Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Political Vocabulary

Having followed the course of the recent American congressional elections, I am struck how the same political terms mean quite different things on the different sides of the Atlantic. Take, for example, the word “Liberal”. In the USA it apparently means an extreme left-winger seeking to expand the powers of central government. In Britain it implies someone who is moderate, middle-of-the-road between Labour and Conservative. Many Americans would thus be surprised to learn (assuming they are at all interested in British politics, which is doubtful) that the Liberal and Conservative parties are now in a coalition government together. In economic terms, “liberalism” implies a belief in the free market; thus Mrs Thatcher was often described as a “neo-liberal”. In this context, I always find it mildly surprising that Churchill is so idolised by Conservatives. As a young politician before the First World War he was a leading member of a reforming Liberal government, during which time he was the subject of particularly virulent hatred by Conservatives, and even when he rejoined the Conservatives he was very much on the Left of the party on social issues. There is a nice story that Churchill, near the end of his political career, met a young M.P. whom he did not recognise and, learning that the man was in the Labour Party, told him, “I’m a Liberal. Always was!”
Then again, many Americans think Obama is a “socialist“. All I can say to that is that we in Britain haven’t had a socialist government since the days of Clement Attlee immediately after the Second World War. Certainly Messers. Blair and Brown were careful never to let slip the dreaded “s-word”, and the financial collapse was to a great extent due to their unjustified faith in the rationality of the market.

About 60 years ago, T. D. Weldon wrote a book, “The Vocabulary of Politics”, arguing that most political debate is intended not to convey information but to provoke audience reaction. He divided political vocabulary into “Hurrah-words”, (which would win audience approval) and “Hiss-words” (which would have the opposite effect). The clearest example of a “Hiss-word” is “Fascist”: it has no clearly defined meaning nowadays, and is employed merely as an adjective placed upon an exercise of power that you detest, and expect your audience to detest. By contrast, “Democratic” is a “Hurrah-word”: everyone nowadays professes to believe that democracy is the only legitimate form of government, and even the most flagrant dictatorships style themselves "democratic". The American Founding Fathers, incidentally, never mentioned democracy: in those days the word was not in common usage; but they were, however, imbrued with 18th century ideals of liberty, particularly religious freedom and individual independence. In America today, “Liberal” has clearly become a “Hiss-word”, which has never been the case in Britain, except on the extreme left. (I came across an amusing example of this in the movie of John Le Carre’s spy-novel, “The Russia House”. Quoting from memory: two C.I.A. men are questioning an Englishman who appears to have important information, to check on whether he might be a plant. One of them asks him, “Would you say your family background was very Liberal?” “Certainly not!” the Englishman retorts, “My father was a Communist! He despised Liberals!”)

Republican voters in America appeared to want two things: firstly, a low-tax American state; and secondly, an America that could lead the world. But these two are not compatible. America can be a low-tax state if it has an isolationist foreign policy (as it had in the 1920s), or it can be a world-imperial, interventionist state, as it has been ever since the post-war Truman Doctrine. Obviously, America is free to make its choice. But it cannot be both. The two are simply not compatible.

One theme of the Tea Party movement was “Taking back our country” from the government in Washington. This could never be a theme in Britain, because it implies that the mass of the people did once control the country, and that was never the case over here. Until less than a century ago, Britain was very much under the control of the traditional landowning aristocracy, and the same applied throughout Europe. Indeed, with the first Old Etonian Prime Minister since 1964 now in office, it could be argued that Britain has indeed been “taken back” by its natural rulers: namely, the toffs! Did you know that between 1916 and 1945 not a single British Prime Minister went to Eton or to Oxford University? In the post-war period we have had no less than nine Prime Ministers from Oxford. Between 1955 and 1964 the Prime Ministers were all Etonians, but from then until this year we have been ruled by a succession of jumped-up scholarship-boys (or in Mrs Thatcher’s case, a scholarship-girl): “grammar-school twits”, in Alf Garnet’s memorable phrase. But now the upper classes are at long last back in the driving seat, as is only right and proper!

As a Cambridge man, I would start a different cry: why do we always have to be governed by Oxford graduates? Oxford’s a dump, a decaying motor-manufacturing town; a kind of Detroit with colleges! We haven’t had a Cambridge-educated Prime Minister since Stanley Baldwin! It’s high time for a change! End this discrimination NOW!!!

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