Labour are worried about a revival of the “extreme right”.In politically correct circles and on the BBC I hear talk of a stunning array of “extreme right” figures, movements and regimes. The “right” includes to such commentators military dictators, “conservative” clerics preaching religious hatred and intolerance, mass murderers, terrorist groups and others who pursue racist intolerance or authoritarian eclipse of the freedoms of others.
They lump alongside the extreme right numerous democratic groups and campaigners as “right wing” who believe in the opposite of such vicious approaches to government and community. It means that Labour and their friends in the BBC have stretched the language to breaking point, where “right wing” no longer means anything if it ever did.
The twentieth century was for many of us disfigured politically by two evil creeds, communism and fascism. To me they were similarly evil. Both entailed the establishment of tyrannies. Those tyrannies eclipsed many civil liberties, placed their citizens under surveillance by the thought police, diverted huge resources to military conquest and the suppression of their neighbours and made themselves rogue states to the international community. Their leadership killed opponents, and launched genocide against large minority groups within their conquered lands.
Some socialists try to distinguish communism from fascism, either defending its proponents like Stalin, or claiming that communism as practised was a distortion of the pure doctrine. None of us on what Labour call the “right” in British politics would ever dream of doing the same for fascism, as we loathe it with an equal passion to our loathing of communism.
In modern UK political dispute “right wing” has come to cover at least five differing groups of people or viewpoints, making it a more or less useless method of describing someone’s political outlook. The five outlooks I identify are:
1. Euroscepticism. Anyone who believes we should be governed from Westminster rather than Brussels, keeping the accumulated liberties of our country and using its representative institutions and courts as the main source of authority are now called “right wing” for such beliefs. This means that a substantial number of figures in the Labour party, including Tony Benn, become right wing.
2. Believers in free markets. Anyone who believes that in most areas of production and economic activity it is better to leave people and companies reasonable freedom to compete and choose, rather than putting more things under state control, is said to be “right wing”. This makes Gordon Brown “right wing” for his recent defence of free trade and free markets in Davos.
3. The Civil libertarian right. Those of us who believe in trial by jury, no detention without charge and trial, the right of free speech and the right to undertake peaceful protest, the right to be free of state snooping and thought monitoring are now said to be “right wing”. This also includes an honourable minority of Labour MPs who have faithfully supported civil liberties against the attacks of this government.
4. The authoritarian right. Those who believe in giving the state more power to eavesdrop, detain, monitor, and restrain in the cause of anti terrorism or civil obedience are also said to be “right wing”. This includes the actions of the present government, under the Blunkett wing of New Labour.
5. The Christian right. Those who wish the state to follow policies which accord with their views of Christian teaching are also often said to be “right wing”. In the USA the religious right are an important part of the Republican coalition. In the UK the causes of controlling abortion, the right to life, and the outlawing of various scientific practises and experimentation are not party matters but free vote ones. The coalition of support includes a number of Catholic Labour MPs as well as Conservatives. This part of the right also includes the wish to use some aspects of public policy to support the traditional family, which again runs across party lines.
Any analyst on the media who wishes to capture the cross currents and undercurrents of UK politics should understand this, and must conclude that calling someone “right wing” no longer tells the audience anything worthwhile about their position. When a term adopted from a different century and a different country is used so widely as a term of abuse, it ends up meaning nothing. As the above shows, no Conservative can possibly believe all the things the democratic right are said to believe, as the freedom loving and the authoritarian strands are in tension with one another. All democratic Conservatives are united in hating racism, communism and fascism.
I remember how quickly I was pigeon holed by the media when I first went to work for Margaret Thatcher. I went into Downing Street to advise her on the need to open the nationalised industries up to competition. I strongly urged more employee share ownership, and where possible employee buy outs of the public sector businesses. When I arrived the Prime Minister asked her press secretary to put out something about me to the media. I sent a suitable background brief. I was not happy the next morning when I awoke to read “hard liner” appointed to Policy Unit.
When I complained to Bernard Ingham, the Press Secretary, he told me to understand the reality. The government was split between wets and dries, between those who wanted to make an accommodation with the past and those who wanted reform. Which did I want to be, he asked. A hard liner or a wet? I protested that maybe life was more complex than that, but was forced to accept that if that was the choice he had made the right one for me. So a hard liner I was, even though I was arguing for rather different things from many people’s ideas of a hard liner.
I see myself as a democrat first and foremost, someone who believes in the power of the ballot box and the duty of elected representatives to listen as well as to lead. I have come to understand the importance of no detention without charge or trial, habeas corpus and the right to privacy for most people most of the time, the more our freedoms have been eroded by a Big brother state. Things I took for granted as a free born Englishman have come to be challenged or put in jeopardy in recent years. I still believe that it is better to leave more of the people more of the time free to make their own decisions. Free markets work better than state monopolies. Individuals work better if they have a stake in the business and are in some senses working for themselves.
Many of these freedoms are now under threat. Partial bank nationalisation is an assault on our freedoms as well as bad economics. All of who believe in freedom not only have to complain about the pressures on it, but do more to get it back.