Andrew is a teacher and editor of Labour Teachers (and writing in a personal capacity).
Not so long ago I wrote about The Five Worst Education Clichés, stock phrases that were used in educational debates to avoid thinking. I’ve been thinking about whether there is a political equivalent, and realised that while there are many clichés in politics, it is often individual words that are used to frustrate debate in politics. In particular, on the left, words that once meant something are used so much, and so indiscriminately, that they cease to have any meaning except as a way of signalling allegiance.
Here are four words that once meant something and are now used to dismiss opposing views.
Once upon a time this referred to a clear political movement. Those thinkers on the right who, inspired by classical liberalism, wanted to move publicly owned assets to the private sector, cut public spending, introduce market mechanism into public services and deregulate markets would happily describe themselves as “neo-liberal”. It would be easy to draw a line from figures such as Hayek, Von Mises and Milton Friedman, to certain think tanks and finally to the governments of Margaret Thatcher.
Now it might be the case that after the 1980s, it ceased to mean somebody who wished to implement particular policies, and came to mean those who didn’t wish to turn the clock back to the 1970s, but somewhere along the line it began to be used to describe almost any resistance to nationalisation, regulation or bureaucracy. Just the other day I was told I was a neo-liberal because I didn’t want the school I work in taken over by the local authority. “Neo-liberal” has been used to describe the last Labour government, despite the introduction of the minimum wage and increased public spending. It’s been several years since I heard of anyone describe themselves as a “neo-liberal”; it has become a word only used to dismiss other people’s views without actually addressing the content.
This used to mean somebody who was loyal to, or inspired by, Tony Blair. Often it was used to distinguish between Blairites and Brownites (i.e. those loyal to Gordon Brown). However, after 2010, the meaning drifted to encompass anyone on the right of the Labour Party, and then, after 2015, to include anyone not on the far left of the Labour Party.
Blairites, as identified from social media, now include:
Once upon a time, something would be said to be illegal if it broke the law. Somewhere along the line it became the standard criticism of any act of force in the world that one doesn’t like. For some, it is now almost an item of faith now that the Iraq War was illegal or even a war crime. Yet nobody seems quite able to explain how. The war was voted for by parliament, the sovereign law making body of the UK, so it cannot have been against UK law. International law is a bit of a mess, but none of the crimes (e.g. genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes) that the ICC at the Hague can prosecute were committed by the UK government as far as anyone knows. Nobody is being prosecuted, no law is known to have been broken and there is no court with any obvious jurisdiction over the issue which, after 14 years, is a matter of history. Multiple inquiries have failed to provide any evidence that the law was broken. We now have the irony that potentially devastating criticism of the conduct of the war made by the Chilcot Inquiry seems like exoneration, because as harsh as the Chilcot Report is, it cannot even begin to match the revenge fantasies of those who so ardently wish the Iraq War had been illegal.
This word seemed to fit when the Tories, while still in opposition, put forward the idea that, even while the UK was still in recession, there should be cuts in government spending. Even that use of the word becomes tricky, as public spending continued to grow after the Tories were elected. Now the word is used in any number of ways. Any cut in spending is described as austerity, even where it reflects reduced need or an absolute shortage of funds. For instance, Trotskyists groups claim that Labour councillors who refuse to set an illegal budget are supporting austerity. Any attempt to reduce borrowing, even on good Keynesian grounds, is now called austerity rather than, say, prudence. But most bizarrely of all, politicians and parties are labelled pro-austerity or anti-austerity almost completely regardless of what they promise to spend. Apparently in 2015, the SNP were anti-austerity and Labour were pro-austerity, despite almost identical spending plans. Now it is being used in internal Labour politics, with people seriously claiming that only Jeremy Corbyn is against austerity, unlike his predecessors who noticeably lost elections, at least in part, because the public saw them as spendthrift. “Austerity” is a word people use to write a narrative about those who are heartless, and those who are generous with public money, but nobody really has a clue what it now means in terms of actual spending.