Is it time to scrap the old political dividing lines? (British Social Attitudes Survey Part III)

I don’t meet many people who fit nicely into a right-wing or left-wing bracket. Such caricatures of political ideology tend to find their niche either in the fringes, in parliament or in newspaper columns. In my experience, most people are nuanced, indecisive and will find themselves agreeing with varying ideas from across the political spectrum.

Overwhelmingly, the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) survey paints a picture of Britons as predominantly compassionate and fair-minded, not self-interested, single-minded crusaders brainwashed by the right-wing (or left-wing) media. In other words, not the type of people you generally get writing comments on websites, phoning the Jeremy Vine show or sitting in the Question Time audience.

The left and right labels were an invention of the French Revolution. Even in 1789 I’m sure they proved to be clumsily imprecise. Most political theorists now accept a liberal-authoritarian political spectrum on top of the left-right economic spectrum. This makes everything even messier, but still not clear enough. When you consider that few political parties fit nicely into their supposed political alignment, you can see the lazy classification is pretty much broken.

I love this Confucius quote:

“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”

The danger with woolly categorisations in politics is that it limits the debate and causes friction when none is necessary. This seems to be particularly true in America, where the left-right divide is far more polarised and politicians are dismissed as RINOs or DINOs (Republicans/Democrats in Name Only). This “with us or against us” mentality (aka Extremism) can be seen by the way the Left turned on those they once called comrades who supported the Iraq war.

Groupthink replaces people deciding for themselves and dissent is ignored. Issues are ‘owned’ by one side or the other and loyalists dutifully spout the appropriate talking points. If you self-identify yourself with one political side or another, you’re basically damned to argue things you don’t really believe or agree with for the rest of your life (unless you’re especially good at self-deceit).

What an affront to free-thinking. I’ve always wondered why seemingly unconnected beliefs are all shared by completely different individuals, who just happen to sit on the same wing of the political spectrum. To be a right-wing commentator you must hate big government, believe Israel does no wrong, deny climate change, support the Iraq war, oppose abortion and decry multiculturalism while being pro-American and anti-European. To be a left-wing commentator you have to be anti-American, pro-European, pro-Immigration, pro-choice while hating Israel, crusading against the Iraq war, believing in global warming, supporting the students, criticising the police and thinking Assange is the new Obama.

You could argue there’s a degree of logical consistency. I suppose Christian dogma may underpin the Right and liberalism the Left. But when those commentators are neither Christians or liberals, you have to wonder what’s driving their beliefs. And there are enough exceptions to show this phenomenon is far more illogical. For example, right-wing champions of a free market being against open immigration and the European Union (arguably the greatest free market exercise in history). Another example: right-wing liberals complaining about an authoritarian socialist ‘nanny state’, while demanding stricter rules on abortion, drugs and alcohol. An example from the left: arguing the ‘climategate’ emails were illegally obtained and a ‘damp squib’, but not applying the same thinking to the wikileak cables.

The few people who escape the mould are seen as mysterious and untrustworthy; nobody really knows where their allegiances lie and they are reviled by fanatics on both sides.

I suppose there’s some sort of instinctive, monkey-brained social behaviour underlying this, but I’m certain our unsophisticated political classification exacerbates the problem. It may even be the case that people who would otherwise be keen to get involved in politics are frightened away by the insularity.

Ironically, this is not much of a problem within political parties, but is positively endemic on the internet and in the media. It’s about time we scrap the old nomenclature and adopted something with a broader scope to reflect the scattergram of political opinion real people represent.

Sure, this won’t stop twats being twats, but at least we’ll know where they stand.


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