Political shifts in Western politics – Left, Right and Centre

March 12, 2007

When there are major shifts in national and international economic or political equilibria, the notions of political Right and Left tend to undergo fundamental changes. This is happening today too. Today I read an article on what the UK’s conservative candidate David Cameron is wanting to do about reducing carbon emissions to protext the environment – a tax on flights! A few years ago I would have thought such a proposal to be naturally from the Left, and namely the Green left, in the style of Die Gruenen in Germany and some less successful imitators elsewhere in Europe. I thougt the moment where I would post something on the fate of Right and Left Today – an old idea of mine – has finally come.

Very brief history of a few tectonic shifts, Right and Left

The notion of “Left” and “Right”, so I was taught, was born during the French Revolution when the first National Assembly was organised, from left to right in the half-circle viewed by the head of the parliament, from most opposed to the previous monarchical regime to least opposed. Since then, the notion of political left is likened to “progressive” movements trying to change the established order towards more freedom and equality (the more on the left, the more you are for equality rather than freedom…), while right was likened to social and political conservatism and wanting to preserve as much as possible things as they are, or even, go back to previous, more unequal times (the more on the right, the more you were for more inequality and less individual freedom….). This very rough and simplistic typology tends to hold in the whole Western/Westernized/democratic/democratising world. But the definition of what is “progressive” and what is conservative tends to change over time, and sometimes there are radical, surprising, shifts.

There are a few examples that are striking in history, and most notably those related to nationalism and capitalism/market economies. Nationalism, after the French Revolution, was considered “progressive” until the third “third” of the 19th Century. In the case of the French revolution it was the emancipation from feudalistic rule, the sovereignty of the people, the territorial incarnation of universal values of liberte, egalite, fraternite. In the following decades in Europe, nationalism was also deemed progressive. As opposition to Napoleon’s Empire, e.g. in Germany, whilst a tool to get rid of despotic feudal lords, princes and imperial regimes all over Central and Eastern Europe. The revolutions in 1848 in Europe were the height of the glory of “nationalism” as a progressive, emancipatory, idea. This changed in the last three decades of the 19th Century. Nationalism was militarised and adopted by the “reactionary” elements in society and government. See, for example, Prussia and its militaristic-nationalistic creation then building-up of the German nation under the dominance of the land-owning class of the Junker. In France, the Dreyfus-affair in the 1890s created the alliance between nationalism and antisemitism and discredited nationalism as a progressive idea.

In exactly those three decades closing the 19th century, the relationship of right and left with the market economy also underwent radical changes. While the likes of Adam Smith, or the French economist Jean-Bapstiste Say can be considered “progressive” in preaching market tools often against established feudal interests, the rise of Marxism and socialism in the second part of the 19th century changed this equilibrium. No wonder, the increasingly nationalistic and powerful European national states were embracing capitalism wholeheartedly – although often against each other, behind increasingly protectionist walls. This whilst the working class – whose plight was magisterially described by Karl Marx in Das Kapital in the 1840s – wasn’t receiving itself the immediate rewards of the new capitalist era. Since the end of the 19th Century, opposition to capitalism and internationalism went hand in hand. This is all schematic, but holds at least until the 1980s. For example, in the United States – a country that hasn’t adhered much to the socialist idea – the “progressives” and Democrats were, until recently, against economic protectionism – which is an expression of nationalism. The good old Republicans were very much protectionist, and are much less so today (but this again, is changing). Nowadays, the Democrats in the US are the most protectionist. This all shows that definitions of left and right are changing.

Today’s Left-Right rifts – accelerating and deepening, with new consequences for the Centre

Saying that Left and Right are changing today is nothing new. It is something that has been said for 20 years. This holds especially since the ruthless conservative market-revolutions under Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK have made their long-term benefits felt in both countries, with – despite debates on the rise of inequality – often very positive effects on democratisation of society. In a ruthlessly materialistic and capitalist world where individual effort and financial/economic achievement are more valued than anything else, even skin colour, religion or gender – while the economic growth that goes with it creates more opportunities for more people – it is easier for a low-class individual not speaking posh Oxbridge English to climb the social ladder, and much easier for an Indian or Black or a woman to become a succesful City of London investment banker (still not easy, but much much better than elsewhere and than before). Also, Condoleeza Rice – woman, and black – serving a conservative US government in one of the most high-profile positions as Secretary of State is the incarnation of what can be achieved. In the 1990s, Third Ways a la Tony Blair were the acknolwdgement of this “inevitablity of the market” the Reagan-Thatcher revolutions brought with them. Never ever be too close friends with dusty labour unions again! In Continental Europe, where no such conservative market revolutions have taken place, and where debate on the market has been less open and less frank, left-of-centre governments who have de facto adopted blairite policies lost elections. See Gerhard Schroeder whose impopularity due to labour-market reforms that are now paying off led him to leave government in 2005, see Lionel Jospin, who lost the presidential race against France’s scary Third Man of the last elections in 2002, the national-populist Jean-Marie Le Pen. See also Romano Prodi’s current difficulties in Italy. In all those years, there was a lot of talk of the identity crisis of the Left. When you were more from the “progressive” camp like me then you would tend to dismiss a little the equally deep identity crisis of the Right, but tended to worry about the fact that there was not much left to the Right (and the Left) than to slide to the extremes.

In fact, what is happening now, is that the Right is finding a new equilibrium – by adopting policies that would usually come from the Left. In the FT’s article I read today on Cameron’s proposals for climate change, I was struck by what was written there:

“David Cameron and Gordon Brown will on Monday set out sharply conflicting visions of tackling climate change, with the Conservatives proposing a raft of new taxes to penalise air travel while the chancellor prefers a carrot rather than stick approach (….) [The Tories are] looking at three ways of raising taxation on air travel. These included charging fuel duty and VAT on domestic flights. They are also considering replacing Air Passenger Duty with a per-flight tax based closely on carbon emissions. The Conservatives also said they would consider introducing a “Green Air Miles Allowance” so that people who fly more pay tax at a higher rate.”

Honestly, had this come from the German Green Party in the 1980s I wouldn’t have been surprised! Having chancellor Gordon Brown from the Labour government praising market-friendly approaches instead is the world I grew up in put upside down! Having and green concerns (which appeared as leftist concerns in 1970s politics in the West) and market-unfriendly taxation taken on by a right-of-centre organization is something really new. The fact that right-of-centre Angela Merkel from Germany and Jacques Chirac from France endorsed a big EU plan to tackle climate change last week is just the confirmation that one of the elements of a traditional “leftist” agenda has now become a conservative concern. That it is socially regressive is not to be insisted much upon. Poorer low-cost flight users will be more penalised than rich business-class professionals, while car drivers, worse polluters that flyers, continue to act unpunished. So in that sense such a policy as proposed by Cameron fist well into what one traditionally understands by “conservatism”. This shift on climate change and the proposed methods to tackle the problem is only one manifestation of the rising confusion between Right and Left. The current French presidential election campaign totally destroyed the remnants of a classic and reassuring division between Right and Left how we broadly understood it since the end of the 19th Century. Segolene Royal did it with her ideas on decentralisation (traditionally a right-of-centre idea in France), on the use of authoritarian methods in dealing with delinquent youth, in bashing immigrant workers (the “Polish plumber”), Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-wing candidate, did it with proposing affirmative action policies to foster integration of France’s immigrant children, or bashing the European Central Bank (thus imitating Ms Royal). On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the cultivation of budget deficits, once considered the holy grail of decent rightwing economic policies, is an integral part of George W. Bush’s “neo-conservative” government.

For long, we haven’t heard much from the Centre, the Liberals, or the Libertarians. Being from the elusive Centre, they have tended to remain faithful to their usual creed – individual freedom, democracy, free markets, low/taxation limited government, etc – and just watch as the conceptual edifices Right and Left from them crumbled. Mostly, they are ridiculed by the fact that they have a weak political agenda and need to create an alliance with the Right, or the Left, depending on electoral outcomes. In some cases, they are considered not very credible low-tax populists from parties such as the German FDP, or simplistic market-praisers a la Alain Madelin a few years ago in France. Also, they have tended to ally more with the Right than with the Left, because the Right was more prone to support their pro-market policies, which they tended to consider more of a priority than their other liberal views which are generally enshrined in their countries’ democratic constitutions.

Today, though, the Left-Right crisis eats into the Centre. It is not so much the creed itself that is put into question. It remains the same. However, with whom to ally becomes a new practical and philosophical question. France’s current Third Man in the current French presidential race, Francois Bayrou, cannot hide his fundamenal weakness – he wobbles unconvincingly somewhere in the Centre, is considered a bit more right-wing than leftwing. Should he ever make it and become France’s president (which I doubt, but you never know), he will need to forge an alliance with one of the leading parties on the right or the left if he wants to be able to rule. On the level of principles, there was recently a discussion between to US-American Libertarians (radical centrists, if you want), on whether to drop their traditional moral support to Republican governments. In this discussion, Brink Lindsey, from the Libertarian and traditionally Republican party-friendly, CATO Institute think tank (favouring “limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace”), said that libertarians in their vein tended to support Republicans because they advanced their pro-market and pro-globalisation agenda while not endangering their politically liberal beliefs such as democracy and human rights. With George W. Bush things have changed, though. Bush’s Right “abandonded commitment to smal-government conservatism”, while become socially increasingly conservative, so Lindsey. “Suddenly, the Democrats don’t look so bad”. He says there is “common ground” with them on immigration, gay marriage, or civil liberties. Lindsey calls for a “Liberaltarian alliance” (“liberal” in the Anglo-American sense of socially progressive). These questions coming from an institution like Cato Institute, this means that something fundamental is bound to happen to traditional liberals in this highly uncertain Left-Right environment.

We are in a period in which liberal values (be in on the democratic-human-rights-social side, or the market economy side) are being undermined all over the world, and Right and Left. What seems to be remaining is nationalism, protectionism, anti-immigration policies, and social closure in general, this across the Left-Right political spectrum. Now is the right moment for the Centre to make its case felt again, to disentangle itself from its perceived structural alliance with the conservative and traditionalist Right, and to make the public understand the fundamentally complementary nature of free markets and free and fair societies., which is something nobody in the current political debate is being forgotten. Yes, why not change alliance for a while, go more towards the liberal left to win over today’s very insecure progressive voter’s hearts and especially their minds?

After all, it is not about Right or Left, but about moving Forward.

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One Response to “Political shifts in Western politics – Left, Right and Centre”


  1. What a amazing post! I did a kind of blogging for dummies over on one of the CPA Marketing forums and I thought it was too easy for them, but the quantity of emails I got asking questions just like what you addressed was incredible. As young people nowadays we have grown up with computers, but it’s easy to forget that even individuals just a a couple of years older have not! Really good post! 🙂


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