Left vs Right- Still a Bogus Dilemma
In the French presidential elections, the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, who advocates a 75 percent marginal tax rate, is clearly on the left. But he has been threatened by a further left opponent, Jean-Luc Melenchon, an ex-Trotskyite who is pledged to end globalisation and who trades on suspicions that Hollande, like Francois Mitterand before him, will renege on his commitments. The sitting president, Nicolas Sarkozy, often gives the impression that he will say anything to retain office. Nevertheless he can without abuse of language be described as to the right of these particular contenders.
Clearly there is range of issues - and personalities - which it still makes sense to describe in left-versus-right terms. But there are many which are not. Is an interventionist foreign policy in the spirit of the late US Democrat Senator, Henry Jackson Society, designed to promote so-called democracy abroad a left or right wing attitude? And what is one to say of the great English Liberal Statesman, Richard Cobden, who wrote in 1847 “how much unnecessary solicitude and alarm England devotes to the affairs of foreign countries; with how little knowledge we enter upon the task of regulating the concerns of other people; and how much better we might employ our energies in improving matters at home”? In some sense both these men were centre left. But such a classification simply covers up huge differences more important to human welfare than the conventional left-right arguments on domestic economic matters. Readers will not be surprised that I would instinctively prefer David Miliband to his brother Ed as leader of the UK Labour opposition; but my lingering doubt is that he might be nearer to Henry Jackson than to Cobden.
I once wrote a book entitled Left or Right, the Bogus Dilemma, which was quite widely discussed but not much read. I remarked that the left-right distinction had its origins in the seating of the French States-General following the 1789 Revolution when the nobility took the place of honour on the king’s right, while the ordinary members of the “Third Estate” sat on the king’s left. The issues had nothing to do with attitudes to the embryonic capitalism of the period. In the 19th century the French left were above all else republicans and became closely identified with anti-clericalism and, later in the century, with opposition to the anti-Semitism that came to the fore in the Dreyfus affair. As a result of such events, the highly bourgeois Parti Radical Socialiste insisted it was on the left until the eve of the Second World War.
The left-right classification did not really take root in Britain until after World War One. In the 1923 General Election, which brought the first Labour government to office, the main issue was the defence of Free Trade on which Labour sided with the Liberals. And the old associations did not die completely. The association of the left with personal and political freedom, anti-militarism, religious tolerance and general civilised values helps explain why as late as the 1940’s and 50’s there were merchant bankers in London and Paris who preferred not to regard themselves as on the right. But the enthusiasm with which socialist parties in 1914 voted war credits for their governments - or later the “socialist” government of Guy Mollet fought to retain French Algeria - suggests a good deal of wishful thinking.