In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Glittering Generalities

The Conservatives say that they are “for hardworking people”, whilst Labour’s last election slogan was “A future fair for all”. The Liberal Democrats seek “fairer taxes in tough times”. It is common in modern politics for parties to use glittering generalities. Rufus Choate, a Whig Massachusetts senator, is attributed with bringing the term in usage, arguing in an 1856 public letter that “glittering and sounding generalities” would dissolve the United States.

Glittering generalities are common in politics. (Photo: Guardian)

Glittering generalities are common in politics. (Photo: Guardian)

A glittering generality must be vague with positive connotations. A party may say it is for hard-working people – as there is definitely a hyphen – but no party would say it is for lazy people, or for people who work exactly their contracted hours. Contrary to the beliefs of Margot James MP and others, the statement ‘Conservatives are for hard-working people’ is neither equivalent to, and nor does it imply, that ‘hard-working people are for the Conservatives’. Of course, this slogan leaves “hard” and “work” both undefined.

No politician would proclaim that they desire an unfair future or unfair taxes. The disagreement arises from what constitutes fairness. As George Orwell wrote in his famous essay Politics and the English Language:

The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.

With regards to the word ‘freedom’, its fluffy connotations are the decisive reason that more definitions have been sought. Isaiah Berlin’s 1958 essay Two Concepts of Freedom encapsulated the notion of ‘positive freedom’ – which means social agency – to contrast against merely ‘negative freedom’.

When words like freedom, rights and justice are routinely smuggled around without checking their contents, policies will be described as expanding freedom, respecting rights and upholding justice. Glittering generalities serve two purposes: simplifying political debate into soothing slogans, and obfuscation of a politician’s real meaning.


2 comments on “Glittering Generalities

  1. Simon O'Kane
    January 13, 2014

    I agree with a lot of this, although the true meaning behind the slogans is found not by taking them at face value but examining the undertones and how the slogans fit with the party’s policy platform.

    All parties support hard-working people, but the fact the Conservatives (as opposed to the other two) have chosen this as their slogan is interesting. Once you examine the Conservatives’ policy platform, a more controversial interpretation of the slogan appears: “Punishing those who don’t work hard.”

    Now take Labour: “A Future Fair for All.” This was the title of the party’s 2010 manifesto, which was accompanied by idyllic imagery that was compared with Maoist China. This picture symbolises the idealism (some would say naiveté) traditionally associated with left-wing politics. More recently, Labour have adopted the “One Nation” slogan traditionally associated with a centrist faction of the Conservative Party in an attempt to seize the middle ground, particularly in the context of the Conservatives moving rightwards to counteract the UKIP threat.

    “Fairer Taxes in Tough Times” actually sums up the Lib Dem policy position quite well: Austerity is necessary but the rich should take more of the burden.

    I can’t leave this discussion without quoting Paul Merton on a previous Lib Dem slogan: “It will probably have both ‘fair’ and ‘change’ so as not to exclude anybody.”

    • Anthony Masters
      January 13, 2014

      You’re right: it’s certainly worthwhile to view slogans as part of the overall party platform. I will remember that Paul Merton quote.

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This entry was posted on November 4, 2013 by in National Politics and tagged , .
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