The Importance of Ideology

This semester, as part of my degree, I took a course that examined the subject of political ideologies, which dealt with how they are defined and how they have developed over the years.  To those not too invested in politics, this area of theory may seem abstract and irrelevant.  The more I read into the subject, though, the more I felt that the values of certain ideologies applied to everyone.

Naturally, everyone has opinions.  Whether they class themselves as political or not; if you ask a given person their opinion on matters such as immigration, benefits or defence spending, most people will give some personal response to the issue.  Everyone has an idea of how they think the country, and their own lives, should be.  This is, to an extent, an ideology in itself.

We band around the terms liberal, socialist, conservative, fascist etc. all the time in general culture to describe political opinions.  How many people that use them truly understand what they are accusing, though?  From what I’ve learned over the last few months: very little. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, we have more analysis of politicians’ decisions than ever.  It’d be hard to read a newspaper and not see an ideology mentioned in relation to a politician’s latest musings or new policies from the Government or Labour.  From this we find ourselves classifying our opinions as liberal or conservative, rarely more in depth, as these are the two most common types of party in the West and these are the only ones discussed by political “experts” in print and on TV.  People’s opinions run far deeper than this shallow interpretation, though.  Some “conservatives” don’t believe in international trade and would like more internal focus on defence etc.  These people wouldn’t necessarily define themselves as nationalists, but political theory would.

The truth, though, is that in modern times – political parties are even less ideologically inclined than they were before.  Could you separate the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour visions for the NHS?  Not easily, if at all.  However, if both the coalition parties were to examine the core principles behind the NHS, they’d find it is a deeply socialist concept – which neither the conservative Conservatives nor the liberal Lib Dems would have originally agreed with, ideologically.  Perhaps now the idea of studying ideology is defunct and unimportant.

This convergence of policy can be partly be blamed on ideology itself.  Post World War II, several key ideologies reined themselves in and created modern, “neo” versions of themselves where they share more common ground with each other.  Socialism in its’ most extreme form, Communism, is hardly to be found in the modern world – but its’ more restrained guise, social democracy, is in place in governments worldwide.   Even in the UK, the Conservative party is hardly the champion of capitalist business in the way it once was, with Cameron’s “Big Society” policies more akin to what you’d expect from a socialist or liberal government.

Maybe this blurring of the political spectrum is part of the reason that the country has been plunged into political apathy.  A recent ComRes report in The Independent (analysed here by The Huffington Post) suggested that almost half of respondents would not vote for any of the three current leading parties.

Russell Brand has controversially brought himself back from the darkness with his long and rambling piece in The New Statesmen, and an accompanying interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, where he advocated a “revolution” to oust the current political system – with which he feels completely disconnected.  In a world that is seemingly less reliant on ideology, here is an example of a man who is expressing clear promotions of two.  His revolution argument is anarchist at its’ heart, in believing that people should be entirely free to make their own decisions, without the constraint of Government.  His wishes for society are socialist though, in shunning “big business”, as much as he believes the ideology has become “too serious”.  Frankly, Brand’s argument lacks a coherence that, given its’ attention over recent months, it deserved – but I think the feeling that the existing political system is not ideal is clear and well sympathised with.  The most useful thing to come out of Brand’s point-of-view is a current example of how ideology is still at the forefront of political discussion.

Politics has changed over the years, but the values underpinning it remain largely the same, if not superficially.  Ideology is still a massive factor in politics today, even if not at the Houses of Parliament.  As Michael Freeden once said: “An unideological person is simply one who has passed away”.

If you are interested in reading further about individual ideologies, I’d suggest reading the book that we were set for our course – Political Ideologies: An Introduction by Andrew Heywood.

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