Saturday 1 August 2015

The space race for the centre ground

History repeats

The rule of thumb in British politics is that he who controls the centre, controls the game. And that's why we're on a collision course to losing an EU referendum. The Brexit side is made up of curtain twitching conservatives, xenophobes, trade unionists. far leftists and hardcore libertarians. All intensely and uniquely despised. To look at our motley crew, any sane person would run a mile. We've got Owen Jones, Daniel Hannan and Nigel Farage. Oh and Ukippers. Why would anyone put their tick in the same box as these numpties?

We can see from these groupings where the fundamental schism is. There is a spectrum of opinion between the London cosmopolitan elites and the knuckle-scrapers of Ukip. What's clear is we're not reaching those in the middle. Jeremy Cliffe, columnist at The Economist, outlines the new political battlefield in a piece entitled "The case for cosmopolitan populism" where he outlines his vision as to what can be done to close the gaps. There's a few select sentences in this that will (and should) raise alarm bells, but you can see the narrative he weaves:
"Britain in the 1950s, even the 1970s, was in many respects a miserable, austere, petty, curtain-twitching, finger-wagging, stultifying place. That it is no longer so, and on many fronts is becoming even less so, should be celebrated."
He continues:

"...politicians and their supporters should do more to "weaponise" the choice between a drab, isolationist future for Britain and a cosmopolitan, prosperous one."

In essence, that will be the battleground for the EU referendum. Ultimately those most progressive vision is the one that will win out. When you look at our side we have all the stalwarts of that curtain-twitching, finger-wagging, stultifying Britain. The Ukippists and thier "pull up the drawbridge mentality" and the far left with their dogmatic resistance to progress. We're not even in the game when it comes to fighting for the middle ground.

Cliffe recalls that "One of the defining features of the recent general election campaign was its parochialism. At a time of great threats and bigger opportunities for the country beyond its shores, the wider world was barely mentioned. The assumption in Westminster is that doing so causes voters either to switch off or to switch party."

We can speak at length about this dynamic, in that our politics has become small and parochial. The politics of the world out there just doesn't resonate the the marginal constituencies that swing elections. But Cliffe notes that "there is a clear, patriotic argument to be made in favour of a Britain engaged on the world stage, that harnesses its diverse population and international links, that asserts itself in forums like the EU and the Commonwealth to advance the national interest".

If anything, general elections are a month long festival of domestic politics so that patriotic case doesn't get a look in, however, this referendum will be a year long battle over our standing in the world. That is where we will see that schism between the "cosmopolitan populism" and the claustrophobic world of Ukip. Thus the battle should be a space race to occupy the centre ground and present the most progressive and patriotic vision for Britain.

There is no way that banging on abut asylum seekers will win a referendum. There is no way the withdrawalist mindset can win. Nobody wants to go back to that "miserable, austere, petty, curtain-twitching, finger-wagging, stultifying place". The decider will be who makes the most convincing case that the other side are dinosaurs.

We have already made the case that with world has moved on from the quaint old EU ideas - and that the global model of trade has changed beyond recognition in ways that the EU has yet to realise. We need to sell the idea that the EU is essentially isolationist, withdrawalist euro-parochialism. The fences being erected in Bulgaria and Romania show that the EU mentality is that same curtain-twitching stultification writ large. It is the EU's own reluctance to engage in the realities of global displacement that we see people dying in the Mediterranean.

We need to go big on the idea of going global, being more open and more agile than the EU. We need to set out a vision of being a more welcoming and diverse place. That shouldn't be difficult to sell. There's a good reason why asylum seekers don't want to stay in France. It's an economically stagnant, racist and miserable country. Britain is way better than France and the world knows it.

Of all the nations adapting best to globalisation and this internet connected super-economy, Britain is leading the field. We're engaged in it, we're remodelling our whole economy and public services around it. Nobody is better equipped to deal with modernity than Britain. There is no going back to that quint biscuit tin Britain, there's no holding back the tide of progress - so we need to embrace it.

While we are developing websites and internet services that are changing the world, the EU's contribution to it is an annoying dialogue box on every website telling us about cookies. If anything personified the EU's attitude to progress, it is that. We have a manifest destiny in the world, and while Cliffe thinks engaging with the EU is engaging with the world it isn't. The EU is a redundant middleman holding us back. We should be resisting TTIP and the likes not because of what they are, but the fact we can get a better agreements and faster by going global.

In all respects we can be more agile and assertive outside the EU and being in the EU is like trying to run a marathon with a ball and chain. It is they who are the dinosaurs, they who are the parochialists and they are the ones afraid of the future. The Ukip I remember under Alan Sked knew this, but today we see a small and petty Ukip, whining about helicopter safety regulations, foreigners with Aids and calling for the army to be deployed in Calais. It doesn't sound very progressive to me and, sadly, Tory Eurosceptics are little better. From where I'm standing it looks like we're going to lose hands down, and it's not difficult to see why. We should be in a space race to take the centre -  but we're retreating to the fringes.

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