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Last Updated: Monday, 13 June, 2005, 09:29 GMT 10:29 UK
A Point of View

By Brian Walden

In his weekly opinion column, Brian Walden considers the political muddle create by archaic terms such as left wing and right wing.

Of all the confusing expressions in politics, left wing and right wing are the worst. We go on using these archaic terms because they're a kind of shorthand that avoids unnecessary explanations. But we'd be better off with the explanations, even if they took time.

The basic terminology of politics has become misleading. Groping around to discover what's left wing or right wing distracts us from stating what the real issues are. The language of left and right isn't merely irritating and out of date, it's doing harm to our understanding of how our democracy works.

A classic illustration of this muddle, and the confusion it causes, was something I heard at a political dinner. It was about the Conservative MP, David Davis, who's a principal contender to succeed Michael Howard as leader of the Conservative Party.

European flag
Eurosceptics: Left or right wing?
The speaker said, quite correctly, that Mr Davis was a Eurosceptic, who didn't want Britain to surrender further sovereignty to the European Union. He referred to this as a "traditional right-wing stance". Of course I thought I knew what he meant, but his way of putting it is open to a string of objections.

To begin with, if taken literally it's saying that being a Eurosceptic is right wing. But that's by no means always the case. The best-known Socialist in the country, Tony Benn, is much more Eurosceptic than Mr Davis. What sort of right-wing cause is it that has Benn on board?

How the terms left and right can throw people off the scent is well illustrated if we think of someone who's not deeply interested in politics and hears that Mr Davis is taking a "traditional right-wing" Eurosceptic view.

It would be perfectly reasonable for the person who's heard this to deduce that the Conservatives - the "right-wing" party - have always been suspicious of the EU. And it wouldn't be illogical to assume that Labour - the "left-wing" party - must traditionally have favoured Europe. But this would be quite wrong, because the very opposite is the case.


It was the Conservatives who took Britain into the Common Market and, though there were dissidents like Enoch Powell, the great majority of Conservatives supported this step. Labour was split down the middle and most of the passionate arguments against joining came from Labour's Tribune Group. Dragging left and right into the argument serves only to obscure the truth.

There wouldn't be any objection to the usage if it meant something and we could all agree on a meaning. That was the case originally. It stems, as does so much else in politics, from the French Revolution of 1789.

When the States-General met in that year, the nobility - most of whom supported the King - stood on his right. The ordinary members - many of whom were republicans or had doubts about the King - stood on his left. Conservatives sitting on the right and radicals sitting on the left became the rule in French assemblies.

Everybody knows where they are with a straightforward arrangement like that. Unfortunately, the clarity of this division didn't last long even in France. The right had supported the unsuccessful monarchy and the majority of Frenchmen didn't want to be associated with this failure. So instead of being neutral terms, left wing and right wing soon acquired a lot of emotional baggage.

Most of the French wanted to be thought of as being just a little bit on the left. Even if their actual views gave no warrant for such an assumption.

When I was at school, and before I'd grasped the subtleties of political names, I used to be deeply puzzled by the fact that every French political party with the word left in its title was conservative, often very conservative.

The modern analogy would be with those states who have the word democratic in their name. The "Democratic Republic of So and So" may not be a tyranny, but usually it is. Its name is meant to give the opposite impression to the world from the grim reality.

This left-right language, though first mentioned by Thomas Carlisle in the 19th Century, didn't catch on in Britain for a very long time. It wasn't until after World War l, in the 1920s, that it began to be widely used.

I suspect it may have been the Russian Revolution that focused attention on this continental way of describing politics. Pundits are very susceptible to fashion and left and right probably seemed an interesting new way of discussing the subject.

In Europe and Britain left wing is a hurrah term and right wing is a boo term. Left wing has a whiff of the people about it, whereas right wing carries the distinct aroma of aristocrats and snobbery.


There's no purpose in complaining that this has got nothing to do with the facts of the case. Perhaps it has, or perhaps it hasn't, but the point is we are dealing not with actuality but with the impression certain words make.

Left wing doesn't have this rather favourable, popular sound in the United States and truth to tell, I've never been able to work out why. Possibly the term very early on became associated in the American mind with socialism and communism, which most Americans have always disliked.

But unlike the Americans, the British share the French wish to cuddle up, just a little, to the left. I remember having a completely barmy discussion with Jim Callaghan and Tony Crosland after I referred to a point of view we all shared as right wing. These great men winced at my crudity. They begged me not to use such a term in my speech. If I must use a label, "moderate" was as far as they thought permissible.

Of course the whole idea of a straight line stretching from the extreme left to extreme right is entirely the wrong way to look at politics. If it made sense it would mean the Communists and the Nazis are the two groups furthest from each other in theory and practice.

Tony Benn
Tony Benn: Socialist but eurosceptic
Even the Germans under Hitler didn't believe that. A joke current in Berlin during the war went: "What's the difference between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia? It's colder in Russia."

But what's worse than being unable to see the similarities between totalitarian right and totalitarian left is that the left-right way of looking at events virtually destroys the chance of making important distinctions.

Not all differences between radicals and conservatives are economic. Indeed with the general acceptance of regulated capitalism, economic quarrels have receded in importance. Private ownership versus public ownership and higher taxation to engineer more equality versus an acceptance of diversity and inequality, both remain significant areas of political controversy.

But so does the struggle between liberty and authority. It's almost forgotten today that liberty was for many years the great so-called left-wing cause. Only very gradually did socialism supplant liberalism as the alternative to the doctrines of conservatives.

Foremost among conservative doctrines is the preservation of authority. We've an issue before us at the moment in the proposal to make identity cards compulsory, which perfectly illustrates the conflicting claims of liberty on the one hand and security and authority on the other.

Our left-right language as usual offers no useful guidance. Indeed if we took it seriously we'd be saying that the two major parties have somehow both got themselves the opposite policy to the one they ought to have. To such absurdity does left-right thinking reduce us, because it expects political parties to conform to labels it can't analyse reality.

The French Revolution that started this left-right business offered as its three great left-wing slogans 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity'. If one day the crucial struggle happens to be between liberty and equality, which will be the left-wing side then?

An excellent article by Brian Walden. For instance, I am a Conservative, yet I regard myself as truly more liberal than New Labour and Tony Blair. I oppose ID cards, restrictions to the right to trial by jury, restrictions on Habeas Corpus (even with the ever present threat of terrorism), Incitement to Religious Hatred Bills and so on. Yet, I would not join the Liberal Democrats, because they seem to have the "left wing" view that copious government spending and high taxes can cure all ills. So my philosophy? Opportunity, freedom and personal responsibility above all! Does that make me left wing or right wing?
Richard Marriott, England

Tony Benn may be a 'eurosceptic' in reality, however he never uses the term himself and denies being one, presumably because of the words 'right-wing' connotations. He says that his 'left-wing' 'euro-scepticism' is really just support for democracy and socialism which he feels are endangered by the euro and the EU in general. David Davis on the other hand could be seen as more left-wing than Howard in his opposition to ID cards.
James Wild, UK

I don't go along with all your examples, but you have a point about the meaningless of the terms "right" and "left" in certain contexts. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, journalist would sometimes use the term "the right wing" to refer to the conservatives (in this context) - i.e. the old *communist* guard. Other journalists (more logically in my view) would use the same term to refer to the radicals (in this context) - i.e. the advocates of capitalism and free market economics. On many occasions I simply had no idea which side journalists were referring to when they talked of "right" and "left".
Dr Michael A Ward, UK

Not only has terminology muddled the issue but how a party views a certain issue. A party who is supposed to be about the freedom of an individual's right to speech, assembly, work, et cetera without governmental constraints should logically be against any government's constraints on an individual's accumulation of personal wealth and vice versa. As such no purity of belief is established by any party and a person is left only to choose which evil they are most comfortable with during any given election. Additionally, any member of a party who variates from the official line, such as the Socialists in France who opposed the EU constitution, are not tolerated any more and are left "without a country" metaphorically by being ousted. Parties of all stripes are becoming increasing totalitarian and people are collectively, through our silence and apathy, becoming more accepting of this.
Gregg Barkley, USA

The breakdown of Left and Right in this country is well underway, not least because of where the parties have moved. How can Tony Blair be said to be running a left wing party? The language of left/right was kept alive in the UK by the class divisions and the cold war. It's journalists and the layout of the House of Commons who keep this going. Left/right Tory/Labour is a neat shorthand allowing you to reduce all issues to a for and against format. But people don't think that way, or even vote that way any more. What about the Greens and Lib-Dems? And aren't nationalists supposed to be right-wing? If so, why are Plaid Cymru and the SNP seen as being on the left?
Steven Rhodes, England, UK

Well done Mr Walden- a long time coming for such observation -maybe you can now also help to break down other wings of identities, which they are many i.e what is a fun-da-mentalist ? what is asian ? what is a liberal? what is a terrorist ? Many soundbites used but no substance to most of them.
Aki Nawaz, UK

Once again, Mr Walden's limpid prose rings true. But maybe he doens't go far enough: politics may be better modelled on more than one aixs, not "Left/Right", but "Socialist/Capitalist" and "Libertarian/Authoritarian". Others have suggested "Europhile/Amerophile" and "Traditionalist/Secularist" as possible axes. The current government, though nominally "left-wing", has been moving further and further up the "Authoritarian" scale: compulsory ID cards, putting tracking devices in our cars, "anti-terror" bills, "religious hatred" bills etc.
Neil Golightly, Manchester

Mr Walden spoils his argument by his own inability to escape the left/right terminology: "...what's worse than being unable to see the similarities between totalitarian right and totalitarian left is that the left-right way of looking at events..." But basically he's right. To lump together say Mrs Thatcher and Hitler as right-wing disguises their many huge differences: democrat/totalitarian, individualist/collectivist, etc. As Mr Walden himself shows, escaping the habit of right-left terminology is more difficult.
Phil McLoughlin, England

I agree with Brian Walden - the terms left and right are far too simplistic and misleading. Most people hold political views that are sometimes complicated and contradictory and don't fall into any one ideological camp. We're all products of our environment and personal experience, and I think our political views reflect this. And it also explains why so many people have a crisis of concience when trying to be loyal to political parties.
Steve James , UK

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