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LEFT WING, RIGHT WING? What do the terms now mean?

The terms Left Wing and Right Wing don’t seem any longer to have any sensible meaning.

What do the terms mean? In my vocabulary – and without going back to their origin during the French Revolution – Left Wing means essentially supporting the less well-off; and Right Wing means supporting the status quo, which can – let’s admit it – mean being on the side of the better-off. The question that I ask myself is whether nowadays this fits the reality.

I think not – if you look at some of the key issues that divide Left and Right and then work out how rich and poor are affected.

The first issue is immigration. The Right, particularly of course the far Right, tends to be keen on controls on immigration. The Left tends to be hostile to controls. In purely economic terms, this is hard to understand (as Jeremy Corbyn is finding out to his dismay). More immigration must tend to make it harder for the less well-off to get jobs. It must also tend to depress rates of pay. So the poor are likely, on balance, to suffer.

For the rich, again in broad economic terms, immigration is helpful. If wages are kept down and there are plenty of immigrants to fill the jobs, this helps businesses. It also tends to make nannies, plumbers and decorators more available and cheaper. How nice. So, the Left is on the side of the rich and the Right on the side of the poor.

Another kneejerk position of the Left is on nuclear weapons. Obviously the economics are secondary. Everyone agrees that we only need any type of weapon if it makes us safer. But when viewed from the economic point of view, getting rid of our nuclear weapons would put people out of work. It’s odd that the extreme Left campaigns to “Get rid of Trident”. They would probably castigate the moderate Left for being right-wing when they support the opposite. It obviously has nothing to do with protecting the workers.

Another issue is Global Warming – or “climate change” as it’s now called, the warming having unexpectedly halted about 20 years ago. Increasingly, this is becoming another Right/Left determiner. The sceptics tend to be on the Right, supported by the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. The “Alarmists” (to use the term adopted by the sceptics as I can’t think of a more neutral one) tend to be on the Left, although in this case the Left definitely includes moderates and many who wouldn’t regard themselves as political at all. They are supported by the likes of the Guardian and even (strongly) by the BBC and, recently, by the Pope. (The BBC has refused to have Lord Lawson, a key sceptic, to speak on relevant programmes.)

But what are the economics – cui bono? (I’m trying to avoid the underlying climate arguments.) Obviously the economic issues are complex. But so far, alternative forms of energy (such as wind farms) are so costly as to require large subsidies. The cheapest form of energy is still derived from fossil fuels, coal, oil, gas, etc. So it follows that the “alarmist” view is likely to hurt the poor, struggling to pay electricity bills. The rich will survive, as they usually do – or even benefit if they happen to be landowners keen to be paid for having wind farms on their land. On purely economic grounds, you go for coal-fired power stations – as the Chinese and the Indians, who confront real poverty, well understand. So again, the Left seem to ignore the interests of the poor; and the Right are more likely to take their side.

A related issue takes us back to the nuclear question. If the “alarmist” view is right and it is really important to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, one solution is to go nuclear. But the Left is against it. It is another expensive option, but the hostility of the Left would appear to be more on grounds of principle. Nuclear in any form is bad. It doesn’t seem to be about the economics.

Let’s get back to the dread subject of economics, on which I’m certainly no expert, but which could help find a conclusion to what I still regard as the basic conundrum - why the Left so often lines itself up with causes that, whatever their other merits may be, tend to disadvantage the natural constituency of the Left.

On economics and faced with the perennial problems of how to deal with our public finances, the Left says, “Don’t reduce benefits, tax the rich”. Plainly, that favours the poor and hurts the rich – if it works. The case against it, the case of the Right, has to be partly at least that it doesn’t work. Here we get into the rarified areas of economics where, notoriously, many different views thrive. (“Put two economists in a room and you get six different opinions.”) But an aspect of the Right’s case is hard to deny – that taxing the rich has its necessary limits. To confront this, the Left (both extreme and moderate) has tended to favour higher borrowing. But again there are limits. Lenders, who tend to be rich and foreign, have to be paid. The more you borrow, the more likely they are to put the price up. Again, the question is, “Does the pure Left case work?” Typically, governments of the Left have found that it doesn’t and have had to fall back on what their supporters have characterized (probably correctly) as Right-wing policies. Check it out with François Hollande.

Which brings me to a conclusion. The division between Right and Left no longer represents a conflict between rich and poor. If it means anything, it is a conflict between Idealism and Reality. The Left is in favour of racial harmony and being generous to foreign immigrants. Aren’t we all? The Left is in favour of saving the planet. Who isn’t? The Left is fearful of the dangers of nuclear power. Who wouldn’t be? And the Left wants to help the disadvantaged. Again, so does everyone (almost), even including wicked Tories.

The distinction is now between those who bravely stick to their ideals in the face of all comers, and those who try to match the ideals to boring reality. This perhaps helps to explain why students are, and perhaps should be, predominantly on the Left; and why those same people tend to take what the great Alan Bennett describes as “the dreary safari from left to right which generally comes with age”.

Tony Herbert

16 June 2016

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