Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
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.
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.