I heard the other day some pundit in the finance industry opining that the concepts of Left and Right in politics have become largely meaningless. It seems to be a popular view and I see what they're getting at - with the demise of the Iron Curtain back in the 80s and the much-vaunted Triumph of Capitalism and the fact that the main political leaders, at least in the UK, have become eerily interchangeable since then (though apparently not in the US where politics has become more polarised than ever.) It seems as if the old Left/Right wing Labour/Conservative debates have become largely redundant.
And yet... I still see the difference. It may not be discernible in the Houses of Parliament and it may be harder to define than it used to be in the old Communist-Block/Free-World era, but I reckon it's one of those things where, like pornography, you know it when you see it.
"...to change the things I can... accept the things I can't... and the wisdom to know the difference", so the old saw goes. That last line was always intoned to me as a teenager with added emphasis, as if the difference was obvious and I should just shut up about it and get a proper job. I grew up in a rather conservative working class family and Mrs Thatcher would have been proud. Conservatism is very much about accepting the world as it is and making the best of it.
Some accept it with regret. It would be nice if things were different they say, 'in an Ideal World', but 'Life's not fair.' Best to just keep your head down and get on with it. Conservatism and being working class have this in common - it's all about knowing your place, not making a fuss. It's the whole Protestant Work Ethic thing - very Calvinist.
Others of course like the world being as it is - life is about getting all you can, while you can, and sod everyone else.
I've always found Conservatism, at least in the UK, an odd paradox. Conservatives used to be all about The Establishment - landed gentry, hereditary wealth and all that. It was about the established church, obedience to time-honoured status and authority - to the monarchy, the gentry, the clergy, the courts, and beneath them the police, the teachers, the doctors and ultimately the husbands and fathers, who's homes of course were their castles. In extremis there was the military. The assumption was that these men (and it was all men) knew best. To defy them was at best highly irregular, at worst, illegal, immoral or unnatural. Conservatism and Conservation joined forces to preserve the time-honoured traditional landscapes and ways of life of the British People.
Then, around about the 80s, Conservatism came to mean something completely different, in some ways, completely the opposite. It was all about making money, at any cost to society (even if it meant dismissing the entire concept), morality or legality. If you could get away with it it was ok - as long as it resulted in profits and growth. (The legal system could be modified accordingly.) Everything and anything was for sale. Meritocracy, Social Mobility and Competition were the governing ideals. Cutting edge technology was the means. In theory at least, if you could do the job better than anyone else you could have it - wherever you came from, no matter what class, sex, race or age. There would be no point in discriminating against, say, a black lesbian over a bunch of white guys if she was the best for the job. You'd only be limiting your profitability. Old Conservatives no doubt would have had something quite different to say about it.
How these two 'Conservatisms' could possibly get on in the same party still baffles me. Sure, the Establishment were by far the wealthiest people in the country, like the new breed of global entrepreneurs, but there the resemblance ends. Old Conservatism has by and large ended up snoozing in the Upper House but their ideals still surface, apologetically, with Back to Basics, Caring Capitalism and The Big Society, and probably most stridently in Euro-Scepticism and UKIP.
There's nothing wrong with being sceptical about the EU. I make it my business to be sceptical about politics and economics generally but the Euro-Sceptic seems to be more in the grand old Conservative tradition of blaming the foreigners when things get tough - be they EU bureaucrats or immigrants. Right Wing politics, including old style Conservatism seems to be very much about defining one's self against outsiders - whether it be at the family level, the gender level (all us men together), racial, national or even species level (Right-Wingers are far less likely to worry about the 'rights' of animals unless they're their pets.) Changing the things you can and accepting the things you can't naturally focusses you on your immediate surroundings - the people and place you grew up with. Everything else is quite literally beyond you. Under extreme circumstances the consequences can be dire - most obviously in pre-war Germany where The 'Other' was simply to be exterminated.
But I don't want to suggest that Conservatives are Nazis. God knows, Left Wing politics has its own monsters.
Being Left Wing, as I suppose I broadly am, is not an exact mirror image of the Right. Left wingers, it seems to me, tend not to see the world so much in terms of Them and Us. There is a vague, possibly Utopian sense that we really are all in this together (all of us - men, women and children, all races, creeds and nationalities, sexualities, ages and states of health, even other species, even The Environment), and that, even if we're not all equal (whatever that means) we are somehow all deserving of (that hackneyed phrase) Equal Opportunities - The Pursuit of Happiness and all that. Democracy, Human Rights, The Rule of Law...
But wait - isn't that what the modern Global Entrepreneur believes too? Well yes and no, because the Capitalist sees this freedom and happiness only in terms of material wealth, markets, competition. The left-winger sees this 'deserving' being in spite of differences in material wealth, even of the poorest and most powerless, even in those, to some extent, who have brought their misfortune on themselves, through crime or negligence. Right-wingers are typically far less forgiving - assuming an uncompromising notion of the freedom and power of the human will. Whatever mess you may end up in you have no one but yourself to blame. Get over it. Left-wingers believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, of rehabilitation, of mitigating circumstances, of second chances. If this all sounds terribly idealistic and airy-fairy, it is. It's an ideal. Something to aim at.
I've deliberately couched my characterisations of Left and Right in caricature, but the obvious point here is that hardly anyone is either entirely left or right wing. They're useful labels for broad tendencies and a useful shorthand for describing some extreme individuals and groups. If there's a parallel on the Left to the changes in Conservatism over the last 30 years it's that no one over here seriously believes in the kind of faceless grey uniformity advocated by Mao and Lenin (but not, I'm pretty sure, by Marx.) The big change is toward much more individualism on both sides. The difference is once again that the Left do not see their individualism expressed purely in what they can buy.
Much was made for a while of the likes of Michael Portillo's move from Marxist student activist to Tory MP, as if this exemplified the demise of socialism as a viable political force, when for me, all it meant was that some people tend to think in extremes and assume that if the answer doesn't lie at one end of the spectrum, that it must be at the other. When I was at Brighton Poly back in the 80s I'd have been accused of being a Woolly Liberal for this but if Mr Blair hadn't hijacked the term I'd have been quite happy to talk here about some sort of Third Way.
Some see this as evidence of weakness - as an inability to make up one's mind. Being a real Leftie is extremely hard work and I have no such aspirations. We all, to some extent, have to live in The Real World, because we only have one life, we have to make the most of it. In my experience the very committed left wing activists are not the most self-sacrificing individuals but those who really enjoy what they do. Those who dismiss all protesters who are not utterly committed, true to the cause and without contradictions miss the point. It is necessary, no, essential that the Anti-Capitalist protesters outside St Paul's both pitch their tents outside the cathedral, getting attention by making a minor nuisance of themselves, but also nip off to the pub (or even home) in the evening (as the infamous heat scan photo suggested a few weeks back) because they have lives too. It doesn't make them any less right to make a fuss. The Bankers certainly won't feel compelled to stick to any coherent ethical standards in their endeavours. They'll both try to make as much money as possible at the office and perhaps go to church or give to charity as well.
What bothers me much more is that whatever the individual practitioners get up to in their time off, the logic of the market they serve is inexorable. It is an amoral machine for making money. And modern politics has hitched itself to this machine.
This is why I sometimes find I have more in common with old-style conservatives than one might expect (and why some of my most enjoyable debates have always been with them) - because we both have a sense that something is wrong, and it's a moral sense, not rational, not economic.
The difference, going back to Serenity Prayer at the top, is our differing notions of what can and can't be changed. The Leftie almost of necessity remains open to the possibility of making things better. It's almost an article of faith, no matter how unformed our strategy might be, or how futile our efforts. The Triumph of Capitalism is not the success of some great moral humanist system of progress and development, it's what's left after everything else has failed. It's Natural Selection, red in tooth and claw. Its strength is that it thrives when you stop trying to do something better. Left-wing politics goes against the grain, a constant uphill struggle against just giving in and doing what comes naturally. And since the old totalitarianisms have been discredited, it's piece-meal, incremental, a process, not a goal, and demands constant vigilance.
I was brought up very strongly with the notion that very little could be changed and that the sooner I realised that and got on with getting a job, getting married and having kids, buying a mortgage and the insurance and the pension and all the rest of it, the better, because everything else was just Cloud Cuckoo Land.
My dad was a Trades-Unionist (a shop-steward actually) in the 70s and an old-fashioned Labour man. He believed that there was not much to be done with the world except to try to get fairer slice of the pie for your self and your family through negotiations and, if it came to it, industrial action. He thought a lot of his colleagues were layabouts and spongers. He believed you couldn't expect to have a voice unless you put yourself up for election. Otherwise all you could do was vote and accept the consequences. I don't agree with a lot of that but he had a powerful (sometimes intimidating) belief that people really ought to do better but I don't think he thought there was much point in trying to change the world (at least not when I was old enough to debate with him) and I think that was a terrible shame and a waste, because he had so much more energy than I do for these things. My dad was a force for the good. I'm sure everyone who knew him would agree with that.
Still as just one in seven billion (give or take) I'll be happy if I can make just slightly more than one 7,000,000,000th of a difference, and that will have to do.