One of the many abuses of the English language in mainstream political parlance is the denigration of ideology.
Defending his government’s cuts to public spending, David Cameron wrote in 2011 that:
This is a government led by people with a practical desire to sort out this country’s problems, not by ideology.
More recently, Nick Clegg attacked Michael Gove’s education policies as ideological, reportedly saying:
Parents don’t want ideology to get in the way of their children’s education
In fact, Nick Clegg really appears to have it in for ideology because he attacks it all the time. He said a couple of weeks ago:
I don’t take an ideological approach to public spending.
But it isn’t just our dear leaders trying to avoid the whiff of ideology. You hear it all the time – the Government’s cuts are “ideological” (i.e. bad), the Green Party’s opposition to nuclear is “ideological” (i.e. invalid). Just as Cameron denied the charge, Greens sometimes protest that their opposition to nuclear power isn’t ideological.
Hang on a second, aren’t they all involved in politics?
My concise Oxford English Dictionary defines ideology as:
a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy
Surely David Cameron should be guided by a system of political and economic theories and beliefs when deciding what this country’s problems are, and how to deal with them? Surely Nick Clegg’s opposition to Michael’s Gove’s policies stems in part from his ideology, and one would hope his approach to public spending would follow his liberal ideology and not whatever “commonsense” notion struck him at each meeting?
The Green Party’s opposition to nuclear power is absolutely ideological. A core tenet of the party’s ideology is putting power, be it electrical or economic, into the hands of the people, not corporations. Corporate power tends to be unaccountable, to act in its own interests, to lie and dissemble when it has done something wrong. Nuclear power can only be run either by the state or corporations, and is largely run by the latter. Another core tenet, coming from our ecological roots, is valuing diversity and resilience. Staking a very large share of our energy future on one technology supplied by a couple of companies in a dozen or so plants that need fuel from a handful of countries doesn’t seem to fit the bill. The party aims for peace and nuclear disarmament, so any move by the UK government that would put more potential weapon material into the world, and that would legitimate nuclear weapons programmes in countries like Iran, should be opposed. So the Green Party prefers a diverse mix of renewable energy technologies that can be owned by individuals, community-led companies, councils, small enterprises and, yes, big companies who build massive offshore wind farms.
To my mind, it is our ideological objections to nuclear power that are our strongest arguments. I’ve never been able to get my head around the comparative costs, and I’ve never wanted to cobble together information about safety that I don’t understand. But I don’t trust nuclear PLC as far as I can throw them, and if we can do without nuclear then I’m ideologically opposed to it.
The most infuriating example of this ideology denial is the claim that “it’s just about supply and demand”. I see this all the time on Twitter and on blogs, whenever anybody has the cheek to write something more sophisticated than an A-level economics essay.
Apart from the fact that this is extremely simplistic economics, it is also very often used in an ideological fashion. For example, you see people saying that council housing is pointless because it is just trying to buck the market, and at the end of the day the housing problem just comes down to supply and demand. People making this argument will often claim that anyone who disagrees is both “economically illiterate” and “ideological”, as though an economic theory based on the logic of a free market that has no place for public housing isn’t ideological. A variant is that the planning system must be dismantled because it gets in the way of supply and so makes house prices high, as though there is no value to the planning system and no objective for housing policy besides affordable prices on the open market.
Of course, ideology can prevent people from finding shared ground. Many blame inflexible ideology for the state of affairs in American politics, illustrated by this neat cartoon:
But this is a defect of the political process and the entrenched positions of politicians who depend upon their extreme wings to win primary selection. It isn’t the fault of ideology per se.
Let’s not shy away from ideology, please. Let’s not pretend we are all pragmatists arguing over the best way to manage a one-party state. Let’s talk about our values, our beliefs, the theories that guide our decisions.
This topic came up today in a conversation with a friend, Tom Hill. He suggested that “ideological” is often used to mean that somebody is ignoring, misrepresenting or lying about evidence to protect their own ideological position, as those who are pro or anti-nuclear are known to do from time to time! The same can be true of the reverse; somebody can try to pretend they are simply acting on evidence in order to cover their ideology, as Nick Clegg and David Cameron clearly seem to be doing in the above examples.