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.

Not even I’m willing to believe it was the power of that blog post alone (plus natty diagram) which cowed the political classes into giving up semaphoring addiction. Yet the phrase does seem to crop up rather less often now, perhaps because of a change from the Labour government’s love of telling people what to do?

But we have not arrived in a happy new post-Brown 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?

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.

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

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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  • Andrew Suffield 10th Feb '12 - 11:37am

    Said this many times. And I’ll trot out my usual example again:

    Getting rid of ID cards was an ideological cut, and I firmly support it on that basis.

  • I think “ideological” is most often used in this way when the target is hiding his ideology behind another, possibly spurious, justification.

    So, sure, there’s nothing wrong with ideology per se, but if you’re embarrassed by the ideological motives of your actions to the extent that you try to obfuscate them, then it’s fair for your opponents to point out what you’re doing.

  • I think Andrew T is right that “ideological” is usually used as shorthand for “ideologically driven without regard to practical consequences”. Somewhat lazy and in danger of discrediting the idea that having an ideology is a good thing but doesn’t annoy me that much.

    What really aggravates me is the increasing use of “refute” to mean “rebut” or even “expressed a different view” as in the “Andrew Lansley refuted the claims of health professionals that his reforms were a dog’s breakfast”. In reality, it means “show to be wrong by evidence or argument” – something which journalists should never report politicians as doing!

  • Malcolm Todd 10th Feb '12 - 2:00pm

    “what representative democracy boils down to is common consent not to stick pitch-forks in people who demand a tithe from you, because you recognise their ideas as a superior way to organise society”

    Oh, I like that. Is it okay if I consent not to use a red-hot poker instead? I seem not to have a pitch-fork to forbear to use.

  • What on earth are you talking about? I have never read or heard anyone ever criticise someone for having or expressing an ideology. i have heard many people, (Danny Alexander springs to mind but also many contributors to this site also fit the bill), defend the attack on the welfare state and public servants as being of necessity rather than ideologically motivated. Others have pointed out that the reason for cutting in many cases are ideologically motivated rather than of economic necessity.

    The inherent criticism is that the ideology is wrong and that the exclamation that it is all brought about through economic necessity is a smokescreen (In the olden days it used to be called spin-doctoring). Not that it is wrong to have an ideology.

    Simon Shaw,
    For the first time ever i have to say i agree with you. It is wrong to do that, which is why I oppose the coalitions ideologically driven austerity program. Not only is it failing to reduce government borrowing it is reducing the capacity of the nation to earn in the future in order to pay down those debts. On top of that the Bank of England is engaging in more quantatative easing which will make pensioners retiring today permanently poorer.

  • Andrew Suffield 10th Feb '12 - 5:14pm

    The inherent criticism is that the ideology is wrong

    But the inherent defect is that the speaker has carefully avoided engaging the subject of how, why, or even if they disagree with the ideology.

    This one is right out of Labour’s playbook. They’ve been banging on about “ideology” for the past couple of years, while avoiding being drawn into saying they disagree – because they actually don’t, mostly – and certainly will never be found advancing a different ideology that they support.

  • Mark Pack,

    Neither of the examples you cite fall into the category you describe. The highlighting of the fact that they are ideological is being used in both cases to illustrate the falsehood of the claim that the cuts/policies are being touted as “necessary” because of the ineptitude of the previous incumbents; when they are in fact ideologically motivated in order to implement a dogma that was not fairly put before the electorate.


    Wise words.

  • Foregone Conclusion 11th Feb '12 - 3:46am

    I think that a politician without ideology will soon drift towards really dangerous territory (see Blair, T., ‘entire premiership of’). If we really believe that politicians should rely on ‘the facts’, then we should disband our party and become civil servants! There are so many issues where the evidence is uncertain or irrelevant. For instance, look at voting reform: do you value representation or fairness? It’s a question of ideology.

    If you want a term that smacks less of Bennite crazies demanding the nationalisation of everything, ‘values’ is quite a good term that American politicians love to use, although that has some religious connotations.

  • Barry George 11th Feb '12 - 8:58pm

    There is a legitimate negative use of “ideological” when a measure is advocated with practical arguments that don’t add up and the real, hidden motivation is ideological: for example, presenting a decision to outsource as a money-saving and efficiency move when it may well provide worse value for money but it reduces the state.

    Exactly. I use the term “ideological” in a negative sense because I disagree with the Conservative ideology. I use the term to suggest that certain political decisions are made because they “want to” not because they “need to” or that it is even prudent or wise to do so…

    Of course a Conservative would be quite within their rights to define, for example, my desire to build more social housing as ideological and they may well genuinely believe they are using the word in a negative sense also.

  • Barry George 12th Feb '12 - 12:55am

    So, for opponents of the cuts to call them ideologically-driven it actually suggests their opposistion to cuts is mindless, unthinking…

    To disagree with an ideology shows the very opposite .. It shows that you are not a sheeple and that you can actually think for yourself…

    I couldn’t disagree with you more Oranjepan, but I respect your point of view

  • Mark Pack Caron Lindsay 12th Feb '12 - 10:20am

    It’s kind of like the word selfish – which tends to be used in the context of someone doing something disapproved of.

  • Simon Shaw wrote regarding the cuts: “I believe “ideologically” that it is simply immoral to land increasing billions of ££s of debt onto future generations. Many of those who argue otherwise are “ideologically” selfish.”

    I’m not going to get into the debate about use of the word “ideological” but I think that Simon is, with respect, distorting the arguments made by those (such as myself) who oppose the way cuts are currently being implemented.

    No one, as far as I know, disagrees with the objective of reducing the deficit. My concern is that, as several independent studies have found, the deficit reduction plan impacts much more severely on the less well-off than on the wealthy.

    Related to this, the cuts in local government grant fall more heavily on councils in deprived Northern towns and cities than on wealthier (usually Tory-controlled) councils in the south.

    To use Simon’s phrase, the Tories are being “selfish” in protecting their own better-off supporters and councils.

  • Barry George 12th Feb '12 - 3:54pm


    Ok let me be more specific…

    I genuinely believe that the Conservatives have an inherent distaste for the poor..

    Why do I believe this ?

    Well the last time they were in power the focus of their created “moral panic” was single mothers.

    This time it is “benefit scroungers”.

    The poor will now have less access to legitimate needs for welfare due to the welfare reform bill

    The poor will now have less access to education because of the huge rise in tuition fees

    The poor will now have less access to legal representation because of the cuts and eligibility changes to legal aid.

    Poor single parents will now have to pay to use the CSA to receive their entitled support from the absent parent…

    I could go on and on but I won’t…

    There is certainly a correlation between the Conservatives being in power and vicious attacks against societies less fortunate. Policies are being enacted that will maintain a desired status quo of the poor remaining poor, uneducated and without representation.

    I believe that these policies are not being made out of a need for austerity (though it’s a bloody good smoke screen) but through an ideological belief that such policies are correct and somehow moral…

    I use the term Ideological as a pejorative to imply all of the above and another 10 pages of the above if required.
    But it is more concise and easier and fairer on others readers of a thread for me to simply say they are ideological rather than to repeat myself each and every time.

    I am always happy to clarify my use of the term to anyone who respectfully asks but I will continue to use the word ideological as a pejorative as (repeating myself) I believe that such policies are made through a will and desire to do them and NOT through a need or necessity.

  • Barry George 12th Feb '12 - 7:40pm


    Sounds like cobblers to me.

    You are quite entitled to think so, but quoting from Oranjepan, I fail to see how calling my beliefs “cobblers” is anything other than “a sweeping refutation”

    Why would you treat the word “cobblers” any different to the word “ideological”

  • Barry George 12th Feb '12 - 9:28pm

    you are conflating tory with rich….

    You are conflating the ideology of a political party with the voting public..

    Obviously many less well off people vote Tory…. That is why they gained the most seats at the general election…

    I may well believe that they were wrong to do so but I am not in denial that they did….

    Fortunately though, not enough of the populous voted Tory to give them an overall majority

  • Barry George 13th Feb '12 - 10:47pm


    Thank you for your courteous reply. The short answer is that I don’t actually disagree with your last post that much…

    what you’ve said there is slightly different than before

    Agreed , this is a thread about the use of language so I had no intention of expressing my feelings about Conservative Ideology here. It just turned out that it was easier to explain my view by giving some direct examples of why I use the word in the way I do.

    not all ideology is stereotypical ‘tory ideology’


    ” For me, the only way to get around those assumptions is not to get dragged into unhelpful debate where the language we use is inaccurate. For me the pejorative use of the phrase ‘ideological cuts’ would be better described as ‘doctrinaire cuts’”

    You are absolutely correct. However it is a fine line between concern for the inaccurate use of language and simply being seen as “pedantic”

    I agree that “doctrinaire cuts” is a more accurate word than Ideological in the context but unfortunately “doctrinaire” does not carry the political weight that “Ideoligical” does. People that are interested in politics fully understand the implications and the pejorative nature of the word “ideological” and as such it expresses so much more than the word “doctrinaire” .

    This article is a perfect example. Mark feels sufficiently fed up with the word “ideology” that he has written an article condemning it !

    That tells me that the use of the word has impact. We may all disagree on what type of impact it has but nobody can deny that it strikes a chord or touches a nerve (depending on your viewpoint) with people.

    I do not deny that I am angry with the Conservatives. It would be foolish for me to do so because it is clearly obvious to anyone who had read any of my comments on this site. Therefore using a pejorative is a fair reflection of how I feel.

    I could easily use “doctrinaire” instead but I really can’t see me alone starting a trend of using more accurate language when everyone is already up to speed on the word “ideology”

    I certainly can’t see Mark coming back in a years’ time with a third article denouncing “doctrinaire” . The word is far too tame to have that kind of impact.

    In fact the very existence of this article tells me that the everyday use of the word “ideological” on this site has ruffled feathers and as someone who believes that we should leave this coalition as soon as possible that is a good thing. I don’t want to mince my words. People without a voice are suffering and strong language is required to express what others are unable to express.

    ” the logical conclusion that the deficit must be dealt with somehow “

    Agreed again. I certainly do not deny that the deficit must be dealt with. Just that the cuts could be made in ways that do not impact the poorest and weakest in society as much as those that are more able to share the load. Cancelling HS2, getting rid of trident and so on are great deficit reducing ideas. Sadly the focus seems to be on placing the blame on “workshy scroungers” who are apparently faking their disabilities in order to not apply for jobs that don’t exist anyway.

    “Nobody should be fooled into thinking there isn’t massive scope for valid disgareement in how to share out the annual £600bn+ which the government spends,”


    ” Was the Darling Plan really an ideology-free zone? “

    I don’t disagree though I don’t take much notice of what Labourites say. I am indifferent to the Labour Party , I despair at the Conservatives and I have always voted Liberal.

    “So why has the phrase ‘ideological cuts’ resonated so strongly with coalition opponents? because it is a dog-whistle which stimulates fears of renewed social confrontation which popular culture associates with Thatcherite ideology.”

    Remove the pejorative “dog whistle” and you have hit the nail on the head. That is exactly the message that it is intended to give and you (like mark) have in a round about way told me that it works.

    ” And there I was hoping the change of government had ended New Labour’s ‘war on terror’ where fear stalked the land and dominated every decision in public life.”

    Agreed but If you genuinely believe that people’s fear of the Conservatives is valid and justified then your sentence has a completely different meaning. I believe the fear is justified by the actions of this Government and that it is the Government that has put people in fear not people like me who simply go around calling things “ideological”

    So in summary , although I agree with your point, you (and Mark) have only cemented my view that the use of the said pejorative is valid and working. And on that bases I will continue to use it. I do wish that I lived in a world where the word “doctrinaire” was sufficient to express my concerns. Alas if you believe that the fear is valid and that it is created by Government then the word simply won’t do the job.

  • Barry George 14th Feb '12 - 9:36pm

    “Thanks, but I get a bit worried when people agree too much.”

    Fear not , I am back to disagreeing now 🙂

    “I don’t agree that Mark was fed up with the use of ‘ideological’ and is condemning all use of it, rather I think he was fed up with the abuse of the term and the particular usage of it which has become all too common.”

    In short you are saying that Mark was being pedantic. I think better of Mark than to assume he was just being a pedant when he wrote this article….

    ” This distortion plays to the advantage of the polarising tendency by inferring there is only ever one single acceptable ideology “

    I think that is a self created inference. I certainly don’t infer that there is only one single acceptable ideology when I use the term. In fact I have already agreed with you on that point in my last post. I do not know anybody besides yourself who thinks that using the word “ideology” as a pejorative has an inference of narcissism where the user believes that his is the only acceptable form of ideology. You are committing a basic non sequitur because your conclusion does not follow from the premise (now I am being pedantic)

    “Tabman has added this definition from a more recent thread, so I’m optimistic our discussion may be having a positive effect: “

    Yes I noticed that comment but it merely left me confused. I am unable to determine whether he supports Marks stance in the article or refutes it. There was clearly a need to include a definition in the comment and that in itself is a not a good sign.

    There is much more I wish to say about your reply, however….

    I won’t continue to critique your post seeing that this is now a dead thread and I am sure that we both have better things to do than continue this discussion. I believe that we have both made our points clear enough for anyone who stumbles across this thread in the future and we are both falling foul of starting to repeat ourselves which would be a shame.

    Thank you for a respectful debate. I shall indeed be more aware of my use of language in future, but I hope that you and Mark don’t remain as pernickety about the correct use of language as it truly does come across as being a bit overly pedantic.

  • Barry George 14th Feb '12 - 10:07pm

    I do not know anybody besides yourself..

    should read

    “I do not know anybody besides yourself and Mark… “

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