August 06, 2004

All things in moderation

I've always been irritated by the use of the term moderates in political discourse. It's essentially a means of avoiding a discussion rather than of illuminating it: it says, without further ado, that the people to whom the epithet is attached are good people, to be contrasted with their rivals, the extremists. What counts towards those descriptions is contentious - I never felt it was moderate to spend many millions of pounds on nuclear weapons, nor extreme for people to oppose it, yet that was the way the terminology was employed in the labour movement twenty years ago - but what it really means is that being towards the middle of the political spectrum is something commendable, something admirable in and of itself, as if the virtue of any opinion lay not in what it is but in there being opposing reasons for disagreeing with it. (It is probably for this reason that the political centre so often seems to be lacking in any substance, that it consists of people who have placed themselves there - triangulated is the modern term - rather than being there because of anything they positively believe.)

It has its uses sometimes. When I was in CPSA, the Moderate Group who ran the National Executive Committee used to issue election leaflets which gave their opponents' names with the message STOP THE EXTREMISTS! written all over them (which, apart from anything else, is another example of defining oneself not by one's own opinions but by those of one's opponents). This was extremely helpful in helping me decide who to vote for, as the "extremists" seemed likely to be people of whom I would approve.

Nevertheless, the terms are unhelpful at all but the best of times, and not uncommonly absurd, particularly in foreign news coverage, where "moderate" tends to mean "someone currently viewed sympathetically by the Foreign Office" rather than any particularly temperate outlook on life or any restraint in the employment of political violence. I'm quite sure I've seen Gulbuddin Hekmatyr described as a "moderate" during times when he's been considered friendly to British and US interests as opposed to times when he's been opposed to them and been redesignated an "extremist".

However, I've never seen a more absurd or anachronistic usage of the term that the one I noticed earlier this week in the British Library's exhibition of old and famous manuscripts, on a card accompanying the Lacock Abbey Magna Carta of 1225. The card discusses the Papal Bull that denounced Magna Carta, and recording that this denunciation was followed by a civil war, the death of King John and the accession of a youthful Henry III, it continues:

William Marshall, the Regent, looked to convert moderate barons to the young king's cause by reissuing Magna Carta, with suitable revisions, in 1216 and in 1217.
I like that. Moderate barons. I wonder how their "moderation" manifested iself? How could you tell a moderate baron from an extremist one? Answers, possibly, on a Papal Bull.


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