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Holding the Middle of the Road

December 3, 2017

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Confucius’ famous curse feels a bit superfluous these days. There is little to doubt that we do live in “interesting times”. Whether it be Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise of populism, austerity, terrorism, the impact of automation or climate change the last decade has seen a convergence of challenges to the established order of things in the Western World which, in my life time, feel unprecedented. Disturbingly we face these issues in a political and social environment which has become increasingly extreme and polarised. Social media, which doesn’t always lend itself to subtly, has epitomised this phenomenon.

These trends are disturbing and don’t, I feel, bode well for the health of our democracy and for the social cohesiveness which is so central to our sense of collective wellbeing. For many the term “middle of the road” is off putting, symbolising, perhaps, unsatisfactory compromises and the abandonment of more comforting oppositional positions. However, for me, the middle of the road is the place where we need, more than ever, to be if we are to make genuine progress in resolving the challenges which face us as individuals and as a society.

There are four aspects to this.

The first is the willingness to listen, with respect, to a range of opinions and views beyond one’s own. It is one of the real problems of our current times that the polarisation of opinion has limited our ability to have a constructive dialogue with those who don’t share our views. It has been one of the things I have always valued about mental health that it has been an issue which has united so many people from different backgrounds and social and political perspectives. By contrast it was one of the tragedies of the Brexit referendum that it exposed the extent to which we had become two nations, impervious to each other’s’ experiences and concerns.

The second principle is the ability to respect evidence and to change one’s mind as a consequence. Truth is rarely black and white, and we need to be able to tolerate the nuances of intelligent debate and the possibility that the evidence will not always support the position which we are taking. Some of this relates to our respect for experts although, in my opinion, experts can also be blinkered in their outlook, especially when they have a lot staked, as individuals, on a particular position. It is more to do with an openness of mind and sense of humility which allows us to admit that we have been mistaken in our views and are able to move on.

The third attribute is perseverance. Vision and a clear sense of direction are important in any endeavour, but I would rather have ten small changes which make a practical difference to peoples’ lives than a grandiose promise of change which has little chance of success or can only come at an enormous cost. With perseverance must come patience and a trust that small actions can lead to real change and that long-term commitments are necessary if we desire to transform society. Short termism is a particular British curse, nowhere more evident than in the planning of the NHS where, too often, there is a desire to promise enormous change in the short term while we remain unable to resolve the problems that have been with us for thirty years or more.

The final point is that how things are done matters as much as what is done. The quality and tolerability of life is a function of how we behave with each other. Courtesy, tolerance and respect are essential requirements of civilised life which need to be championed. Where people are held to account for their actions due process must be paramount and everyone, wherever they sit on the political spectrum, is innocent until proven guilty. Justice and good administration need to be nurtured and ends do not always justify means. As every conflict in my lifetime tells me one of the biggest dangers of extremism is that it somehow justifies an equal and opposite reaction. When terrorism triumphs over civilised values it really has won.

At a time of such existential threats it is easy to understand why some people have rejected the politics of compromise and consensus. All through history there have been politicians who have been prepared to “trim” their positions to further their own personal advantage. However, it is in the middle that real movement and progress is possible. I am not advocating a world without values and principles which are strongly held, they after all define the terms of what is possible to achieve through compromise with others. I am advocating that we are willing to reach out from where we are comfortable to engage with others and to put the common good above all.

When the traffic is speeding rapidly in both directions it takes some courage to hold the middle of the road.

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