Those scholarly enough to recall Alice in Wonderland will recall Humpty Dumpty`s view that `a word means whatever I want it to mean`( or words to that effect-I`m not scholarly enough to recall it verbatim). This is often taken to be one of the amusing aspects of that great work which, however, one will outgrow as maturity comes along (`shades of the prison-house` in Wordsworth`s great line, just to show I`ve read him as well). In reality Humpty Dumpty (hereafter to be known as H.D.) was expressing an insight which would have transformed all political debate since then if it had been understood. George Orwell`s `double-think` and `double-speak` are similar insights although they refer to deliberate manipulation of the language rather than vague thinking. Let me explain further.
The Scottish referendum, like much political debate, threw up frequent uses of terms such as `left-wing`, `right-wing` or `fascist`(almost uniquely used nowadays as a term of abuse). All of these terms confuse a simple fellow like me. What is a left-winger (when not on the football pitch that is)? When I complain to people who use the term that this summons up in my mind a range of views from those of Josef Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot to Tony Blair or even Barrack Obama I am usually met with exasperated complaints that `of course` they did not mean any of these. One characteristic of much `left-wing` thinking appears to be a much greater role for the state (e.g. Gordon Brown, Francois Hollande, Josef Stalin). How do they reconcile that with Marxist Dialectical Materialism which argued that through an inevitable historical process the state would wither away and that capitalism would crumble from its own contradictions? Would this question elicit more exasperated complaint?
I have the same problem with `right-wing`. This would range from General Franco, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini through Ronald Reagan and George Bush (father or son) to David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy. Full marks (and a course of either history or therapy) allotted to anyone who can spot reasons to prefer the `left-wing` policies of Pol Pot to the `right-wing` ones of Adolf Hitler or vice versa. It is almost mandatory in the list of right-wingers to cite Attila the Hun. Those who have read the Middle High German epic The Nibelungenlied where he appears as Etzli will see him as a benign, progressive redistributionist, almost in the modern Scandinavian mould. If you read the old Icelandic Atlikvida you`ll put him in the Pol Pot box. It depends whose history you read. The other name which tradition demands you cite and vilify as `fascist` is Rupert Murdoch. I don`t know much about Rupert Murdoch but I do know he is far from being fascist. The characteristics of fascism are: nationalism, high levels of state control, restriction of free speech and free press, economic protectionism and the right of powerful nations to occupy weaker ones. Rupert Murdoch does not fit any on these. He may or may not be a nice man but he believes strongly in personal liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of the Press, free trade across borders and the widening of democracy. One man who satisfies most of the requirements of fascism is Alex Salmond and, of course, the man he greatly admires, Vladimir Putin.
In the Scottish referendum debate it was normally sufficient for a speaker to condemn Toryism and Thatcherism to get rousing cheers. The reality is that Scotland`s GDP began to grow rapidly under the Thatcher Government, getting new industries like electronics and avionics and a huge expansion of its financial services industry. I grew up in one of the poorest, most deprived areas of Glasgow where old-fashioned `left-wing`, heavily unionised, benefit -dependent communities ritually condemned Tories ( including more intelligent and realistic Labour figures such as Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Dennis Healey) and perpetuated their deprived status for the next generation. However, regardless of the truth of that, I think cynical and/or ignorant campaigners will continue in Scotland to use these emotive terms to discourage people from actually thinking.
So, this is why, like Humpty Dumpty, I sit on a wall. Up here, I like to think we have some clarity, away from the tangled weeds used for their own ends by either left or right who do not believe in personal freedom, open, sane debate, democracy and international friendship. Mercifully, I think most of the UK takes a similar view and relatively centrist politics tends to triumph. This is not, sadly, because most of the UK has a clear grasp of political or economic issues. In that wonderful American series `The West Wing` President Bartlett laments `the strongest argument against democracy is five minutes spent with the average voter`. If you listen to a phone-in programme on the BBC you will readily agree. Mercifully, the economically innocent and politically misguided on either side tend to cancel each other out. When that no longer holds true then Humpty Dumpty and I will have a great fall.
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