Some reflections on the state of the centre of politics culled from recent writing. We begin with a focus on Ireland in two pieces which reveal the underlying fear of the further rise of Sinn Fein, although the main topic in each case is wider. First, an excellent survey of the ongoing study of the period of the 1916 rising and its contemporary resonance by the English historian David Reynolds, in the News Statesman.
Perhaps in 2016, a century on, the history wars will have abated and Ireland’s two centenaries can be commemorated in tandem and without pain. Might it now be enough, as Yeats mused about the men of 1916, simply “To know they dreamed and are dead”, consigning them reverently to history? Or perhaps the embers of the past will be rekindled again? After the election last month of Dublin’s first ever Sinn Fein lord mayor, the centenary celebrations will be under republican control: their plans, announced in 2014, include 3D projections on to the rebuilt General Post Office: “Watch as the GPO comes under shell fire and catches fire, see the rebels escape and their last stand. Witness the trials and experience the executions . . .
Next by no means the first of its kind and certainly not the last, a piece in the Irish Times by Stephen Collins about “ the spectre haunting Europe,.” on the “ hollowing out of the centre.” He is impressed by the argument of the Polish president of the EU executive council Donald Tusk on the simultaneous rise of the left and right in several EU countries. On Ireland he writes:
( Post bailout) measures ultimately paid off and paved the way for a remarkable economic recovery, as the latest set of economic growth figures from the Central Statistics Office have shown. However, it does not appear that Fianna Fáil, or the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition that succeeded it, is being given much credit by the voters for the economic turnaround.
That may change when the election comes around and people are presented with the challenge of choosing a government but there is no guarantee of that happening. Anger and discontent may prove more potent forces in an election campaign than arguments about the need for political stability to ensure the recovery continues…
So it is hardly a huge surprise that Sinn Féin and others have stepped into the wide gap left by the Fianna Fáil collapse. This pattern is manifesting itself all over Europe as the traditional centre ground is hollowed out..
But not everywhere by any means Stephen. What sort of effective alternatives have emerged so far? Syriza? Sinn Fein? Spare me. The SNP perhaps. People everywhere who are exhausted by continuing austerity ( the big bad buzz word applying to myriad different circumstances), no longer default to class based or traditional parties and are casting around for alternatives – including opting out. The main parties themselves barely exist below leadership level and rely on big donations to survive. They were hollowed out long ago and are now highly susceptible to entryism and reinvention.
That is essentially what Sinn Fein did in the 1970s. They held on to a thin common thread with the past, embraced the armed struggle and added the lures of grievance and unfinished business. Now they are left-populist and nostalgic fundamentalist nationalists, as different from Syriza’s Marxist intellectuals as it’s possible to be. And inevitably very different from the short lived nationalist coalition of 1917 to 1921 whose break-up presaged the formation of the political parties which are now contemporary Sinn Fein’s senior opponents.
And what of GB? See what the centre of the British Labour party lacks, according to the Spectator’s Isabel Hardiman
More thoughtful Blairite MPs point out that even a playbook as successful as the 1997 one does need updating. It should, for instance, recognise the rise of nationalism as being as important a sentiment as a yearning for a strong leader and trustworthy economic policies. Blair’s successors need to show they have added their own wisdom to his. At the very least, they need to find a new name: the media will always tag them with the toxic ‘Blairite’ until they offer a new, distinct identity.
And John Bew in the New Statesman, with his historian’s credentials.
The Labour Party of 1945 had other assets: intellectual depth (which did not mean conformity or consensus), historical literacy, patriotism and moral purpose. There is a dim, nagging recognition that Labour can no longer afford to sniff at these things. But it has lost the ability to talk in these terms without resorting to disingenuous folksy-speak. It is stuck between technocrats, who sound like automatons when they talk about their encounters with “real people” (remember Ed Miliband’s encounter with Gareth on Hampstead Heath?); and faddists, whose excitability and single-issue radicalism betrays the type of “we know what’s best” attitude that the electorate cannot abide.
The big thing about fear is that it’s a good thing to analyse and confront it. And take comfort for the moment in the huge contrast with the 20th century, the absence of indigenous political violence, tearing European society apart. Ireland included. This is a time of bumpy evolution, not revolution.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London