Manu Macron’s plan to reintroduce forced labour – which is what national service is - reminds us of an awkward fact - that many (some?) centrists are no friends of freedom.
We can read his proposal alongside some UK facts such as New Labour’s creation of thousands of new criminal offences and big increase in the prison population, the Lib Dems support for a sugar tax and minimum alcohol price, “Blairite” Caroline Flint’s recent call for “an end to freedom of movement”, and the fact that Chris Leslie’s recent description (pdf) of six core values of centrism contained much more talk of responsibilities than of freedom.
Of course, this is not to say that all centrists hate freedom. They don’t. But it does show that there is an illiberal strand within many versions of centrism – more so than in my (not that idiosyncratic) conception of Marxism.
Why? Here’s a theory. One feature of centrism has long been a blindness to the less pleasant aspects of inequalities of power. Keynes, for example, thought the notion of class struggle to be a “frightful muddle”, and his theory that full employment was a matter of technocratic macroeconomic management served to displace earlier ideas such as guild socialism and hence maintain hierarchical capitalism.
In a similar vein, centrist thinking – from New Labour’s forgotten Respect Action Plan (pdf) through the Taylor report to Leslie’s proposals – has tended to neglect ways of empowering ordinary people and workers, especially collectively. Sure, centrists sometimes want people to have more say as individuals – to be more like customers in public services. But generally, people are regarded as passive objects of policy, not active creators of it (except, perhaps when we must heed their “legitimate concerns” which are always about immigration and never anything else.) For centrists, politics is usually about what “we” can do for (or to!) “them”.
There is of course a class aspect here. If you have the mindset of the ruling class, you will assume that power will be exercised wisely as long as the right people are in charge. Blair and Brown consistently fawned over bosses because they believed that leadership was generally benign.
From this perspective, centrists don’t worry about giving lots of power to governments, any more than they worry about bosses’ power over workers.
But they should.