The Eurozone crisis claimed another victim on 6 May when Nicolas Sarkozy became the eleventh European political leader to lose his job since 2008. His opponent, François Hollande, has become only the second socialist president of the French Fifth Republic. This change of presidency has been seen by some as a “lurch to the left”.
But why left, why right?
In common with many frequent words, the words left and right have more than one meaning. As well as referring to the side that is east when you are facing north, right can also mean, among other things, “correct”, “morally correct”, “immediately” or “completely”.
Left is not quite so rich – apart from its directional meaning, it is the past tense and past participle of the verb to leave. But both words are used to signify a particular political position.
If we want to know why François Hollande should represent the “left” and David Cameron the “right”, we have to go back over 200 years, to the Assemblée Nationale in France round about the time of the Revolution in 1789. The members sat then (as they still do today) in a semicircular chamber, facing the president of the Assembly. The position of honour was on the president’s right and was occupied by the nobles, while to his left were the commoners. Politically, the nobles were staunch supporters of the church, the king and the existing constitution, while the commoners were more likely to be anti-church, anti-royalist and in favour of overthrowing the constitution. In between them sat the moderates. So the right came to represent those political parties that favour continuity and stability (as they see it) while the left represents radical parties of change.
In the UK, such a distinction could not have been made, as the elected representatives sat facing each other in an adversarial configuration, and although the Speaker has the governing party on his or her right and the opposition on his or her left, the disposition of these parties will depend on who is in government at any one time. And in fact, it wasn’t until about 1906 that the terms left and right started being applied to British politics, when the Labour Party became a third force in national politics, joining the previously duopolistic Conservatives and Liberals to create more of a political spectrum.Email this Post