I learnt about left and right.
Perhaps it was because of my parents having the political intelligence of a Daily Mail reader, or perhaps because of my own preference for ignorance, or perhaps it was because I’d spent most of my days in a mature democracy where tabloids dictated election outcomes and, consequently, manifestos were written by advertising agencies. For whatever reason I’d managed to live a full quarter century before I understood the principles behind the so-called right- and left-wings of politics.
So it was that a kindly friend could, without any great effort, massively expand my political knowledge, and point out that, in a nutshell, left equals big government and right equals small government. Now while I agree with that to some extent, I see the two sides now as having rather deeper roots, and that the size of government is purely a manifestation of deeper principles.
From where I stand now it seems to me that the principles underlying these two wings can be described in terms of how they view an individual’s destiny. To someone on the right, an individual is in control of, and has responsibility for, their destiny. If they succeed it is all to their credit, and if they fail it is all their fault. To someone on the left, society has a role to play in this – whether an individual succeeds or fails is greatly affected by their surroundings, so the credit or fault lies with society as a whole.
As with any two extremes of a scale, neither is likely to be particularly accurate, and reality is more likely to lie somewhere in the middle. Of course, a more moderate view in both cases would not lie at one extreme but would, rather, abjure the opposite extreme. This moderate position then, does not embrace one extreme, it merely rejects the other. A moderate right-winger might say an individual’s destiny is not purely down to environmental factors, and a moderate left-winger would say that it is not entirely within the individual’s control.
Naively, then, the conservatives are right-wing and the labour party left, and one might first seek to establish whether they are moderate or extreme in their positions. Well, the most recent tory politician to express a political ideology (as opposed to merely a desire to be elected) stated quite clearly “There is no such thing as society”, thus quite emphatically rejecting everything apart from the extreme, or shall we say “loony”, right-wing position. So, on the most recent evidence, the tories are loony right-wingers.
In the interests of political balance I should try and come up with an equally loony left-wing quote. Unfortunately I can’t because a) I’m not aware of anyone on the left (at least, certainly no-one of quite such a senior position on the left) saying anything so stupid and b) as you’ll know, I’m not remotely interested in political balance.
Of course we do not, theoretically, have a two-party system in Britain, and one might naively hope that where the conservatives form the loony right and labour form the extreme left, the reamining middle ground is taken by the liberal democrats. I have to admit that, on the basis of this idea, my political sympathies lie mainly with the democrats. Unfortunately this view does not fit remotely well with reality and I have to sadly confess that the lib dems seem to be scrabbling around for a clue as to what they should believe in even more than either of the other two main parties. Sigh.
If an individual’s destiny is purely within their own control then it becomes clear that government is an irrelevance and, being a costly irrelevance, is clearly undesirable. This coincidentally ensures (to my naive, non-loony-right-wing mind) that those who have power will keep power, i.e., those who have the most money. Of course those who have loads of money like to think that it is purely down to their own efforts (which, when that money is inherited, requires quite an impressive level of self-delusion; we can be proud of our upper classes that, while intellectually-challenged to olympic standards, they can nevertheless achieve that level of self-delusion without even breaking out into a sweat) so it is convenient for them to hold loony right-wing views, but the conservative (with a small c) outcomes of such views is also undoubtedly something they’re glad of.
To the successful, these views are comforting not only by reassuring them that they can take full credit for their success, but also because they can look at the unsuccessful with no feelings of guilt whatsoever. That tramp is in the gutter because he has chosen to be there, and I don’t need to help at all. The acknowledgement that the successful don’t need to help the unsuccessful, or indeed that anyone needs to help anyone, implies that the successful don’t need any help from anyone at all. Which is why, for example, you’ll never see a conservative politician claiming expenses from the state so that they can give their children some extra pocket money as reward for “research” work. It’s why you’ll never see right-wing supporters asking for help, such as claiming welfare benefits. It’s why right-wingers don’t believe in education, because passing knowledge on is a form of help. And it’s also (to explain a point I made to a friend when I was unfortunately too inebriated to have any chance of justifying it) why punk is innately right-wing, since it is music made by people who claim (ignoring the fact that most of them are lying) to have had, and needed, no musical education. Like the “self-made” millionaire, it’s nice to emphasize that you didn’t need any education or help, because it means you get to take all the credit yourself for your success.
On the other hand, if society has a role to play in ensuring a positive outcome of each member, then it seems reasonable to try and organize this in an effective way, i.e., a government is needed. Of course, such a government, with the aim of improving the lot of each member of society, is quite a different beast to a government under a monarch. Since a monarch’s primary aim is to use those same members of society to protect their (the monarch’s) position and possessions, the government must also fulfil that purpose. It does so by appeasing the populace sufficiently to a) prevent civil disorder/revolution and b) persuade them that the monarch is worth fighting for whenever the monarch needs an army to defend their (the monarch’s, remember, not the populace’s) possessions. But one could imagine that a republic could, conceivably at least, have such a government for the people.
But if you’ve ever tried helping anyone in difficulty (including, for example, bringing up children) you’ll realize that cooperation is rarely a high priority for the person needing help. Moreover, where some people do not cooperate, others take advantage. (Ah, yes, that’s why right-wingers claim benefits – because benefit-fraud is entrepeneurial activity for which they can take full credit.) That was one of the reasons why I could never fully buy the socialist ideal. It seemed to be based on a rose-tinted view of human nature which fits neither my experience of people (as a mixture of good and bad, with nobody completely one or the other), nor my theology. So I was intrigued to read a review of Raymond Aron which suggested he had developed socialist principles that acknowledged that people can be bad, and that socialism is about working with that to achieve good government. Since I haven’t myself read what he has to say I can’t see if this fits in a coherent or plausible philosophy, let alone one consistent with Christianity, but I’m faintly hopeful. Which is an unusual thing to feel after any kind of political discussion.