The ‘right-wing’ have come to stand for a lot over the years. So much so, that the term itself has come to be a walking contradiction. SALIENT Feature Write Nicholas Holm asks academics, history books and politicians for a straight answer.
We all know what right-wing means. We hear it on the evening news, from the lips of pundits and politicians. No doubt it gets casually batted around when you and your mates are having one of your hard-core political discussions. And while it might get a little shaky on the fringes, you can be assured that Bush’s Republicans in the US, David Cameron’s Conservatives in the UK, Jyrki Katainen’s National Coalition Party in Finland and John Howard’s Liberals in Australia are going to be regarded as right-wing by the majority of the voting public. We also recognise that the term right-wing can often be regarded as a dirty word, especially around university campuses. Satirised by student media, railed against by student politicians and just ignored by most students, ‘right- wing’ often functions as a handy label for whatever the speaker doesn’t approve of; be it war, free markets, religion or country music.
Even the National Party aren’t overly keen on the use of the term right-wing. Their media team confesses that “the New Zealand National Party does not view itself as a ‘right-wing’ party but rather as a centre-right party.” The distinction arises because the National Party doesn’t seem to want to be associated with some of the more distasteful elements that like to market themselves under the ‘right-wing’ banner. “At heart we are not ideological, but rather a mainstream and pragmatic political party that reject the extremes that have come to be associated with terms like ‘right-wing’,” they explain. So what then is the distinction between National and the Labour party, who characterise themselves as centre-left? As National would have it, the distinctions arise because they “favour values of individual freedom and choice; equal citizenship and opportunity; personal responsibility and the rule of law; limited Government and ompetitive enterprise.” Unfortunately, the Labour party wouldn’t comment on their particular take on ‘right-wing’, though in the past Helen Clark has pointed to Labour’s “determination to see the benefits from a growing economy reach households across the land,” as what separates them from the Right. Go figure.
But then there’s a fair few out there who wouldn’t shy away from describing Labour as a member of the dreaded right-wing either. Nick Kelly, your duly elected student president, falls into this camp. He argues, “The term ‘left’ has become fuzzier, as these days parties like Labour are described as ‘Left’, when in fact economically they uphold much of the Rogernomics reforms, which in my mind would put them in the right-wing camp.” Kelly acknowledges that the term right-wing can be problematic and says, “the right is messy, as it varies on whether it’s socially liberal or conservative.” However, such hair-splitting aside, Kelly seems to have a pretty good idea of what constitutes the right-wing: “Primarily the difference [from the left-wing] these days seems to be economic; the right are Neo-Liberal nutters who want to privatize everything and abolish minimum wages, etc.”
But what kind of connection can be made between favouring aggressive international relations and wanting to restrict access to abortion? Or between either of these two attitudes and a desire to lower taxes and cut public spending?
Watch out for that “etc” though, it leaves a lot to be accounted for, and a lot of room to move if things go awry, which is fairly typical of politicians. Of course, the more experienced versions don’t even bother with such pleasantries, neither Rodney Hide of ACT, nor Russell Norman of the Greens would be drawn to offer their description of right-wing, though Hide’s agent was thankful for the request. Perhaps they too are a little confused about the appropriate use. Consider what we take to be political common sense, that in international relations, those who favour diplomacy are on the left, those who favour militant action are on the right. On the thorny issue of abortion it’s a given that to be ‘pro-life’, or anti-abortion, is right-wing, where as to be ‘pro-choice’, or pro-abortion (spare me your angry letters), is to be left wing. Taxes? Going up is left-wing, while going down is right. Right? But what kind of connection can be made between favouring aggressive international relations and wanting to restrict access to abortion? Or between either of these two attitudes and a desire to lower taxes and cut public spending? What is casually referred to as right-wing appears to be nothing more than a gaggle of opinions and attitudes that are unrelated at best and almost mutually exclusive in the right light.
In an effort to clarify this rapidly complicating definition, it might make sense to seek recourse in Salient’s nemesis, the dictionary. In our best academic voice *ahem* the Oxford English Dictionary defines right-wing as the conservative or reactionary section of a political system. The right-wing then, is those elements in the political milieu who act to oppose change or progress, which begs the question, who in their right mind defines themselves as the people who think everything’s going fine? Especially when you’re after votes. No this won’t do at all, because wouldn’t this rule out the possibility of the opposition ever being right-wing? When you’re the opposition, as National, our right-wing of choice, currently are, the main thing you want is change. Change of government, change of policy, and change of power. ACT, who, unlike National, happily describe themselves as right-wing, are all about change apparently. As Rodney kept saying last election, “a vote for ACT is a vote for change.” The right-wing must have got off to a pretty poor start in all this if they’re defined as the people who are against progress, which, semantically speaking, is change that is heading towards something desirable. It’s hard to convince people to vote for you when all you’re selling is “steady as she goes, things aren’t getting any better.”
If you check your history books this is all borne out. As both Wikipedia and Nick Kelly will inform you, the term, right wing, arose out of the seating arrangements adopted in the French parliamentary-style arrangement following the Revolution. Those parliamentarians who represented the common gutter snipes and peasants managed to finagle themselves the prime seats to the left of the president, where as those who represented the nobility were sat to his right. And as you well know from your history lessons, the nobility are not normally considered to be the ‘winners’ of the French Revolution. As Kelly summarises, “those on the right of parliament supported the monarchy and those of the left supported a republic.” This doesn’t follow on so much these days. Across New Zealand’s political spectrum you’d be hard pushed to find any politician who’s prepared to advocate for a return to full monarchy and even internationally it’d be a bit of a stretch. So like most things French, the concept of “right wing” is pretty useless and in order to make any sense of it, we’re going to have to look further afield again.
And we’re back at the beginning, because we’re confused. The libertarian right becomes stained with the taint of traditional morals, to the extent that a party that campaigns on lower taxes is automatically inferred to be anti-abortion, or pro-war. And vice versa. The term begins to mean so much that it becomes useless…
Pat Moloney is a Senior Lecturer in the Politics Department, and can be considered to have some idea about how to define ‘right-wing’. “Check out Paul Spoonley, Ryan et al, The Revival of the Right in New Zealand. They will have a local, appropriate definition there,” he says. You know what? He’s right. The book teaches us that in New Zealand the “libertarian right,” those who oppose the government’s intervention in economic matters, has found its soul-mate in Labour, and the “authoritarian” right, those who think the government should act to enforce a traditional moral code, has been adopted by the National party. Of course this was written in 1988, and things have changed a little since then, what with MMP and all, but the arguments are still surprisingly convincing. To some extent Labour can be seen to have abandoned their 80s fascination with the free market economy, at least on a superficial level, and turned back to some degree of state regulation, which according to the book, is a left-wing thing. So now we’re sorted, right-wing is ahands-off approach to the economy and a hands-on approach to traditional morals, right? The only problem here is that we’ve two almost mutually exclusive ideas of the right-wing, one which stresses control, at a social level, and one which stresses freedom, at an economic level. And when we use ‘right-wing’, we can’t even begin to separate the two terms. And we’re back at the beginning, because we’re confused. The libertarian right becomes stained with the taint of traditional morals, to the extent that a party that campaigns on lower taxes is automatically inferred to be anti-abortion, or pro-war. And vice versa. The term begins to mean so much that it becomes useless because no one political party or pundit can contain so much right-wingness. Right-wing is a sprawling, rolling, vilifying term that has drifted so far and so widely that, in the end, it doesn’t really seem to mean anything at all.