Versions of this piece have been written a few times, including by me, over the years, but it is something that I think needs repeating regularly, by sensible Leftish people. Here is my thesis: conservatives and Right-wingers are not evil.
That statement should be entirely uncontroversial. There have been evil Right-wingers, of course (although it’s amazing, when clearly evil people come up, how quick both sides are to say BUT HE’S NOT REALLY LEFT/RIGHT WING, in a wonderfully clear example of the No True Scotsman fallacy). But the overwhelming majority of Right-wingers are decent, flawed human beings who want the best for their family, their country and the world, just as Left-wingers are. The fact that I’m even writing this down feels patronising and stupid.
But I need to write it down, because it is not uncontroversial, it seems. The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton once said: “Left-wing people find it very hard to get on with Right-wing people, because they believe that they are evil. Whereas I have no problem getting on with Left-wing people, because I simply believe that they are mistaken.” And he has a point.
Last week the Labour blogger Hopi Sen wrote a piece about “being on the far Right of the centre Left“, in which he pointed out the obvious fact that Tories do not want the poor to starve. It was a very good piece. I tweeted it, saying something about how Tories aren’t evil. And a fairly major Twitter argument erupted on the subject, beginning with “I love this naive idea that Tories don’t want to be evil – it’s just an unfortunate side effect. Ignores the evidence”, from the Liberal Conspiracy blogger Sunny Hundal. There were some other gems: “By definition a dictator isn’t a lefty”; “The left cares about morality”. (When challenged, Sunny rowed back somewhat, to say that not all Right-wingers were evil, “just the prominent and popular ones”.) Others claimed that people on the Right don’t care about society or community, only about themselves. And so on.
I have no idea how representative of Lefty thinking this is, but I fear it might be quite common, so I want to lay down a very basic point: Right-wingers, who depending how you define them probably make up a good third of the population, are not evil. They want poor people to be fed and educated and housed. They don’t want wars. I expect there is a statistical tendency for Right-wingers to be more likely to have a problem with gay people, women or black people, though it might not be as clear-cut as you think.
As Hopi Sen says, there’s plenty on the Right not to like – the abovementioned tendency to xenophobia and misogyny and so on, for instance. And I think there is a tendency on the Right to dress up selfishness as worldly, weary realism; the patronising “you’ll grow out of socialism” line. But equally, people on the Left have, I think, a tendency to naive idealism, and sometimes to placing ideals and institutions above people: worship of the NHS, for instance, which is simply one method of delivering healthcare and not necessarily the best one.
As Jonathan Haidt wrote in his book The Righteous Mind, the considerations of “morality” differ between those on the Left and the Right. Liberals are largely concerned with care for others, liberty from oppression, and fairness, whereas conservatives are also concerned with loyalty to one’s group, sanctity and sacredness. What looks like a moral decision for one can appear immoral to the other: patriotism, my country right or wrong, might feel moral to Right-wingers, but not to some Lefties, for instance. It is a failure of imagination to think that your opponents are “evil”, rather than simply following a moral imperative which you do not share, or trying to use a different route to a similar goal.
There are those on the Right who think the Left is evil, as well – see the comments below, in which a number of people will tell me in strident tones that the liberal Left is deliberately undermining the nation and trying to impose a communist state, that they are programmed by Common Purpose and the Frankfurt School to destroy family ties and install a godless Soviet dictatorship. But I think it is most common the other way around.
None of this is to say that political parties won’t act in ways that are self-serving and destructive and immoral. I started writing this before the news broke this morning about the Tory crackdown on benefits for single mothers, for instance. It may be that the Conservative Party is genuinely worried about the wave of young mums overwhelming our nation, but since teenage pregnancies are at a historic low it seems unlikely. It seems more probable that they are calculating that they can win votes from their base by pandering to ignorance and populist sentiment. But it’s hardly only the Tories who indulge in stupid populism to win votes (“British jobs for British people!”), and calling this sort of petty self-interest “evil” is ludicrous hyperbole anyway.
I was in a meeting with various senior people in this office recently. We were discussing Trident and the Liverpool Care Pathway, among other things. I was by a distance the Leftiest person there, but no one in the room wanted nuclear war, and nobody wanted dying people to suffer in agony. We all wanted a peaceful world and dignified deaths; we just disagreed (to an extent) on the best way to achieve those things. You can only believe that the Right is evil if you’ve never worked with anyone on the Right.