The new British prime minister, Theresa May, wants to move her party (the Conservatives) to the political center. But the center ground in politics can be a dangerous place, especially if it is not clear where that center actually lies today. It could be shifting — and fast.

For example, the British leader pitched her remarks to “ordinary working class people.” But a recent think tank survey — in March of this year — showed that 71 percent of the British people now define themselves as middle class. In all probability most people are becoming fed up with these class generalizations and categories altogether.

Another so-called center used to be the mid-way point between the old 20th century ideologies of capitalism and socialism, the idea being that free but regulated market capitalists spreading their capital around on one side, and socialists happy to work with markets on the other side could somehow all meet in the middle in common cause.

Yet all these half-way house definitions miss the vital point. The “center” is never a static place, midway between you and your political opponents. In the ever-evolving process that is real life, the center is the lead pointer, opening up the future. Think flights of birds, wild geese for example, as they wing across the sky. The center point is the bird at the spearhead of the V formation, guiding the lines and flocks behind, to left and right, in new directions and to new feeding grounds.

So it is in those centrist new directions that leaders should be taking their publics and their electorates, away from the stale antagonisms and rival theories of the past, and on to new issues and debates, matching the changed nature of life’s challenges and concerns. It is the leader who can see just that bit ahead, and who knows the best way to go, that is truly at the center.

A good example of how to avoid the confusion between soggy middle ground of politics and the real center ground of the future comes down to us from the Thatcher era.

In the heavily socialized and corporatist Britain of the 1970s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s belief in markets, in monetary prudence, in individual initiative, in privatization, in the spread of ownership, in small enterprise and so on was at first branded as “right wing” and “divisive.” But then, as it dawned on the thinking community that the age of socialist centralism was over, and that technology was dispersing state power, what had been “right wing” became the obvious future for all, with market power, albeit carefully regulated, becoming the new center, the common ground of the future on which all could gather.

This was so much so that the successor Labour government, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, openly embraced market solutions and private enterprise dynamism. As Thatcher remarked, toward the end of her life, “Tony Blair has stolen my policies.” In fact he had simply, and shrewdly, moved on to the new center ground that she had pioneered.

Come now to the present day and radically changed world in which the political debate now operates and is about to operate.

Because of the staggering and still expanding power of the microchip, and the global connectivity that flows from it, the center belongs to no particular class. Except at the extreme margins where there are still a number of class warriors, most adults see themselves as hard workers, except perhaps the very old — and even some of them. For many the nature of work has completely changed, and for some there may be satisfaction but little or no remuneration.

The force of the digital age is toward taking back power locally, toward regaining personal sovereignty and empowerment. But this same force can lead not to peaceful and democratic power-sharing but to anarchy and unending instability, as events in the Middle East vividly demonstrate.

So the demand on leaders is to find a new center way — between the revolutionary atomization of power in the information age, putting all “establishments” or “elites” under attack, and the continuing and even stronger need for a framework of reliable authority and governance to prevent chaotic disorder.

Governments are bombarded with conflicting clamors — to cede more control and yet to provide more control, to stay on top yet get off people’s backs, to protect yet leave alone, to suppress and prevent crime and terror yet respect privacy and unrestricted freedoms, to spend more and yet to tax less, to let markets and enterprise work unmolested, yet somehow intervene to create growth and jobs without inflation.

Somewhere ahead there lies a new common ground in society on which some of these head-on pressures can be reconciled. The leaders will be the ones who can see not backward, nor sideways but a more hopeful and innovative way ahead. That will provide the emerging outlines of the new center in politics and governance.

In the meantime unease and bewilderment are currently infecting public attitudes almost everywhere, leading to outbreak rashes of populism and revolt, some of it violent. Well-meaning attempts by politicians to please everybody, make life “fair” for all, halve the difference with their opponents and to sweet-talk the undecided are bound to lead at best to half-baked policies and skepticism, at worst to aggravation and bitter disappointment.

That is not where the real center now lies. That is not the common ground of the future but the treacherous space between the old political adversaries and their old conflicts. In past wars it was called no-man’s land. It is no-woman’s land as well, and it never was, never is and never will be, a wise place to go.

David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant.

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