Friday, 26 October 2018

The Ethical Corporation

When George Osborne took on various jobs after leaving politics few people imagined he was bringing rare skills to his new employers or that he was still motivated by public service. He was clearly trading on his influence and intent on making a lot of money by doing so. In contrast, the news that Nick Clegg has joined Facebook has prompted a plethora of comment focused on his own values and the company's need for greater ethical guidance. For example, Paddy Ashdown "has urged Nick Clegg to stand up for the values of liberalism and democracy at Facebook". Even those inclined to be more cynical about the company's objectives do so by regretting the compromise this entails for Clegg, as if disappointing supporters represented some sort of break from his career to date: "You're better than that, Nick", as Carole Cadwalladr put it. Perhaps the most bizarre (though perhaps only semi-serious) idea is that Clegg will act as Facebook's conscience: "Roman emperors used to employ a slave to whisper in their ear 'You too are mortal'. Zuckerberg may need that role and Clegg may be the person to deliver it".

Clegg has been hired to smooth Facebook's relationships with governments and regulators, specifically to mitigate the threat of legislation to the company's earnings and steer regulation towards its own interests. His utility is primarily in respect of the EU, where he previously worked as a trade negotiator and has many current contacts. The UK is already of minor interest to Facebook (recall Zuckerberg's unwillingness to appear before a select committee hearing) and will be of less interest after Brexit, hence there is little downside to recruiting someone who squandered his political capital and who would have zero leverage with a future government of any stripe. In the US he is largely unknown and superfluous in what remains a benign environment for technology businesses, though he may prove of some value as a less robotic deputy to Zuckerberg in appearances before legislators and there is an expectation that he will be a key player in "shifting corporate culture at a company whose founder announced earlier this year he would 'fix' it".

Clegg's recruitment is part of a wider corporate trend towards the appointment of Chief Ethical Officers. This is partly an admission that burying corporate social responsibility (CSR) within human resource, compliance or marketing functions is not an effective approach if you genuinely want to "shift corporate culture", and partly a recognition that reputational damage is a greater risk for businesses that manage consumer assets and thus rely on their sympathy. As these have grown over time with the expansion of financial services and the Internet, ethics has taken on a more important role in providing customer's with assurance about the safety of their assets, whether money or data. That Facebook's user base is ageing is no secret and most observers reckon the turn-off for the young is as much to do with the company's heavy-handedness and dubious exploitation of data as it is the heavy-handedness of intrusive parents or the excess of cat videos. In the circumstances, the choice of a "centrist dad" politician in the role isn't likely to make Facebook cool again, but it does mark a conscious political adjustment.

Conventional wisdom assumed that Silicon Valley was Democrat during the Bush and Obama years for no better reason than its use of progressive rhetoric. As its nature has become clearer, from restrictive employment terms through systematic surveillance to political donations, its Republican and libertarian spirit has become more visible. Politically, Clegg helps to provide a liberal sheen that Zuckerberg and his ilk imagine will restore Silicon Valley's bipartisan reputation (Clegg's Orange Book liberalism makes him mainstream Democrat). This cold calculation is still obscured by the media's desire to paint the industry's leaders as a breed apart: "As one ethical quandary after another has hit its profoundly ill-prepared executives, their once-pristine reputations have fallen like palm trees in a hurricane. These last two weeks alone show how tech is stumbling to react to big world issues armed with only bubble world skills". Employing someone from a different bubble, that of politics, isn't smart if you wish to engage with the "big world", but it makes a lot of sense if your primary concern is legislation.

Ever since the tech titans came to prominence there has been a tendency to treat them as a peculiar sub-species of capitalist, combining the unworldliness of the autistic nerd and the naïve enthusiasm of the teenage Randian. This ignores that a lack of ethical scruples is simply par for the course in big business. The leaders of Silicon Valley are not doing it for the lulz or trying to build a Utopia. They're just trying to make as much money as possible. The image of the industry leader as a man-child allows the apparent absence of ethics to be presented as a matter of maturation: young companies must grow and learn and we should forgive them the odd mistake along the way. But given that ethics is necessarily grounded in society, it is absurd to claim that an individual company, let alone an entire industry, can have emerged without an ethical system and that it needs to be taught right from wrong. Silicon Valley has ethics. It has values and norms. It's just that these aren't particularly attractive to wider society, grounded as they are in presumptions of elite entitlement.

A better approach may be to acknowledge this and seek to uncover and elucidate a company's ethics. Conventionally, this analytical role is fulfilled by a number of independent parties ranging from whistle-blowers through journalists to law enforcement. The problem with Silicon Valley is that the legal framework is formally supportive of whistle-blowers but in reality dedicated to protecting the corporation, while too many journalists have been compromised by the industry and law enforcement agencies have been generally reluctant to intervene. Tech's issue is not a lack of ethics but an insufficiency of invigilation and enforcement. Clegg's appointment is an attempt to keep it that way. The theatre of Zuckerberg's appearance before Congress, like Elon Musk's more recent antics over market-sensitive announcements, suggest that we are some way off Silicon Valley being treated anywhere near as rigorously as other, more established industries where there would be less tolerance for such "immaturity". As with the banks, if more technology business CEOs had been sent to jail for their abuse of power, we might not be debating the wisdom of injecting ethics into the industry.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Is Cannabis the New Oil?

Uruguay became the first country to legalise cannabis in 2013, though commercial sales were only implemented in 2017 and are limited to 16 retail pharmacies. As yet, it remains little more than a trial. The recent legalisation in Canada represents a more significant "experiment", not least because it is a G7 economy, but again it will be highly regulated. In the US, 9 states (plus the District of Columbia) allow the sale of marijuana for recreational use, and 31 states allow it for medical use, producing a legal market worth $9 billion a year. Estimates for the size of the potential Canadian market range from $4 to $6 billion. Were the US to legalise cannabis at a federal level, the national market might be as large as $50 billion, which would be somewhere between video-games and cigarettes. The global market for cannabis is likely to be over $200 billion, out of a total global market for all illicit drugs of over half a trillion dollars (it's obviously difficult to estimate this with precision - some think the global market may be as big as $4 trillion - but one illustrative claim is that drug profits were key to the banking sector's liquidity in 2008).

Aside from the eccentricity of Brexit and the contingency of the Syrian refugee crisis, the long-term move in the developed world has been towards more open borders; and despite Donald Trump's efforts to confect and win a trade war, the secular trend is still towards the freer movement of goods as well. This means that the illegal drug trade is becoming progressively more difficult to interrupt. Combined with the commercial potential, this leads policy-makers to consider whether accommodation might be a better strategy than prohibition. Another macro-level development that is changing the dynamics of the drug market is the rise in synthetics. In the short-term this encourages small-scale production, which leads to problems with quality-control and risk-management (notably avoiding police raids and laundering proceeds). In the medium-term it will encourage the creation of large-scale production facilities in parts of the globe where oversight is slack or the authorities are compromised, fuelling greater trade. In the longer-term it will make the development of major domestic production facilities - i.e. close to the retail market - more attractive both to producers and to authorities prepared to treat drug use as a problem of safeguarding and regulation.

At the micro level, the social distinction between cannabis and legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, has blurred to the point where smoking a spliff is only likely to generate protest because of the smoke while staggering drunkenness is now considered a greater faux pas than being out of it on a park bench. Vaping, with its more sophisticated paraphernalia and dedicated shops, looks like the template for a new retail infrastructure rather than the last gasp of an old one. The emergence of first ecstasy, then skunk and now spice has been framed by the media as primarily a matter of health and safety, with much concern over poor quality control and unscrupulous practices among producers and dealers. There is obviously an irony here given the media's usual attitude to H&S, but it also indicates the power of the notion of consumer protection and the responsibility of the state in this area. While legalisation is probably a long way off in the UK, this has less to do with the power of the press than the historic association of drugs with race and class.

The linkage of drugs with criminality has long been a proxy for race politics, from the "yellow peril" fear of the late 19th century's opium dens to the black and latino association with marijuana. This has also allowed drugs to be presented as an alien plant invasion, a frame of mind that allowed the McCarthyite paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to live on in official culture. It is no coincidence that the area of the United States most resistant to the legalisation of marijuana has been the Old South, any more than that blacks are disproportionately more likely to be frisked or end up in jail for possession. I doubt the Confederacy will secede over the issue, but the de jure emergence of two Americas seems likely before any federal legislation to legalise marijuana nationwide, and one that will be made concrete in the already disproportionate size of the prison industry across the states. In this light, Canada's initiative clearly owes something to a nation that is consciously multi-racial (at least in the big cities) and where race itself is not a simple proxy for class.

Historically, drugs have been accorded a social status and legal consequentiality based on their class incidence. Cocaine has never lost its upper class "fast set" cachet, and users have usually been treated relatively leniently by the law, while the shift in attitude towards opium and its derivatives from the acceptable laudanum to the unacceptable heroin largely reflected the growing association first with the Chinese in the nineteenth century, then with hardcore bohemians for most of the twentieth century, and finally with housing estates battered by socio-economic change in the 80s and after (and flooded by cheap heroin following the Iranian revolution and the war in Afghanistan - the shape of the "market" is never wholly beyond the power of the state). The treatment of both skunk and spice in the British media has been heavily class-inflected, though it is notable that the former has become less of a bogey as more middle-class kids have suffered psychotic episodes while the latter has become associated with prisoners, the homeless and (for no better reason it seems other than proximity to TV production in Salford) Manchester.

The call for drugs to be regulated has been growing for years, though the call is still limited to peripheral nations who lack clout (e.g. in South and Central America), international bodies that can be safely ignored (including the UN), and former government ministers who no longer control the levers of power. The latter often claim to have seen the light, but their language betrays a persistent neoliberal appetite for the colonisation of a hitherto inaccessible market. Consider Charles Falconer, the former Labour Lord Chancellor: "Above all, we need to take back control of drug supply from the most violent gangsters. And it needs to be done sooner rather than later. … To regulate drugs is to apply the regulatory principles and tools that are routinely applied to everything else to a set of risky products and behaviours that have, until now, been controlled entirely within a criminal economy". Regressive drug policies are increasingly associated with "backward" nations in Africa, Asia and (notably) Russia, and thus associated with imperfect capitalism.

Philip Collins, who is a reliable weather-vane of neoliberal thinking, has added his voice to the cause in The Times: "Canada follows the US states of Washington, Nevada, California, Massachusetts and Colorado which have all legalised cannabis for recreational use. Prohibition has done nothing to control use but has instead created a criminal supply chain. It has put people through court proceedings who ought to be nowhere near the criminal justice system and it means that drugs come on to the black market without any regulation of their strength". I don't know who he mean by those "who ought to be nowhere near the criminal justice system", but I'm not sure it's 16 year-old black kids from Peckham that he has in mind. Painting the "victims" (and ignoring the many non-users collaterally damaged by drugs) as sympathetic makes tactical sense, but this is close to suggesting that we should legalise cannabis because it is in the narrow interests of readers of The Times.

In a similar vein, Simon Jenkins in The Guardian imagines an epicurean heaven in Colorado in contrast to a hell-hole somewhere behind Shoreditch High Street, or wherever it is he buys his hash: "While Americans are spinning their weed wheels and going to sommelier classes, British buyers are left to the mercy of pub lavatories and grubby street corners. While Canadian consumers can sit in saloons and cafes, safe in the knowledge that what they enjoy is inspected and tested, Britons must run the gauntlet of violent gangs, proliferating from cities to rural 'county lines'. Their activities contribute nothing to the state, and cost it a fortune." This isn't an appeal for legalisation so much as a better class of drug-taking. It is worth remembering that alcohol prohibition in America in the 1920s may have enriched bootleggers but it didn't lead to squalor for consumers, and repeal didn't deal organised crime a mortal blow either. What it did lead to in the US was brewing industry consolidation and consequently poor quality beer for most of the twentieth century.

As a classical liberal, Jenkins emphasises both the material benefits of freedom and the improved moral tone that it entails. Collins, as a neoliberal, can't help making a different dimension explicit: "It is sometimes said that legalisation creates a free-for-all when regulation in fact disciplines supply." While the desire to open up (i.e. appropriate) a large and seemingly inexhaustible market is at the root of the current vogue for legalisation, thereby finding a new frontier for capital in case either data or water don't live up to their billing as "the new oil", we shouldn't underestimate the attraction of an industry whose regulation will be deemed socially necessary from day one. The last thing that Big Pharma or the state wants is a truly free market, with low barriers to entry and the risk of profits being eroded by competition. While artisan producers and retailers will be promoted initially, if only to establish the meta-brand, the aim will be to use regulatory leverage to advantage larger manufacturers and retail chains. Big Weed is coming.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Varieties of Populism

Populism isn't a form of governance but a style of rhetoric employed when seeking power in a representative political system. It opposes the people to an elite and suggests that the latter are unrepresentative and therefore illegitimate. It is a critique of institutional democracy. Though the term has acquired a pejorative meaning equivalent to demagoguery, it's worth remembering that the most successful populist movements of the last fifty years were those of the insurgent centre. Margaret Thatcher presented herself as the leader of a long-suffering people who sought freedom from an establishment of civil servants and trade unionists, while Tony Blair claimed to lead a "radical centre" that better reflected an emergent "young nation" than a discredited Tory elite and an antiquated socialism. The rhetoric can be sincere - Thatcher remained a populist loose cannon even as she increasingly suffered monarchical delusions - or it can quickly prove to be insincere, as in the case of Blair (though to be fair, the creeping disillusion of New Labour looks tame compared to the speed with which Emmanuel Macron has disappointed the French). The contemporary "populist moment" is less a revival of something thought consigned to the past than the spread of a particular electoral strategy beyond the political centre.

With the centre ground emptied by the intellectual funk of neoliberalism after 2008, attention has focused on the populism of the "extremes", and in particular that of the right. Unfortunately, this is too often confused with what has come to be known as "illiberal democracy", a particular form of authoritarianism in which the regime monopolises power while allowing the formalities of opposition and democratic elections. Illiberal democracy tends to employ the language of right-populism but in a notably paranoid register: it aims to redefine the actual establishment as the tribune of the people against an "other". For example, Viktor Orban presents Hungary as being under threat simultaneously from George Soros, Islam and the EU. What has changed in recent years is that whereas right-populist rhetoric was adopted by dominant parties as they transitioned towards illiberal democracy (recall that both Putin and Orban emerged from the political centre), it is now being adopted by right-wing parties that make no bones about their intention of creating an illiberal democracy, such as in Brazil.

Where right-populism has secured office but the liberal democratic state remains fundamentally unchanged, as in the US, the rhetoric focuses less on the threats to the regime, which are likely to be dismissed as "lame" anyway, than on the celebration of the regime's achievements: "we got a great deal", "we're doing great things". Donald Trump will continue to employ populist rhetoric for as long as he is in the White House, both because he can do no other and because he is still running against the establishment. Where right-populism remains insurgent but not dominant, as in the UK, the rhetoric tends towards hyperbole. This is evident not just among extra-parliamentary populist movements like UKIP, which has started to employ the language of illiberal democracy, but among the established parties of the right who are trying to shore up their electorate or otherwise opportunistically leverage populist rhetoric for positive media coverage (e.g. Jeremy Hunt, the British Foreign Secretary, if you can credit it, claiming that the EU is like the Soviet Union).

Right-populism is based on the presumption of a legitimate demos that is not wholly inclusive (the "decent people" rather than everyone) and the assumption of an irreducible antagonism (the friend/enemy distinction of Carl Schmitt). The "we" of right-populism is essential, hence it usually maps to national identity, ethnicity or social class (e.g. "taxpayers"). There will always be an irreconcilable "them", made up of both enemies within and without, and thus there will always be antagonism. In contrast, left-populism tends to be transactional and material. Where neoliberalism promotes the rewards due to individual effort and qualifies rights with responsibilities, a worldview that is also adopted by right-populists but within essentialist parameters, the left-populist theory of just deserts focuses squarely on collective entitlements: the rights inherent in community, such as housing and a living wage. Left-populism is congruent with democracy and equality, a point made by theorists like Chantal Mouffe, which means that it is a reproach to liberal democracy but not a threat to it. It opposes the people to an oligarchic elite that seeks to curtail those entitlements, including democratic representation, but it differs from right-populism in making the "we" elective and the relationship agonistic - one of struggle - thus holding out the possibility of resolution.

One of the more striking characteristics of the current "populist moment" is that while left-populism has revived the positive language of collective deserts and entitlements in areas such as income and housing, indicating the degree to which neoliberal hegemony has been challenged, contemporary right-populism has moved away from the material towards the metaphysical. Though it still trades in the rhetoric of grievance, it has largely dropped transactional demands in favour of emblematic policies whose material benefits are uncertain. As recently as 2009 in the USA, the Tea Party was demanding that the government did not bail out subprime mortgage-holders and thereby increase taxes and/or national debt. While there was an obvious racial angle to this demand, it was also a rationally material one given the Tea Party's supporters self-identification as put-upon taxpayers. By 2016 the right-populist movement was marching under the banner of "Make America great again", which is no more substantive than a third way campaign slogan. The rich are obviously benefiting from tax cuts and deregulation, but the populism of Donald Trump appeals to voters primarily on the basis of identity rather than material interest.

Going further back, insisting on the maintenance of educational segregation in the US in the 1960s was the defence of a real privilege with tangible benefits. In contrast, advocating lower immigration today is not a policy that will deliver reliable gains, despite talk of tighter labour markets and less pressure on housing and public services, and is likely to have the opposite effect by reducing aggregate demand. You can argue that anti-immigrant policies are proxies for more existential concerns, such as protection against terrorism and crime, or that a sense of community and security is a valuable good in itself, but it is difficult to see contemporary right-populism as anything other than an identity politics increasingly divorced from popular material interests. The same pattern is visible elsewhere, from Hungary to Italy. The people are promised the restoration of national status, perhaps leavened with modest tax cuts and the protection of the benefits of the "decent" (such as pensions), while the rich proceed to loot the public treasury. Beyond the substitution of the rhetoric of national pride for that of personal development, this is still neoliberalism.

Significantly, where the modest material benefits go into reverse, as with Russia's pension reforms, national pride proves to be an inadequate compensation. This suggests that the identity basis of right-populism, its essentialism, may be weaker than liberal critics (who dominate populism studies) have imagined. Rather than the somewhere/nowhere dichotomy and the pathologies of the "white working class", what may ultimately matter are tangible concerns like wages and housing, issues that the political centre has failed to represent except in scolding, moralistic terms (i.e. you have no right to any of this - you must earn it through right behaviour). The weakness of right-populism's material agenda allows appalled liberals to treat it as an irrational, reactionary spasm: a desire for the restoration of an older social order embodied in the "angry, white male". For some, it is a full-blown rejection of the Enlightenment and thus a threat to democracy (this is a non sequitur: popular democracy was abhorred by most Enlightenment thinkers): "They rose up against the demand imposed by modernity – that we use reason to figure things out for ourselves – and replaced it not with the old rules, but with impulse itself, with the vengeance and cruelty and rage that Trump so brilliantly embodies".

As it became clear that right-populism in both the UK and US was going to be incoherent and largely ineffective, a view emerged that such populist eruptions might be a periodic and necessary corrective: "These revolts against remote elites are essential to the vitality, and viability, of modern democracy – even as (and precisely because) they challenge the status quo, destructive though that challenge may be". This has traditionally been a position that liberals have treated sceptically, concerned as they are with the implied threat to pluralism, but it has the advantage of being fundamentally transactional and therefore comprehensible: though crudely expressed, the claims of the people are "legitimate" and amenable to negotiation. One reason for the contemporary prominence of this view is the growing suspicion that the ultimate beneficiary of the "populist moment" may turn out to be the left rather than the right, precisely because of its material agenda and transactional approach, something that has certainly seemed more likely in the UK since 2017. This view reflects two assumptions: that right-populism is impulsive and emotional, so it is likely to blow over, and that the more pragmatic left-populism can be bought off through negotiation.

The problem is that this interpretation can easily slide towards thinking of right-populism as a necessary purgative, or simply as bad political weather that must be endured until it passes, which then leads to the equanimity displayed by The Wall Street Journal towards the prospect of Jair Bolsonaro becoming the next President of Brazil. Bolsonaro's antagonistic rhetoric towards a variety of "social deviants" sounds like hyperbole, but the risk that he is a right-populist ramp for an illiberal democratic coup is very real. You shouldn't be surprised if a guy who lauds the former military dictatorship ushers in a new military dictatorship, even an informal one that features more suits than fatigues. Left-populism is not a threat to liberal democracy, despite the pearl-clutching claims of centrist commentators who espy a cult or a threat to free-speech. Right-populism, on the other hand, may be a threat because it can serve both as a precursor to, and as a mode of expression for, illiberal democracy. In that light, the liberal media's indulgence of the spectacle of right-populist demagoguery, from Nigel Farage to Tommy Robinson, looks particularly foolish.

Monday, 8 October 2018

The Populist Centre

Theresa May's suggestion in Sunday's Observer that "Labour voters should look afresh at the Conservatives" was clearly an appeal directed not at the electorate but at a minority of Labour MPs whom she hopes will "put country before party" and help pass her Brexit deal in the Commons vote on the EU Withdrawal Agreement. The buttons she pushed, such as antisemitism and deselection, are not ones that most Labour voters particularly care about. The retail offer to voters - protecting jobs, investing in the NHS, making homes affordable - is pabulum and little different to her previous empty promises to the "just about managing". Announcing an end to austerity while proceeding with Universal Credit and other scheduled expenditure cuts isn't going to convince the electorate, even if she throws in a Mama Mia karaoke, but claiming that "Millions of people who have supported Labour all their lives are appalled by what has happened to a once-great party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn" will be music to the ears of a couple of dozen Labour MPs who fear a Labour victory more than continued Tory misrule.

This might have passed without much comment had the Observer not chosen to put a news report on the front page that essentially advertised May's article while once more banging the drum for a centrist party: "It comes amid rumours in Westminster that disgruntled groups of Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs could try to form a new party on the centre ground to appeal to voters who regard the Tories as too pro-Brexit and right wing, and dislike the leftwing agenda of Corbyn". No attempt was made to put May's appeal into its actual political context as a scouting operation ahead of the big Brexit push, and the contrary quotes (notably from a disinterred David Blunkett) seemed designed to warn Labour not to desert the centre ground. The ridicule that this prompted on Twitter seems to have touched a nerve among the wider commentariat who proceeded to deflect from both May's and the Observer's motives with a variety of specious claims: that giving a platform to the PM is not partisan but a public service; that the left is incapable of tolerating dissent; and that a Corbyn-led government would mean the end of a free press.

Even professional rune-readers were tempted to focus on the resulting kerfuffle rather than May's transparent objective. For Stephen Bush at the New Statesman, "The choice of publication triggered a row of intra-left beef: the Observer is among the publications the Labour leadership regard with suspicion and irritation due to what they see as their excessive and partisan coverage of the People's Vote campaign." In a later take, he conceded that Brexit might have something to do with it but then spoiled his copy by suggesting May was trying to browbeat Philip Hammond on spending. The outpouring of anti-left hyperbole and the focus on West Wing-style machinations don't just distract from the Brexit angle, which the same people usually insist is paramount, they also distract from the ostensible subject of May's pitch: the political centre ground. Matthew d'Ancona, providing the "sceptical" balance in Monday's Guardian, did nominally address it, but his Liberal Tory judgement that May's initiative is doomed because the Conservatives have been made mad by Brexit also left what he revealing calls "the great wasteland between left and right" curiously undefined.

There are two fundamental approaches to building a centre party. The first is the pick-and-mix strategy that adopts popular policies from either flank. This is the "what works" approach favoured by technocrats (cf. Blair and Macron), though their pragmatism always seems to favour one particular flank over the other. The second approach is to establish a unique position that serves to condemn both flanks. That position is likely to be populist in nature, pitting a notional people against an establishment duopoly (though they decry "populism", the localism of the Liberal Democrats is an example of this). Though contradictory, being simultaneously elitist and anti-elitist, these are actually complementary in practice, hence centre parties usually pursue both to varying degrees (e.g. the SNP emphasises the populist angle, En Marche the technocratic). The dirty secret of centrism is that it tends to be more populist than technocratic, simply because techniques of governance like triangulation are routinely adopted by most parties. Neither approach is propitious in the UK at present. The People's Vote was an attempt to pursue a populist strategy, but it has failed because most voters don't consider Brexit to be their paramount concern. The pick-and-mix strategy is a non-starter because, with Labour still moving left and the Tories increasingly febrile, the shifting sands make it difficult to isolate an equidistant position that will be clear to voters.

The truth is that the centre ground doesn't currently exist as a meaningful political territory in the UK, hence the vagueness of d'Ancona and others who try to describe it. There is no "great wasteland", though there is unquestionably a lot of effort wasted in trying to find it. The breaking of the neoliberal spell after 2008 has led to polarisation and an appetite for more radical social and economic measures. The developing failure of the right's prescriptions - the twin beliefs that austerity and Brexit would lead to prosperity - has started to push the electorate towards the left rather than towards the centre. This was the inevitable result of the post-80s political orthodoxy that accepted the Thatcherite dispensation and the vapid philosophy of the Third Way. The centre is no longer distinguishable from the right, if it ever really was, a point that was made crystal clear by the coalition government of 2010-15. This recent shift to the left among the electorate is less a conversion to radicalism than a rediscovery of dormant sympathies. Voters have simply realised that there is an electoral alternative after all. Naturally, you won't find many political commentators prepared to praise Corbyn for keeping the flame alive all these years.

This revival of the left has been mirrored by a counter-movement in which reactionary forces have consolidated around the Tory party. This is more than a consequence of the electoral collapse of UKIP in 2017. It reflects a realisation by rentiers and other privileged groups that they cannot assume a future Labour government would indulge them, as in the New Labour years. While May will talk about bringing the nation together, her government will continue to promote the politics of division: starving the public sector, being hostile to immigrants and the unemployed, and keeping property prices high. Were she to abandon any of these policies, the Conservative coalition would be at risk of fragmentation. Dissatisfaction over Brexit has all the makings of a final straw for many on the right, so antagonising key electoral blocs doesn't make any sense over the next four years. In the circumstances, the idea that the Tories might tack leftwards in any meaningful way is simply incredible. This is obvious to most people, hence the incredulity at the Observer's disingenuous coverage of May's pitch.

But if the Tories aren't going to occupy the empty space of the political centre does this mean that there is still room for a British Macron, a mix of the technician and the populist, to emerge? The Observer and the right wing of Labour might think so, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Not only is there not a credible clean-skin (that the likes of Gina Miller have been mooted is proof of desperation), but there isn't sufficient dissatisfaction with the established parties and thus the fragmentation of the electorate that would allow a centrist to emerge from a crowded field. Macron led in the first round of the French Presidential election in 2017 with only 24% of the vote. In most years that would have condemned him to third place and elimination. More fundamentally, there is no populist cause other than remain that a centrist political force can leverage this side of Brexit, while post-Brexit it is likely to find itself squeezed by the revived populism of the left and the increasingly chaotic populism of the right. The irony is that populism has undermined centrism not because the one is antipathetic to the other but because centrism has lost its monopoly on populism.