Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
Chap in the interval bar: ‘Yeah, but that production was just so META…’ At the time, my thought was: why do some idiots make it so hard to convince people that opera isn’t elitist? Now, however, I have a newfound appreciation for the word that annoyed me – because, lately, I’ve been having something of a meta problem, myself. ‘Meta’, in the way a friend uses it to explain that metaphilosophy is to philosophy, as talking about sex is to actually having it. ‘Meta’, as in to discuss anything, we need to know what it is.
I wanted to write about the term ‘right wing’. And I wanted to write about it in a sociological sense: how we react to it, who (particularly among Conservative voters) volunteers it as a self-description, and whether they should. Yet I realised that, before I could, I’d have to clarify what we take ‘right wing’ to mean. And that – French Revolution origins, onwards – is surely a book in itself.
Here’s my unhappy attempt. Firstly, the terms ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing’ indicate a binary choice. This reflects the traditionally bipartite nature of British politics, and lets us feel excitingly antagonistic (even when we aren’t). Secondly, they imply a scale made finite by extremes. This is helpful because while our scale contains fixed points that allow for comparison between nations’ disparate political systems, its (non-abstract) centre is dependent on place and time.
Being ‘centrist’ here can be different from being ‘centrist’ elsewhere. (Something that’s also true with ‘centre right’: I might describe myself so in Britain; in the States, I might not.) But I’m procrastinating. I’m hesitant to define this term partly since ‘right wing’ seems largely oppositional to ‘left wing’. (Not least because, to me, it’s easier to be non-ideological on the right than the left. Who is the lefty alternative to the pragmatic conservative? Someone who believes that whether it ain’t broke or not, we should always try to improve it?)
That said, most of us see sense in the usual claims that ‘left wing’ is x, and ‘right wing’ is y. (Oh, we definitely agree on what is represented by those variables.) And, to bite the explicit bullet in terms of sometime non-negotiables, ‘right’ might imply general positivity about (productive) tradition, and encapsulate ideas such as property rights, and the individualism in which people are ends in themselves; ‘left’ might suggest redistribution, a focus on outcomes, and a belief in the benefits of an increased state. As for our scale’s fixed points, there are movements that – ‘correctly’ or not – have become stuck on either side: movements like Fabianism, Communism, Liberalism (good luck placing that one today), Nationalism, and Fascism. I hope we’ve sufficiently reached consensus on this ‘meta’ stuff to move on.
I have an assumption that most Britons aren’t especially keen to describe themselves, voluntarily, as ‘right wing’. A quick and very unscientific vox pop didn’t contradict my assumption: putting aside variations such as ‘on the right’, and ‘a bit rightish, I suppose’, few of the Conservatives I asked said they typically ventured that specific descriptor (exceptions being the more politically confident among them). One explanation is that that species of ‘wing’ invites connotations of a wartime German eagle.
A heightened fear of unwelcome association fits with the excellent Michael Portillo comment (I think it was him, back in 2010) that Conservatives think Labour voters are misguided, whereas Labour voters think Conservatives are ‘evil’. On a grand scale, that no doubt reflects the exuberant ‘idealism’ that finds laudability in the aims of even hard-core left-wing movements. And, obviously, that conviction usually relates to a lack of awareness. Thankfully, we all know about Hitler’s vileness; unfortunately, many Britons don’t know enough about that of Stalin et al. (Contrastingly, a friend from an ex-Soviet country says that, there, it’s the ‘left wing’ that’s thought to be ‘evil’.)
However, Labour voters don’t seem so happy to ‘wing’ it, either. Instead of providing a useful simplification, the term feels to some like an accusation that they are simple, themselves. One party member said she suspected people were happier to use overriding terms to describe the left, because those on her side were considered to be less clever or individual than those on the right. It’s unsurprising that generalisations are used to dismiss and divide.
Until recently, a distaste for right and left (‘Such a passé idea!’) could also be connected with a move towards pragmatic centrism: the hope to prevent a resurgence of extremist pain during a period of calm; an aversion to ideology, precipitated by the violent social and economic disasters of the twentieth century; a recognition that politicians needed to stop letting exploitable principles get in the way.
But new – or previously veiled – uncertainties have inspired shifts, once again, to the extremes. On the left (no time to address this fairly), these are too often marshalled by the privileged, who don’t need to accept that most people support capitalism not because of what it represents ideologically, but because it works and – in absolute terms – has led to a vastly improved world. Ditto crusades against free speech led by those who clearly can’t comprehend what it truly means to curtail freedom.
In these weeks of schism, it seems overly evident that both sides are verging outwards. But is that strictly the case, here? Brexit has greater appeal to (some on) the right of the Conservative Party, yet is it necessarily ‘right wing’? Is social liberalism not a growing unifier within the parliamentary party? Isn’t the country becoming less politically tribal? And, rather than exposing an expanding hard left, don’t ongoing revelations of Labour antisemitism better point up the danger in unthinkingly assuming their side to be ‘nice’? That stain also magnifies a ‘left-wing’ desire to define (rather than describe) people by using prescriptive labels, in order to squash them – unevenly – into some stylised zero-sum ‘equality’.
Unease over labels could lead us to conclude that maybe there isn’t such a need for ‘meta’, after all – or at least in any normative way. ‘Right wing’ and ‘left wing’ are vague societal constructs; they don’t exist objectively. Sure, there’s value in weighing up whether they seem a consistent and useful method of categorising a range of political views. And, on limited reflection, I think they probably do. But that’s more in the sense of familial resemblance: as with those other famously hard-to-define terms, like ‘game’, we are able to understand what they generally signify, even if we don’t know how to define them precisely.
In a national or global context, the ‘wing’ thing can help us begin to learn where our opinions fit. OK, not as specifically as a grid reference or postcode, yet they might tell us which map to look at, or, perhaps, which page. If people feel uneasy about this – not simply because the terms are toxic, but because they are insufficiently nuanced, too – that seems (from an individualist point of view) good.
Apparently, Kingsley Amis’s least favourite dinner party question was ‘Red or white?’ Sometimes, answering it seems like a decent place from which to start.