J. W. M. THOMPSON
It begins to seem that our politics are more about labels than about anything else. To some extent this has always been the tend- ency; after the electoral defeat in 1945, for instance, even the unflappable Mr Macmillan thought the Conservative party ought to change its name; and political arguments have long inclined towards the form, 'I am a liberal, you are a reactionary, he is a fascist beast, QED'. But the shuffling of labels seems to be going on now as never before. Some sort of pre-election competition to pin new descriptions on old parties is in progress. I read daily that the Labour and the Con- servative parties have moved decisively to the right—with the Liberals, bless them, now `well to the left' of Labour. And I wonder if I am alone in finding all this left-right business, in the present context, deplorably woolly; or in doubting whether this bandy- ing of 'left' and 'right' really means any- thing at all to the people most concerned, the voters. To take a small example, it is sup- posed to be `a move to the right' when Mr Powell makes noises of disapprobatioft about the Common Market. But Mr Foot has been doing the same thing for years, and the pub- lic has been taught to see in this a clear sign of his left wing position. To take another, deep distrust of the ways of Whitehall is frequently presented as a right wing senti- ment. But this is not a description that would go down well with either the Scottish or the Welsh nationalists.
Might it not be helpful if politicians and political commentators were much more sparing in their use of these hoary old terms? Naturally, in an age which pays enormous attention to the packaging of goods, the wrappings around political merchandise are given great attention. However, there is no Trade Descriptions Act in politics. A little voluntary restraint in the use of imprecise labels would be much appreciated.
A la mode
Fashion, of course, has its influence upon the political vocabulary as upon most things. Quite recently, any speaker who applauded the virtues of law and order' would have been unhesitatingly typed as a Blimp. Not so today. Mr Callaghan is not laughed at when he does precisely that, even at fervent Labour gatherings. Fashion, prompted by unpleasant experience, has changed. Many other words, such as 'planning', 'technology', or 'environment', have similarly acquired important new overtones; and even though I suspect that 'left' and 'right' have been all but drained of meaning so far as the ordinary public is concerned, those who do use the terms appear to give them new values, too.
I see that Sir Anthony Meyer, in launching his new Tory periodical Solon, firmly describes it as 'a right wing journal'. There was a time, I fancy, when no one this side of Sir Oswald Mosley would hav4. chosen that designation. By using the phrase, Solon is attempting, I assume, to change the fashion further as well as to take advantage of a change which may have occurred. At any rate the journal itself, with its inquiring and thoughtful tone, is far from the organ of entrenched reaction its label would have suggested a few years ago. And Sir Anthony Meyer was himself a moderate and not at all extremist Member of Parliament, Who has just been adopted as candidate for a pleasant Tory seat—having earlier had some difficulty in finding a constituency because he was suspected of being of the left!
The Czechs have always been famous for a wry humour born of desperation. I was touched to read a notable specimen of the genre from Mr Dubcek, no less, who when demoted last week was insultingly offered a 'responsible post' which turned out to be that of mayor of Bratislava. Dubcek declined, 'saying he did not think he could solve the problems of town planning'. The Good Soldier Schweik marches on.
More means more
Views on education heard at the Labour conference were rigid and uncompromising to an almost startling degree. No doubt the Tory conference this week will generate equal heat on the subject (if nothing like the same unanimity). I suppose this is a distasteful prospect for some, but really it ought to be welcomed. I (along with a great many other parents, I suspect) thought the Black Paper on education did a public service simply by breaking up the consensus and demonstrating that there is an intelli- gent, respectable other side to the argument. The shock of sound consensus men at this intrusion into a cosy world was perfectly illustrated by Mr Short's extravagant out- bursts against it.
The second Black Paper, published on Tuesday to carry on the process of dissent, is more thorough and I think tougher in tone. The educational protest movement has evidently gained in confidence. As a chief examiner for many years, Professor Arthur Pollard notes that the increased number of '0' and 'A' levels gained is often cited as a proof of improved academic standards. It might seem a pretty good proof, too, but for Pollard's additional point that in fact the pass level is generally adjusted up or down in order to produce the right number of successes. In other words more means, not better or even worse, but, quite simply more.
Elsewhere it is argued that the real fight is between those who see schools and universities as places of learning and those who emphasise their role as instruments of social change. And if that isn't a political issue, it ought to be.
My Region, 'tis of thee ...
'Other Labour leaders were engaged
upon missions abroad or were fulfilling commit- ments in the Regions'. I keep repeating this bejewelled bit of Newspeak, from the Labour party's recent full-page advertisement in the national press, but it still sounds incredible. Do they really talk like that nowadays—saying 'I am about to fulfil a commitment in the Regions' when v‘e humbler fellows would say I'm going to Steeple Bumpstead'? Well, yes, they do. But it was unkind of their ad-men to expose this little weakness so harshly. I wonder how long it will take Mr Crosland to pick up the lingo in his new role as Panjandrum of the Regions.