government couldn’t slam the borders shut, say, without enormous and damaging disruption. Still, the fact that alcohol can be drunk to excess doesn’t mean that someone is an alcoholic if they have a beer with lunch — and it certainly doesn’t mean that you can sniff at uncouth beer drinkers whilst swilling wine by the bottle.

All too often, “centrists” conflate the unrealistic with the disagreeable. Mr Gauke is responding to the so-called “New Conservatives” and their plan to reduce immigration. Look at the specific details, he writes, and “it becomes very obvious how difficult — or how unwise — it is to achieve radical reductions in immigration”.

What is an example? “The New Conservatives … propose,” writes Gauke:

… stopping overseas students from remaining in the UK for up to two years after graduation and extending the closure of the student dependent route that allows a student’s family members to access the labour market. Overseas students and their families contribute greatly to this country, not least in revenue for our universities (although some of the New Conservatives appear rather sceptical about higher education being widely available).

This is not a paragraph that illuminates some sort of obvious absurdity. It is a paragraph that expresses disagreement. Just as it is unclear why Britain must have record immigration, it is unclear why its higher education sector must reach such proportions. Mr Gauke sniffing that New Conservatives doubt that higher education should be “widely available” looks like a strawman. It is not obvious that it should have swelled to the record size that it has reached.

Do so many people benefit from getting a degree? (I certainly didn’t — except on the cold and hollow grounds of credentialism — and I resent wasting my time.) Is it worth the substantial cost? These are not the sort of unanswerable questions you can gesture at as if at an elephant in a broom cupboard. As it happens, if you want a fine piece on the devaluation of the British degree you could consult Harry Lambert’s fine essay in, of all places, The New Statesman.

You cannot do so whilst claiming to be the defenders of truth and realism

Another problem with this sort of pseudo-centrism is that it creates more of a need for itself. During the War on Terror, pseudo-centrists (amongst whom I’m not including Mr Gauke, whose opinions on the issue are unknown to me) demanded an adventurist foreign policy to deal with terrorism, then for a more adventurist foreign policy to deal with the terrorism that had been exacerbated by their own adventurist foreign policy. In a recent article for this magazine, Mark Solfiac wrote about how immigration must reach higher levels in dysfunctional economies that have depended on ever more mass immigration:

Immigration gives us an excuse not to train enough doctors and nurses. It makes it easier for businesses to avoid productivity improvements like automation … [It] allows our university sector to offer courses where many of the students don’t care about the quality … [It] means we can maintain over five million people on out of work benefits whilst relying on newcomers to plug labour shortages … Our economic model uses immigration as a poorly functioning sticking plaster over a stagnating economy and society.

Gauke and a host of comrades that includes Rory Stewart, Michael Heseltine, Gavin Barwell and Amber Rudd have authored a book called The Case for the Centre Right. It’s bad form to review a book before it’s been published, but the blurb alone is so preposterous that I feel no more restraint than I would with a book titled The Sky is Green, The Grass is Blue.

“The Conservative Party … has undergone a profound transformation,” it is claimed — undergoing a “radical rightwards shift” and becoming a “populist movement”. Yes, the party that has overseen record immigration, the pursuit of net zero, conciliatory deals with the EU, massive support for Ukraine against Russia, attempts to undermine free speech on the Internet et cetera is made up of rabid populists. Pull the other one. Like or loathe such policies, you can’t pretend they represent deep-fried Farageism.

Well — you can. You cannot do so whilst claiming to be the defenders of truth and realism, though. It is absolutely legitimate for Gauke, Stewart and Heseltine and friends to disagree with the Conservative government on Brexit, immigration and other issues, but it is disingenuous to act as if they represent sober conservative pragmatism against the forces of populist derangement. That is in itself a form of “fantasy politics” — a LARP in which a fairly unpopular and historically anomalous set of opinions (which is not, of course, the same as calling them mistaken) is dressed up as plain common sense.

Pass the bottle. A mouthful of extremism will never taste as good.

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