The debate between right and left can sometimes seem quite unequal, when we get onto the subject of each other. The right accuse us on the left of being unrealistic, idealistic dreamers. Then we accuse the right of being evil. It just sounds like we’re not playing nicely.
For some reason, when left-wing people look at right-wing people, they see them as belonging to a continuum that stretches as far right as you can possibly go. Left-wing people feel that the whole of the right side of political thought is a slippery slope, and if you fall to the right of the gravitational centre, then the only thing preventing you from being Hitler is lack of time or ambition.
It’s ridiculous, obviously. Conservative moderates can be as sound on their ground as anyone. But on the left, we feel that unless you’re as far left as we are, then you lack a foothold, and you will eventually slide inevitably Hitlerwards. As if Ken Clarke really wants to send all the gypsies to concentration camps, he just doesn’t know it yet.
For some reason, the feeling is not mutual. Conservatives seem to understand that their Labour opponents don’t secretly dream of a communist utopia. Tories are happy to mock the left for their stated opinions, without imagining secret ones. Cameron has been known to use ‘socialist’ and even ‘left-wing’ as insults during prime minister’s questions, seemingly unaware that to many people these are simply statements of fact (or even sources of pride). It’s like insulting the opposition bench by calling them ‘suit-wearers’ or ‘bipeds’.
Maybe the right don’t exaggerate their opponents’ views because they got all that out of their system years ago. If a Tory accuses a lefty of being a secret communist, it all sounds very 1970s. It harks back to a very specific allegation - that the Soviet government is running you as a secret agent. The communist double agent was, they assumed, being rewarded handsomely by the Soviet Union. So the communist was a traitor - a greedy, greedy traitor. If you call someone a communist now, it doesn’t sound like an attack on their political credo; it sounds like you haven’t noticed that the Soviet Union’s gone away.
We had it easy in this country, of course, compared to the United States. There they were obsessed with communists for a very long time. In the absence of Ebola, they needed something to channel their baseless terror into, and communism fitted the bill perfectly. Anyone to the left of an arbitrary political norm was a dangerous ally of an enemy state, regardless of whether their address books actually contained any Sergeys or Alexeis. And you didn’t have to be a politician or public servant to be targeted - in fact, they preferred it if you made films.
These days, the extremes of left and right are used as insults, rather than actual allegations. But they’re used differently on each side: a bad-tempered left-winger may call an opponent a fascist, but a right-winger won’t accuse anyone of communism. And not just because Tories don’t want to seem out of date. On the contrary - some of them love being out of date, it’s their favourite thing.
It’s because we think we know what an extremely right-wing government looks like: it look like Hitler. But for some reason, we don’t think an extremely left-wing government looks like Stalin. If you get more and more right-wing, the logic seems to go, you will eventually be Hitler. But if you get more and more left-wing, you would have to take a wrong turn to become Stalin. Stalin, we feel, is a perversion of left-wing thought. Whereas Hitler is a perfect distillation of the right. Stalin got left-wing wrong; Hitler got right-wing horribly, horribly right. They both murdered millions, but only one of them did it by being true to his ideology.
It’s not fair, it’s not reasonable, it’s not right - but it sits behind some of the more virulent anti-right rhetoric. When the left implies that a Conservative policy is tantamount to Nazism, for some reason we can come across as a little judgmental - even impolite. It should be guarded against, because the left will never win any arguments by claiming that Tories are basically very, very diluted Hitlers - that the Conservative Party represents a kind of homeopathic Nazism. There are many, many dangers to the right-wing agenda of the Tory party, but that’s not one of them.
When the left becomes intemperate in its criticism of the right, the right gains a moral superiority it ill deserves. Left-wingers are much more often accused of hypocrisy than the right. Left-wingers send their children to selective schools, they use private health insurance, they under-pay their cleaners, they wear t-shirts. Left-wing views go along with hypocrisy very easily - like fish and chips with guacamole.
The assumption is that left-wing people lack the moral spine to apply their beliefs in practice. There must therefore be something wrong with either the beliefs or the people who hold them. Right-wing people, however, happily embody all the principles they espouse publicly - with the occasional exception of sexual fidelity.
Is this because left-wing people are weak, or their ideals are other-worldly? Are the left a more morally wobbly bunch? No - it is because left-wing principles guard against the human frailty of selfishness. So when a left-winger succumbs to selfishness, they clash with their stated political principles, and hypocrisy is the result. Right-wingers don’t think you should be forced to regulate your behaviour in any way, so they couldn’t be hypocritical if they wanted to be.
If you lionise individual liberty, then selfishness is built into the system, or even celebrated. When a right-winger says that you should be allowed to do whatever you like, it is hard to see what kind of behaviour might constitute hypocrisy. If a Conservative minister led a crackdown on begging, and then was seen giving change to a homeless person, would that be seen as hypocrisy? Surely not. A right-winger’s personal compassion would not undermine their hard-line political stance.
Right-wingers still have the human instincts of compassion and generosity - often to a very considerable degree. But they believe that generosity has no place in a political system - it belongs to the worlds of charity and philanthropy. A system built on universal selfishness makes the whole of society sit up straight and click into place. Selfishness may be no part of their personal character, but it is an essential driver of their political credo.
Yes, we should condemn hypocrites. But we should condemn more strongly those whose policies make so few demands upon the comfortable that no one could ever fall short. Why should we praise anyone for ‘walking the talk’ if their talk mainly comprises shouting obscenities at strangers, and their walking style involves kicking pensioners in the shins?
Living by your principles is only really admirable if you have admirable principles.