Political clichés I dislike #2: ideological

I’ve previously written about my dislike of that venerable clichéd demand for “government to send a strong signal”. Government isn’t a bloody semaphore team, thank you very much.

Unlikely though it is that my blog post alone (plus natty diagram) cowed the political classes into giving up semaphoring addiction, the phrase does seem to crop up rather less often now. But we have not arrived in a happy new cliché free world.

Instead, the one that now has taken its place as the object of my political ire is “ideological” or more precisely, “ideological” used as if it were a self-evident insult, mistake and appalling blunder.

You know the sort of phrase I mean. When people talk about “ideological cuts” they mean “despicable, dreadful actions that quite possibly involve killing some first-born”. Having something “driven by ideology” means it’s a sure recipe for a car crash catastrophe. And as for “ideological policies”? Well they’re clearly the sort of deeply distasteful actions that people should be ashamed to be seen talking about in public during daylight hours.

What does this dreaded “ideology” mean? Here it is in its full horror, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary:

A system of ideas and ideals.

And even worse:

[A] set of beliefs.

Doing something because it’s based on what you believe. I mean, what could be more so self-evidently wrong that it can be used as a term of abuse without need for any explanation, clarification or emendation?

“Policies based on your beliefs” doesn’t sound quite so awful as “ideological policies” does it? “Being driven by your ideals” sounds quite good compared with the way in which “driven by ideology” gets used.

Forget the idea that policies based on beliefs might be better than policies based on whatever the latest opinion polls says. No, beliefs are ideological and so evil and wrong.

Forget the idea too that policies based on beliefs might be better than policies based on the random toss of a coin. Cut or spend? Regulate or liberate? Toss a coin and decide. And hooray, you win the prize for political sainthood because you’ve avoided that nasty taint of ideology in your embrace of chance.

In fact, there’s often a rather nasty arrogant authoritarian tone about such criticisms, because of course the people making them aren’t short of a belief or two themselves. They don’t go round self-flagellating for the temerity of themselves having beliefs and following them. Oh no, it’s only someone else who has different beliefs who should be hounded for having them. As The Economist once put it:

Ideology is just a pejorative word for principles in which you happen not to believe.

It’s the Henry Ford approach to acceptable politics – you can believe whatever you want as long as you believe the same as me.

3 responses to “Political clichés I dislike #2: ideological”

  1. By saying a policy is ideological they're trying to point out that it's done simply because you believe it should be so, not because it's pragmatic or necessary. The line "ideological cuts" is the counter-point to "necessary cuts" and hurts us because most of the population support that cuts are necessary but they don't particularly want them.

  2. I’m very glad you’ve pointed out that beliefs and values underlie political decisions and rightly. I do think “ideological” can be rightly used critically, but we need to be critical (other sense) in reading it. If a politician is accused of ideological attachment to the NHS, one may suspect this means “ideological attachment to the principles of the NHS, which I in my wisdom reject”. But if someone is said to be making decisions on outsourcing for ideological reasons, probably this does not mean an attachment to caring, community or freedom, but a set belief that outsourcing is always right or always wrong. Some people would defend this. Probably most would not and would argue that outsourcing is sometimes right and sometimes wrong, depending on the circumstances and particularly the nature of the service. Outsourcing because it must be a good thing led under Thatcher and Blair to some appalling waste of public money.

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