I am a political and economic centrist who happens to be highly anti-war and anti-imperialist, but without being a traditional pacifist. And yet few of the people who in the 21st century call themselves centrists (particularly in North America and Europe) have anything remotely to do with my style of politics.
The trouble stems from the fact that as the term “liberal” becomes ever more discredited and therefore socially toxified, many traditional late 20th century style liberals have come to call themselves centrists as a means of trying to avoid being called out for their liberalism. This is true for ultra-liberals like Emmanuel Macron, the acolytes of Tony Blair and even certain high ranking members of America’s Democratic party. And yet most of these people are either fully opposed to or have completely ignored the achievements of true centrist political visionaries.
At its most fundamental level, political centrism means seeking and achieving balance in everything from economic policy to diplomatic relations. Every nation has its own particular set of challenges and the centrist is one who prioritises problem solving above ideological dogma. In this sense, the truest centrist seeks to achieve a balance between all competing ideologies in order to find solutions that are best suited to a particular set of problems. With this in mind, here are the three most important centrist leaders of modern history.
Lee Kuan Yew
Singapore’s founder and Prime Minister between 1959 and 1990 was without a doubt the master centrist of the 20th century. Lew Kuan Yew (or LKY as he is affectionately known) was able to transform Singapore form a post-colonial swamp forced out of union with Malaysia into the first south east Asian nation to achieve first world economic standards that have come to eclipse that of its former colonial master. Modern Singapore is a leading world economy, a largely crime-free republic and a place that is consistently ranked as having the world’s best education system.
To achieve this, LKY combined elements of a mild command economy with that of an open free market, he combined the organisational skills of the leftist UK Labour Party with the tough law and order necessary to being social harmony to his once fractious multiracial island. LKY furthermore struck a balance between personal freedom and the tough decisions necessary to avoid the kind of inane media atmosphere that one for examples sees in ‘free for all’ India.
In each of these areas, balance was the key, centrism was the method and success was the goal that was resolutely achieved.
The Chinese paramount leader between 1978 and 1989, Deng Xiaoping is a controversial entry on this list as he was a member of the Communist Party of China which is by no means a centrist party. Yet in terms of Deng’s reforms, he combined the phenomenon of socialism with Chinese characteristics and pragmatic problem solving techniques that helped to elevate more people out of poverty in a shorter period of time than that which has ever happened before or since.
Deng’s dictum was: “I do not care if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice”. This statement is in many ways the best summary of centrism that has ever existed. By prioritising results based policies over ideological purity, Deng was in fact able to strengthen his party while helping to modernise his nation economically and technologically.
The fact that China has overtaken the United States in terms of economic purchasing power parity and is guaranteed to be the world’s leading economy in terms of GDP by mid-21st century is clearly a symptom of Deng’s reforms as well as the attitude of his most important successor, China’s current President Xi Jinping.
Interestingly, in the years since 1978, American politics has become increasingly ideological and divisive while China has become an ever more prosperous and harmonious society thanks to the pragmatic reforms that Deng instigated. It is not mere coincidence that these trends have paralleled China’s economic rise and America’s gradual economic decline.
Atatürk is equally renowned for being a military hero as well as a political hero of the modern Republic of Turkey that he founded. On the battlefield, he prohibited Turkey’s foreign enemies from crushing the state, but as a political leader he exuded an attitude which promoted pragmatism, modernisation, enlightenment and social cohesion.
Atatürk’s foreign policy was one of friendship with all and enmity towards none. While the first nation to develop ties with Atatürk’s National Assembly was the Soviet Union and while the young Republic of Turkey developed good relations with Iran and Afghanistan, Atatürk also made sure to cultivate positive relations with Turkey’s former enemies including Greece, Britain, Serbia and France.
In 1936, Atatürk stopped the western powers from effectively stealing Turkey’s Straits by promulgating the Montreux Convention for the Turkish Straits that has helped to insure peace in the Black Sea region ever since.
Atatürk’s social modernisation programme helped to elevate the social condition of millions of Turks in terms of educational and living standards and as such he remains not only a hero of Turkey but a hero of genuine political centrism.
There are many other important centrists in modern history including long serving current Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and former Egyptian President and leading light of Arab Nationalism Gamal Abdel Nasser, to name but a few.
All of these men were and are very different, but none of them could be described as liberal. True centrism is about balance and problem solving while liberalism is little more than one of the most failed, flawed and out of date extreme ideologies of the modern era.