It wasn't that long ago that Britain's Labour and Conservative parties were locked in hand-to-hand ideological combat. Following the economic tumult of the late 1970s, Margaret Thatcher won office on a radical anti-union, anti-left reform agenda. A few years later, Labour fought back with a hard-left campaign manifesto that was so hugely unsuccessful it became known as "the longest suicide note in history." Then Thatcher blew London's financial center wide open with the "big bang" of deregulation. This, surely, was politics as it should be—muscular thinking grappling with the great issues of the day.
Not anymore. In the relative calm and comfort of Britain in the early-21st century, removed from the history-rocking crises of the past, Labour and the Tories find themselves scrabbling over a small ideological patch in the middle of the political spectrum. Like the space being contested, the thinking that emerges from it is often small and cramped. "What politicians increasingly are finding is that the messages that work are those that don't have any ideological content," says Peter Kellner, president of the market-research company YouGov. As a consequence, says Claire Fox, director of London's Institute of Ideas, "there's a gap in the market of big ideas. Our world has deemed major ideological differences an irrelevance and adopted a pragmatic managerialism. Of course, there are still rows to be had, but they are over the most petty and minor points."
The politics that results from this muddle in the middle resembles one of those Russian matryoshka dolls: a Thatcher (Conservative) inside a Tony Blair (Labour) inside his successor, Gordon Brown (Labour), waiting to be swallowed up by a pink-cheeked David Cameron (Conservative). The policies emerging from a soft middle are liable to be, well, soft. Tackle a looming pensions crisis? Not when Labour and the Conservatives are so busy tripping over each other to lighten the inheritance-tax burden for middle-class families.
It's no coincidence that the noisy engine room of political change in Europe these days is in France, where there is no ongoing battle for the center ground. While the rest of Europe seems to be avoiding radical politics at all costs, France is forging a new path. The center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy started out by neutering the opposition Socialists, pulling their best and brightest—like Bernard Kouchner, whom he named foreign minister—and others into his orbit, creating what in France amounts to a radical center. Now Sarkozy is wielding his reform agenda like an anti-riot truncheon—taking his battle to, among others, postal workers, teachers, rail and bus workers, nuclear power-plant employees and hospital staff—all of whom were on strike at some point over the past few weeks to protest ambitious Sarkozy moves like pension reform. The Socialists, torn between rallying around the old Red left and moving toward the center, are stalled—resistant still to the modernization that has swept through much of the European center-left. This leaves Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement with an open field: "There's nothing across the street," as Gaël Sliman of the polling firm BVA says. And it leaves Sarkozy standing tall on the ramparts, unlike his more timid European counterparts: "We will not surrender and we will not retreat," he said last week.
But France is the exception in Europe. More typical is Denmark, which held a little-noticed election two weeks ago. If the results—the center-right government of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen won a third consecutive term in office—weren't splashed across European front pages, it's because the campaign was a bit of a yawn. The core issues in Denmark, familiar to other Europeans, are weighty enough: tax reform and welfare, immigration and the environment. But the main parties broadly agree on them, and the electoral wrangling was more about who wields power than major policy differences. After losing the election, Social Democrat leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt said calmly, "We'll do it next time."
"Next time" could well be the unofficial motto of Germany's reform-shy mainstream parties. The promise of economic liberalization—embodied first in center-left Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and then in his center-right Christian Democrat successor, Angela Merkel—has all but collapsed as the parties sail only into the safest electoral havens. The lack of ideological ferment in Germany has echoes in Britain. In both countries, the think tanks that in the mid-1990s were brave new worlds of ideas are today quieter, less radical. One reason: political parties, armed with focus groups and other sophisticated tools with which to read the voters, are more reactive than proactive. "It's the tyranny of the 'average voter,' and it leads to short-term policies," said Lars Nord, a Swedish political scientist. "Parties are becoming really smart about feeling out the voters, but more scared of leading."
If politics has moved from macro ideas to micro ones, as Oliver Marc Hartwich of the think tank Policy Exchange in London argues, it's in part because the policy heavy-lifting was done in past decades. Since then a comfortable political consensus has settled over the landscape. Thus, the "cradle to grave" National Health Service, born during the postwar British government of Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, is today embraced by both Labour and the Conservatives; similarly, the mainstream parties of the Nordic countries now accept the economic liberalism promulgated by Thatcher. Reflecting on Danish politics, Jorgen Goul Andersen of Aalborg University could just as well be talking about Europe's northern tier generally when he says, "It reminds me a bit of the 1960s, when there was political consensus on welfare politics. Then there were the crises of the '70s and '80s, [which were] righted by neoliberal solutions. Now there are no real big challenges in Danish politics. They took care of social issues in good time, like other proactive Scandinavian nations."
A similar consensus thrives in Central Europe. But it's less homegrown than imposed from the outside, stemming from the collapse of communism and the keenness, even desperation, of former Soviet-bloc countries to join the European Union. Such is their eagerness that they have been willing to revamp their social, economic and legal systems to pass the test. "The post-communist countries had to achieve the same radical reform goals [as their Western neighbors] under the guidance of the EU," says Jiri Pehe, director of New York University's Prague campus, and a onetime adviser to former Czech president Vaclav Havel. This was not a partisan exercise. "It did not matter which party carried them out," Pehe says.
The pull of the political center affects different countries in different ways. In Spain, with four months to go before the next election, the mainstream parties are in broad agreement on economic policy, but have scrapped over social issues such as same-sex marriage and divorce, as well as the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Spanish life. In Portugal, partisan differences seem even narrower: the big debate these days is over where to build the new Lisbon airport. In Italy, centrism has pulled off a coup—bringing something like coherence to a land of impossibly fractious politics and notoriously weak governments. The newish Democratic Party has managed to gather lefties, ex-communists, former Christian Democrats, Greens and Liberal Democrats under its big tent. The party may be led by a former Communist Party member, Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, but it seeks to be market-friendly and advocates further liberalization of the Italian economy. Luca Comodo of the polling firm Ipsos says the move to the political center is in part a response to the public's demand "for a simplification of the political scenario, for clearer political programs, for a stronger ability to govern and a stronger capacity to take decisions."
As the Italian case suggests—and as France's recent chaos drives home—the political center is not always such a bad place to be. The radicalism of a Thatcher or, for that matter, of a Sarkozy comes at times of change, uncertainty or economic malaise. The gravitational force of the center is greatest when people feel comfortable and prosperous. The task for those political thinkers who have traveled to the center in the past is to make sure the politics there don't go stale. "I'm puzzling about this myself," says the British sociologist Anthony Giddens, the intellectual godfather of the Third Way, which, as mocked as it came to be, was at the heart of center-left thinking in the 1990s. Gazing across the politics of Europe today, he accepts that there is the danger of former left and right parties merging into a single party of the center. "You have to ask yourself: is there a one-party system at the center of democracy today?"
The challenge is to redefine the center—to find what Giddens and Tony Blair used to call the "radical center." "You need a new wave of analysis," says Giddens. He suggests that all this cross-party consensus doesn't necessarily translate into paralysis—you can have a radical, bipartisan consensus on climate change, for example. One thing is clear: in the wonkish policy workshops of the former left and right, the fight over the center will be over a narrow ideological ground as long as large numbers of key voters still reside there. "Many of the issues we were tackling [a decade ago] have been tackled," says British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who in the early Blair years ran the prime minister's policy unit. "We have to refashion a progressive political narrative for new times. That's what we had to do in the 1990s, and [that's what] we'll do now." The idea of a "refashioned progressive political narrative" is political jargon enough to set one's teeth on edge. But if a successful refashioning of the political landscape helps remove the muddle from the political middle, perhaps it will be worth the pain.
With Jacopo Barigazzi in Milan, Mike Elkin in Madrid, Charles Ferro in Copenhagen, Sophie Grove in London, Katka Krosnar in Prague, Tracy McNicoll in Paris, Karin Rives in Stockholm and Andreas Tzortzis in Berlin