What’s in a Name?

‘Today, everyone is a progressive. Nobody says, “‘I'm entirely regressive myself.’”

Of all the baleful effects of the French Revolution, few have such a continuingly irritating presence as the categorisation of our politics into “Left” and “Right”. As a growing number of people are discovering, and as Peter Hitchens points out in his new book, The Broken Compass (Continuum), the terms have almost no current meaning. There is no longer an ancien régime for the Left to assault or the Right to defend.

The more recent idea that the Right is full of free marketeers and the Left collectivists has been reduced to a barely discernible border dispute over the last decade under a Labour government. And if the Right was generally admiring of the military and the Left more pacifist inclined (so complete a misconception as to amount to an organised lie) then that idea was overturned by left-wing leaders from the 1990s, committing the military to many more engagements than their right-wing predecessors.

During the Cold War, there was some sense in defining a stance towards communism, ranging from hostility to acquiescence. But since its end, our political compass has not so much broken as become utterly outmoded. Using “Left” and “Right” to navigate our politics today is like dusting down your first book-size computer disc and trying to put it into your sparkling new laptop. It isn’t just that it’s not compatible – it no longer has a hole to fit in.

Today, the only people with an interest in retaining the old language are those who have an unhappily sentimental need to remain self-described leftists. Not because it actually means anything, but rather as the most simple attempt to demonstrate good intent. Left and Right have become “good and bad” or “nice v. nasty”. These positioning sentimentalists have now given us an additional one-word assault on our intelligence in their use of “progressive”. Today, everyone is a progressive – always said in the happy knowledge that it is entirely non-oppositional. Nobody, but nobody, says: “You’re a progressive? Interesting – I’m entirely regressive myself.”

Like some Dada poet you could gather the cosy terms together, put them in a hat and read them in the order you pick them out. In fact, I’m fairly sure that’s how Gordon Brown’s speech to Congress the other month was put together. We can all recognise the outcome: forwards not backwards, up not down, tomorrow not yesterday, building not dynamiting, Left not Right.

How agreeable it must be to be one of these self-styled progressives. The halo effect means you don’t have to say what you’re progressing towards. Nor do you ever need to be distracted by people pointing out what a mess you’ve made along the road so far.

Meanwhile, even if you were actually “Right” – and Hitchens is about as consistently close as anyone could be – you would not want to be called that. The Right ceded this itself. Among what used to be the Right nobody now publicly refers to itself or any reputable party as anything further than “centre-Right”. As long as you throw “centre” in you’re just about all right. But forget to include it and you might as well have confessed to abducting little girls from holiday resorts.

What this lexicon has no way of denoting is the increasing number of us who now lie across rather than down those old political tracks. It has, for instance, no satisfactory way of describing those of us who are happy with the success of most 1960s’ rights achievements but believe such rights should be defended and even fought for at home and abroad by a state which restricts immigration while interfering in our life and pocket as little as possible.

These issues of nomenclature now matter very much indeed. While the axis of our lives and politics is about to change drastically, they keep us stuck in an irrelevant mindset. Sticking to the old terms not only prevents us from having the “debate” that politicians always call for in lieu of action. It actively prevents us from arriving at ideas for ways out. It is like being forced on to the pitch to do your best with a hockey stick only to discover that the game being played is tennis. Faced with an economic situation far worse than most of our politicians can admit, and with security and sovereignty challenges beyond any government, we are again in need of a leader.

The last time Britain needed turning around, cameth the lady. But partly thanks to the lost culture wars over the Thatcher legacy, our politics today is split by factionalism both bitter and obsolete. Perhaps it is so bitter because it is so obsolete. We discuss realities in a language of defunct tribalism. While this continues, it precludes the emergence of any figure who could redraw the political map. We’ve been in tighter corners in our history. But I can’t think of a time when the way out has been quite so hard to discern.

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