I talked about these terms the other day, and was urged to write more, which is my explanation for this little essay. The matter came up in an exchange of emails, too, and I’ll return to that shortly. The terms are in question when one is teaching political science to undergraduates, who learn that they originated in the National Assembly in France, a legislative body that had a short life just before the French Revolution. There the supporters of the absolute power of the King sat on the right of the President of the Assembly, with the opponents of absolute monarchy on the left.
The Assembly sat in a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of seats, and that form has become characteristic of representative assemblies. In our parliaments the government of the day sits to the right of the Speaker, the opposition to the left. Those not so aligned — minor parties, independents — sit on the cross-benches, that is to say, opposite the Speaker at the end of the horseshoe. These seating arrangement have led to perhaps the most widely-used metaphor in politics, the left-right dimension, in which ideas, people and institutions are arranged along a single line, which runs from revolutionary on the far left to ultra-conservative on the far right.
It is an attractive simplifier, which is why it is so widely used. But there can be a number of such lines. You can, for example, think of a line that is mostly about economic issues (market economy, low taxation, and so on), and another one about mostly social issues (gay marriage, decriminalising drugs, and so on). Place them at right angles, and you’ll get four ‘property spaces’. If you’re interested in politics it won’t take you long to start to populate the spaces with people.
Add a third line on environmental issues (climate change, biodiversity and so on) and you will create a three-dimensional set of property spaces, and again, you can populate them all. Yes, there is a correlation between the left positions (and right positions) on each line but, at least when I did this sort of thing, the correlation falls away. We are complicated people, and can hold apparently divergent views in our heads.
How do we know where anything is on a left-right line anyway? Conventionally, the ALP is to the left of the Liberal Party. Each of the major parties is thought to have a left wing and a right wing. What about the Nationals? Once upon a time it was the Country Party, and it had a left wing and a right wing too. I’m not up on these things today, and the quip was that the Country Party was in favour of farmers’ capitalising their gains and socialising their losses. Where do the Greens sit on the Australian politics left-right line? They themselves claim to be above such simplification. Where does anyone sit?
The answer is that it all depends on where you, the judge, stand. All judgments are comparisons. In an email exchange yesterday I wrote that I had never thought of a certain journalist as being ‘left-wing’. The reply was that my statement showed were I sat! If I couldn’t see that this person was left-wing, I must be left-wing myself. I could respond in the same fashion: if you can’t see the difference then you must be well to the right. That gets us nowhere.
I see myself as being in the centre, like a lot of Australians. I am in favour of a relatively free market, private property, less rule-making (I think we are an over-regulated society), a good education system, a decent social welfare net, a common expectation that we need to work to earn a living, and more sympathy to boat people who actually make it here. I am relatively uninterested in Australia’s becoming a republic, think that anthropogenic global warming is over-rated as a scare, feel that there is a great deal to celebrate in what Australians have done since the Second World War, and look forward optimistically to the future. Over my adult life I have voted Country Party, Labor and Liberal, though not at the same election! I rather like the status quo, though there are many improvements I could suggest.
Where does all that place me? I think I’m in the centre, if there has to be one line. From where I stand, or sit, I can place others who discuss politics with me as to my right or my left, on a particular issue. There is a sort of common ground for most issues, which is the extent to which one wants to regulate the behaviour of others. The left position sees the need for more control, the right for less. That perspective is almost built into us. The notion of ‘government’ itself implies that we need to be governed, and the real question is which party will do that best.
On the whole I think the best society would be one in which we acted as responsible, altruistic, productive and creative adults, needing very little explicit government. I recognise that Australia is not at that elevated condition yet, and we seem to be creating more and more laws, which suggests that we are going backwards!