The trouble with the political centre is that it’s forgotten the rules

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Andrew Rawnsley wrote a piece in the Observer this morning that answered no questions but ended with the comment:

The centre is not dead. It is dazed and confused. It needs fresh ideas and more engaging ways of expressing itself. It will get its voice back one day.

I have never seen much merit in the centre, per se: being neutral has no inherent merits when there are clearly issues on which stands have to be taken. But, if he is portraying the centre as anything between Corbyn and Farage (and he is, describing it as the liberal centre in other parts of the piece) then it is obvious where it things have gone wrong. It's misunderstanding of the word liberal that has waylaid the centre.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a social liberal and always have been. Nothing I say here changes that. The difficulty is that the centre forgot the difference between being a liberal and being libertarian. Without disappearing deep into theory it’s my contention that these two are nothing like the same thing. Liberalism, broadly speaking, is about respect for the ideas of others, equality and the freedom to live as one wishes so long as others are not harmed. On the other hand libertarianism, as I see it, is about the primacy of the individual and their right to action.

Both these philosophies are superficially about freedoms but they are, in my opinion, very different things because of their emphasis of focus. Libertarianism is about the right of the individual. Liberalism as most would have seen it for the last seventy years, and as Rawnsley is using the term, is about the right of the individual in the community of which they are a part. I am ignoring the left in this analysis for now excepting the fact that it has been, and many in Labour would still see it as, a liberal party in these terms.

So why has liberalism - the philosophy that broadly held the centre, and if it was opposed was done so from an authoritarian, conservative perspective - been eclipsed for now? I would suggest that this is because far too many liberals have been seduced by libertarianism. The conflict between the two is at the heart of disputes in the Conservative Party. Orange Book libertarians divided the Lib Dems. And Blair flirted far too dangerously with the libertarian rights of the privileged in society for the comfort of his own party. The right that libertarian wealth proclaimed, that they could do what they want, go where they wanted, only pay tax if they so pleased, hide their trades from view wherever they wanted, and still have all the benefits of the state, which were theirs of right whether or not they wished to pay for them, seduced the liberal political classes, whichever party they were in.

It is easy to explain why. Money is the one word explanation. They offered it to the parties. They wooed with it at a personal level. The liberals succumbed: this was freedom they thought.

But it wasn’t. Liberalism is about freedom. Libertarianism has no time for it unless you are one of the privileged few. And when the liberal centre succumbed to libertarianism they let the privileged few off the hook of the rules by which everyone else was meant to live. The result has been a disaster. A world increasingly divided, and now resentful and angry. Worse, one that has rejected liberalism and is looking for the structure it abandoned when it adopted libertarian ideals in wholly inappropriate places, including from the libertarians themselves.

The answer us not hard to see in that case, but us much harder to create. The liberals need to understand that people want freedom but realise that true freedom requires commitment. The two are intimately related. Only by recreating that link is the possibility of a liberal agenda viable once more. And what that means is laws have to be both created and be seen to be enforced, not least on the wealthy who have opted out of them.

The message has to be that the price of true social freedom is grounded in compliance with the rules of society from tax onwards and to the rules of the market which are now so routinely ignored by large companies intent only on creating monopolies. But who is going to say that because it means taking on the libertarian elite?