Alright, I admit the title reads like a rather banal academic thesis, but bear with me. I've recently subscribed this blog to a website called SeededBuzz, which is in short a way to connect with other bloggers via advertising articles and inviting responses and guest posts. Thus any article with 'Buzz' in the title is me responding to an article somebody else has posted on the website.
The post I'm buzzing today is this one from Modern Sophist. I'd encourage you to read the whole thing, but a précis would be that it describes how Americans can celebrate their heritage without it defining them, and then argues that this would be a good way to treat political identity too. Although the former point is certainly of interest to a unionist blog (and I might come back to it) its the second point that caught my attention. Would treating political identity in the manner they describe actually work? I can't speak properly for America as I have little experience of the political culture, but I can try to apply it to Britain.
The first obvious problem is that, for all some may bewail first past the post, our party system is not quite as monolithically bipolar as America's. Nonetheless, the big parties in this country are still dominant and (especially on the right) incredibly broad churches. I have met an awful lot of people - especially at university - who use labels as crutches, to forestall debate or avoid facing uncomfortable facts. This is especially the case with people who perceive themselves to be 'on the left'. Over the course of the debate they might express right wing opinions on a wide variety of areas, but they recoil the moment the words 'right wing' are attached to what they're saying. Similarly, several of my friends are 'Conservatives' like me without us actually agreeing on any significant policy areas at all. The sheer breadth of the Conservative Party means that social and economic liberals like me can share the party label with Red Tories, an at best misleading state of affairs that means that my using the word 'Conservative' to describe my political beliefs could be construed as essentially meaningless.
So political labels are sometimes misleading and often used to prop up the intellectually lazy and the purely tribal. But is a political genealogy a viable solution? Let's try and imagine what I might describe if asked the first political question in the article: where do I come from?
"Well, my father is a lifelong Liberal, my mother varies but tends to Labour. My grandmother on my father's side is a Conservative, my paternal grandfather was a youthful communist and a mature Liberal. On my mother's side my grandmother was an Irish monarchist and my grandfather a Republican."
Those of you who know my politics might be able to discern their roots in there somewhere, but it would be misleading to suggest that all the above are 'influences'. Unlike genes, they aren't an indelible part of who I am. Imagining that our fictitious interrogator was still interested, they ask the second question: what do I believe?
"I'm an anti-nationalist conviction unionist and pro-European. I believe in both economic and social liberalism, free trade and a small state, but I also support national service. I oppose the government subsidising arts but like strong defence spending and tend to support foreign interventionism. I also support..."
And so it goes on. A couple of problems present themselves. First, how much of that is actually explained by my 'political genealogy'? Worse, does the genealogy risk throwing up red herrings? For example, it might be perfectly natural to infer that I have inherited my liberalism from my father and grandfather, but that largely isn't the case, as I grew up as a left-of-centre LibDem. I arrived at my rather eclectic mix of beliefs largely under my own steam, and a list of my familial influences is unlikely to be helpful.
Furthermore, does that mix of beliefs actually render my identification with (and membership of) the Conservative Party inaccurate? Not at all. All of the beliefs above listed manifest themselves in sections of the Conservative Party to a greater or a lesser extent. Certainly they correspond well enough to make it the most accurate pick out of the three main parties, perhaps out of any party existing in the UK today. A more accurate label of self-identification might be Liberal Unionist, but identifying with a party that hasn't existed for nearly a century comes off as a little strange. I might as well call myself a Whig. The Conservative label lets somebody know roughly what page I'm on, and they can probe further from there.
I deeply sympathise with the aims expressed in the article, of stopping party identification being used as a mask for political instinct. There is little more frustrating than trying to debate with somebody whose political position amounts to nothing more than a fashionable 'hatred' of Margaret Thatcher, or who holds political views contrary to some of their own separately stated principles because those are the views they were raised in. But such people are unlikely to engage in constructive and rational debate no matter how you phrase the question or probe their beliefs, and may not even have formed views distinct from their party affiliation at all. In the above example, that person's views stem from the fact that they are Labour; their Labour membership does not stem from their views.
Yet the most obvious problem is that even if you strip away party labels, you're unlikely to actually forgo the use of labels entirely. For example, above I give the beginning of what would be quite a long list of views on a wide variety of subjects. The only way to shorten that list to something conversationally acceptable would be to use labels again, and for the politically tribal each side provides a political shorthand of its own. Our above Labour member might say they're 'progressive', or that they believe in a 'compassionate society', whereas a right-winger might say they believe in 'national pride' or 'traditional values'. These words don't tell me much more than 'Labour' or 'UKIP' would have, and if I'm dealing with somebody who isn't keen on talking through their beliefs I'm not likely to get much further.
For all their flaws, party labels are a good way of giving somebody the lie of your political land without quoting them a personal essay or letting politics come to dominate the conversation, and (in the UK at least) can function as a broad-strokes indicator of belief without being overly prescriptive. So if you ask me my political beliefs at a party, I'm a Conservative.