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Defending the centre

Adversity has a reputation for making strange bedfellows, and few are stranger than Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron. Putting their differences over sausages and submarines aside, the British Prime Minister was pictured clutching the French President at the G7 as if he was a long-lost member of the Bullingdon Club rather than his adversary from across La Manche who’d called him “un clown”. Of course, the bonhomie was only sustained by sticking to the subject of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the absence of any discussion of Brexit or the Northern Irish Protocol. Should both leaders somehow manage to survive in office – which is far from certain – it’s unlikely their desire to “warm up” the relationship will ever be oven-ready, and it should not be long before normal hostilities resume.

But, for now, both politicians have adversity in spades and it suits them to play the part of fraternal global statesmen. Their troubles are not just the kind facing the leaders of all Western nations: stagnating economies, rocketing energy prices and the renewed threat to world security posed by Russia and China. In recent weeks, both men have experienced crushing electoral defeats. Macron squandered control of the National Assembly, leaving him as the first French president without a majority there in 30 years (see Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, The fall of the House of Macron). Meanwhile, Johnson saw the first brick knocked from his Red Wall in Wakefield, and suffered the ignominy of an almost 30 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats in Tiverton and Honiton, who claimed the seat for the first time. While Macron is not in immediate danger of being ousted, the same cannot be said for Johnson, who’s under renewed pressure from many in his own party to resign (see Simon Heffer, A cabinet of catastrophes).

In one way, both men’s malaise stems from their arrogance, inept leadership and lack of respect for political colleagues and electorate alike. As such, both are unlikely to be treated kindly by historians. But at a broader level, Macron’s political woes are of a very different kind to Johnson’s and have more in common with the highly polarised society standing in the way of Joe Biden’s attempts to re-establish a semblance of unity in America.

Macron’s opportunistic brand of centrism has been torn apart by radical forces from both the Left and Right, having failed to recognise the growing fissures in France between the elite – of which he is a classic example – and the downtrodden members of what the geographer Christophe Guilluy calls “peripheral France”. These resemble the deep divides the historian Sarah Churchwell identifies in her new book The Wrath to Come as ever-present beneath the veneer of American society (see her interview with Gavin Esler), where the expression “liberal elite” has come to be seen by many among the dispossessed as a tautology.

Like Macron, Johnson is an ideologically flexible politician – his chaotic premiership belies the term “leader” – but unlike Macron he’s eschewed any attempt at consensus and has governed by appealing to prejudice and division. His anti-immigration and anti-EU agenda is worthy of Macron’s right-wing foe Marine Le Pen, and his “levelling-up” platitudes would not be out of place in the manifesto of Macron’s left-wing nemesis, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Tellingly, Johnson’s by-election losses weren’t at the hands of those on the extreme fringes of politics, but to the Liberal Democrats and a recentred Labour party.

All of this speaks volumes about the naturally moderate inclinations of most of the British public. Despite the divides exposed by Brexit and the upsurge in nationalist sentiment in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, as John Denham writes (p 18), Britain remains innately liberal. It’s a very different country from either France or America. Nowhere is this more apparent than the absence here of the religiously charged political culture that led to the recent overturning of Roe v Wade (see Michael Janofsky, Trump’s fate: future president or potential felon). Christianity might be the UK’s official state religion, but its genially tepid application via the established churches actively discourages any genuine crossover between religious and political ideology. Indeed, barely half of us actively identify as Christian, and more than 40 per cent claim to be agnostic or atheist.

As everywhere, prejudice, inequality and intolerance exist in Britain, but for the most part, there’s a genuine commonality to our fundamental ethics. This is why Johnson’s cavalier approach to the truth doesn’t deliver him the same political dividends that Donald Trump’s does, and his disturbing policy of transporting refugees to Rwanda has been condemned across the political spectrum. And it’s why we must – as Jonathan Lis warns (The roll-back of rights) – not be complacent in the face of any erosion of our civil liberties, as many bills currently before parliament attempt to do. The lessons of France and America for the UK are not to abandon our centrist sensibilities, but to rejoice in them, and do everything we can to maintain them.

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