Expecting the unexpected: the UK elections and the absence of the middle ground

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Following the UK elections called by Therese May  has been a strange experience. The policies of the left and the right were clearly recognizable but with the exception of one policy which may have accounted for the unexpectedness of the result of the election, namely the pork offering of tuition fees to students, the middle ground was almost unoccupied.

Tony Blair, it has been argued modernized the Labour Party and made it electable by moving policy orientation to the middle ground and Corbyn’s unpopularity with his colleagues has been partly due to the fact that he has deliberately wanted to abandon Blair’s colonization of the middle ground and re-explore the territory of the left.

Cameron’s cataclysmic mistake of calling a referendum over the Brexit issue of course was a contributory factor to the phenomenon of Corbyn and the recoil of his successor May from the middle ground. In spite of Blair’s efforts, the British middle class was simply not large enough to ensure the continuity of commitment to the European project which is so much more than its economic dimensions. The youth, especially the students,  hopefully the middle class of the future,  largely stayed home for this Brexit election, trusting in the older middle class to ensure their futures. They were, however, galvanized into action  by Therese May’s call for an election perhaps partly by being let down by the older generation and partly by the promise of the pork of tuition fees but on a deeper analysis perhaps partly by the thought of  the consequences of Therese May’s so called “hard Brexit”, following closely on the heels of years of austerity politics.

Indeed the hung Parliament which resulted and the inevitable  chaos which follows, perhaps another possible election looming on the horizon, may bring something good in its wake, namely  a second referendum on Brexit which will be needed if the EU refuse to budge on the 4 freedoms principle.  This second referendum seems impossible at the moment given Corbyn’s commitment to Brexit after having fought a poor campaign to remain. It will indeed take a dynamic leader to bite the bullet and argue for a position which runs counter to the wishes expressed in the first referendum. The Remain/Leave campaign was a strange series of events, the form of which violated  one of the first philosophical assumptions  of politics, namely to expect the unexpected. Each side was categorically stating the anticipated consequences of an enormously complex process in a fragile environment in which literally anything could happen to falsify their predictions. The impression that the campaigners knew what they were talking about  was created  by rhetorical arguments which much of the time verged on propaganda: indeed the campaign created its own populist dynamic and forced people to choose between two different castles in the clouds constructed in the imaginations of the campaigners.

In relation to this point there is also an ethical  principle that Psychologists use when conducting experiments on volunteer subjects namely  the informed consent principle which entails that the subjects must  be given full information concerning what they are about to undergo in the experiment. In the light of the experience we had of the Brexit campaign, can anyone honestly maintain that  Brexit is anything more than an experiment and that we the subjects have been given necessarily incomplete  information?  The leave campaign were appealing to the maxim that anything is possible for the British people if they put their hearts and minds into it.  The remain campaign were pretending to be able to predict the unpredictable future and pointed to a dark and dismal future. No middle ground appeared to be possible. This in itself ought to have raised suspicions since political institutions are dialectical in their very nature.

Extremes with an excluded middle, in the realm of practical reasoning, are theoretical  and assume that the alternatives are either entirely true or entirely false. This assumption assumes  a position of certainty which we very rarely encounter in practical contexts. Indeed  theoretical reasoning in Science does not even aspire to the certainty of logic and truth and rests its case on its endless method of observation and experimentation in the court of the hypothetical judgment.

But the really interesting point to make was that at the time of the Brexit campaign the majority of MP’s in Parliament were for the UK remaining in the EU. Now if we were as was  maintained, a representative democracy, then surely these MP’s were elected  as our representatives, our lawmakers and their expert opinion should have forced Cameron to pause before unleashing the dogs of the referendum?

In a relatively short period of time the Conservative party have learned the value of not gambling on the expected in the much simpler processes  of a referendum and a premature election. It will indeed be interesting to see how the historians record these two events. If there is philosophical justice in the world the cause  of  both events will be recorded as “in the interests of the Conservative party but not in the interests of the country”.

Aristotle saw clearly the dialectical structure of human action and human institutions and also saw a continuity between ethics and politics which many modern politicians fail to appreciate. His concept of the Golden mean involved navigating a course of action in the middle ground between two extreme alternatives: a brave man does not rush into battle like a bull in a china shop or refrain from doing what ought to be done in battle like a coward. His rationality curbs his foolhardy impulses and irrational fears and Aristotle thinks of such a considered choice of action as golden, as worthy of praise, as rational. The two choices of the Conservative party to hold a referendum and a premature election were born of impulsiveness and fear and were therefore on his account, irrational. The electorate may have sensed this fact and consequently withdrew their previous levels of support. For Aristotle there was another political reason to favour the middle ground and that was because of a dialectic he was witnessing and we are still witnessing in our political arenas today, namely, the conflict between the rich and the poor on the battlefield of economics. Only a middle class, argued Aristotle would be able to stop the inevitable political divisiveness of such a conflict. The middle ground of such  conflict would not perhaps paradoxically concern itself with ekonomos which the Greeks thought to be a purely regulative activity that  should be restricted to the running of households. The middle ground for Aristotle would be ethical and not economical but unfortunately  he did not elaborate upon what this entailed and perhaps we have only become clear about this issue since Kant gave us a clear account of our ethical duties and Hannah Arendt gave us a clear account of the human condition and its political constitution. For Kant the essence of  ethical judgments, which we can be certain of, is that they are imperatives, which differ from declaratives in that they do not state what is the case which is the province of the declarative statement, but only what ought to be the case. This certainty is based on intentions which are embedded in acts of practical reasoning that are purely logical and universal. The ethical judgment  par excellence for Kant was that it is our duty to keep promises. The argument for this was in terms of the logical consequences of failing to do so, namely that the very human institution of promising would be abandoned if it became a universal practice that people did not keep promises. Now Arendt, though not in agreement with everything Kant said, thought that many of our human and political institutions are founded upon the premise that  promises ought to be kept and that this was an important feature of the stability of our world which provided the framework for everything important in our society. Aristotle would of course regarded the act of promising in accordance with the ethical judgment that promises ought to be kept, as a virtue, and he would no doubt have thought of his ideal of the middle class as possessing all the virtues necessary for a flourishing life.

If the above reasoning is correct then it may be that one of the deep processes of globalization is this movement away from extremes and toward the middle ground, away from a primary focus on the economical and toward a focus on the ethically grounded political activities that will provide us all with a flourishing life. Also if the above reasoning is correct the middle ground is that which is quite often occupied by the  students who absented themselves in the Brexit referendum which in turn is an indication that the middle class in England is still too small to accomplish complex global goals.