“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”
Do T.S. Eliot’s words above say it all? Language is continuously changing. Heraclitus was persistent in reminding us about ‘change’ with such quotes as “There is nothing permanent except change” and “You cannot step into the same river twice”. More modern voices such as John F. Kennedy’s told us “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future”.
Change, whether rapid or gradual, is happening even to the very language we use and to the very meaning of words. But change is all embracing and covers everything in life from our physical reality to such non material features as politics, business, education, and even fashion. So is it the meaning of words that is changing or is it the situation that has changed? I would imagine it is both. Let’s take a non-controversial example of the shifting sands of the meaning of political language that is popularly used in the media today.
Many people describe themselves as social liberals and economic conservatives, while others describe themselves as conservative on social issues with liberal outlook on the economy. Then we have socially liberal internationalists who espouse a creed of individual freedom and diversity while claiming to be social conservatives who value tradition and collective cohesion. Everyone seems to have their own particular view of what they stand for, which is a far cry from the bland labels of conservative or liberal of the past. Consensus seems impossible today. Maybe someone can tell us what Mr. Macron in France stands for.
In the United States we have Republicans and Democrats. Are they names or descriptions? Most Republicans are democrats in that they believe in the democratic system, while most Democrats believe in the Republic and reject other forms of government. So the label here is not a description, the real difference lies elsewhere. But this is nothing new.
In ancient Rome, for example, we had the Optimates (Conservatives) and the Populares (Liberals), but this division was not entirely on social, class or financial standing. Julius Caesar came from an aristocratic family yet he represented the Populares, while Cicero, who was an outsider, represented the Optimates. So the difference, like today, must lie elsewhere. Another such opposite is that used by Marx in his bourgeoisie-proletariat division. So what is this real difference? The differences are confusing because many words are yesterday’s words, as T.S. Eliot has told us.
In the European tradition, liberalism, broadly speaking, favours reform, and liberals are seen as being progressive and forward looking. Conservatism, on the other hand, favours tradition, and conservatives are seen as conformist, traditionalist, and orthodox. So what party did Margaret Thatcher belong to? She was labelled as a conservative, but was she one? Many labelled her as a classic liberal (one of those Whigs of yonder years) and a far cry from the one-nation conservatism of Harold Macmillan. Her beliefs had more in common with the philosophies of John Locke than with those of Edmund Burke, the intellectual founder of Conservatism.
Theresa May, the current prime minister, unlike Mrs Thatcher, is clearly a Tory at heart. She sells an image of pragmatism (ability to change her mind without apologies), nationalism and conservatism. As one writer put it “Parties steal each other’s clothes and poach each other’s supporters as part of the grand game of politics”.
So where does the word socialist fit in? It doesn’t seem to have an opposite. We don’t have a capitalist party. Socialism tends to support a “just society”. But what would a “just society” be actually like? Would there be any need for political parties if we reached a “just society”? Would there be any need for politics even? The answer is ‘no’, as we would have reached perfection. As we know that this is impossible, we have invented a practical alternative term in ‘Social Democracy’ which signifies that perfection won’t be reached and that politics is necessary. So an opposite term to socialism was found in Europe, ‘Christian Democracy’. But today many of the ideas of social democracy, as with a more open view of the economy, can be found in all parties, so we can assume that the sentiments expressed in the W. H. Gilbert little rhyme below are now dead.
I often think it is comical
How nature always does contrive
That every boy and every girl
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
But this convenient division is not open to us anymore. So we do have a problem of how others label our ideas. I saw one writer say that labelling is necessary for communication, otherwise it will be a puzzle for anyone to understand what any writer, commentator, politician or citizen stands for. Labelling is not intrinsic, but is applied by others to others for identification purposes.
How would I describe my political beliefs using modern language? Perhaps I am a liberal-cum-centralist on economic issues and a mild conservative on social issues. Confusing? Yes, it is. But today that is the way for most of us. I suppose this is better than being described as a ‘Green Tory’, as someone once called me. Pigeon holing people or stereotyping them today is just getting harder and harder as most of us encircle the centre ground of politics and can change radically on individual issues. So how do we label Mr. Macron and the movement he has created?