Who else wants to be a progressive?

8:46 am - May 14th 2008

by Dave Osler    

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Until relatively recently, standard British usage meant that describing someone as ‘a progressive’ was more or less the equivalent to branding them a communist fellow traveller. Not any more; we are all progressives now, it seems.

Isn’t anybody willing to stand up for honest-to-goodness barking mad reactionaries these days? It’s not as if they are an endangered species, after all. Surely such a sizeable constituency surely deserves a spokesperson more articulate than Melanie Phillips.

Yet the way things are going right now, most politicians would rather confess diabolism or an entry on the sex offenders’ register than admit to being on the wrong side of this divide.

This silliness reached its apogee in an article in the Independent last Friday, in which Tory leader David Cameron – pictured – attempted to rebrand the Conservatives as ‘the true progressives’:

If you care about poverty, if you care about inequality, if you care about the environment – forget about the Labour Party. It has forgotten about you. If you count yourself a progressive, a true progressive, only we can achieve real change.

Yeah, right. Such faux audacieux attempts to stake a claim to the traditional territory of one’s political rivals is getting so old hat, darlings. This kind of dumbed down 1994 vintage New Labourism in reverse is rapidly losing its power to shock. I’m bored already.

Nevertheless, I bet reading that ghost-written tripe ruined breakfast for many supporters of the rightwing Labour faction Progress, which brands itself as representing ‘Labour’s progressives’.

Meanwhile, the piece came on the very day that the Guardian published Ken Livingstone’s call for Labour to head a ‘progressive alliance’ including the Greens, and hinted that there was room for the Liberal Democrats on board at some point in the future.

Only after posting a critique this approach did I suddenly remember that Cameron offered those very same Lib Dems a ‘new progressive alliance to decentralise British politics’ just six months ago.

One presumes this has to be a ‘new progressive alliance’ to distinguish it from the old ‘progressive alliance’, a term coined by the Edwardians to describe the collaboration of the Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith Liberals and those MPs ‘elected in the labour interest’ after 1906.

Meanwhile, former SDPer David Marquand, writing in the New Statesman in February, has described Gordon Brown’s early tentative overtures towards the Lib Dems as an attempt to construct – what else? – ‘a progressive alliance’.

If you are thoroughly confused by this point, that’s because you are meant to be. The obfuscation is 100% intended. The habitual resort to the P-word by politicians of all stripes is a symptom of a climate in which everybody wears their bleeding green heart on their recycled sleeve and is deeply – deeply, you understand – committed to social justice, even if they are unable coherently to define the term. That’s the essence of progressive politics, innit.

Simon Heffer: David Cameron, prove to me that you’re a Tory

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About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Our democracy ,Realpolitik ,Westminster

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Reader comments

1. douglas clark


Excellent comment. I suppose we can expect the word Liberal to go down the toilet sometime soon too. Nick Griffin will say “we’re all liberals now” and we’re shafted.

Just as anything we don’t like is ‘fascist’ so everything we do like is ‘progressive’.

The word has died. Cameron was just giving it one last kick for good luck.

I’ve commented before on this site’s use of “liberalism” to mean “statism”. Likewise “fairness”, “social justice”, “freedom”, “poverty”, all of which are used in non-standard ways to create a the required “mood”. It’s the same thing, and it’s the politician’s stock in trade.

@2 Just as everything we don’t like is ‘neo-liberal’ illiberalism, so everything we should like is classically liberal.

Bishop Hill is right – the left don’t have exclusive rights to progress.

More importantly: Cameron’s current course isn’t “faux audacieux”, it’s real, He is uncovering genuine elements of Tory appeal – buried under laissez-faire by Thatcher, but central to the party from ’45 through to the 70s. Cassilis makes this point better than anybody else I’ve seen recently: http://www.cassilis.co.uk/2008/05/change-is-real-deal-with-it.html. In many ways, we’re returning to the centrism of the Wilson/Heath/Callaghan era, (albeit without the unions and the nationalised industries and the constant exchange-rate kerfuffles), and Cameron fits in there just as well as Brown does.

As for environmentalism: that was a right-wing cause earlier and longer than it was a left-wing one.

“As for environmentalism: that was a right-wing cause earlier and longer than it was a left-wing one.”

That may be true, but the funny thing is hostility to the “environmental industry”/”global warming myth” blah blah is now the almost exclusive preserve of the hard conservative right, that barking few who, curiously enough, would be the very tiny minority who *are* actively offended at the very concept of “progress”, ie. Peter Hitchens, Mel Phillips, Littlejohn, Heffer.

Cameron uses the word precisely for that reason, to differentiate himself from that crowd in the electorate’s mind. The ploy seems to be having some success given his poll ratings, worse luck. Apart from its symbolic value for this purpose, the word has now, as Dave says, been rendered pretty meaningless.

In this context, what really matters is what people do, not what they claim to be. Banging on about who is progressive and who is lying about being progressive is boring.

Besides, most of the population probably has no idea what ‘progressive’ historically means. But it does sound nice, doesn’t it?

I’d agree with Liam Murray’s post and on the view that he’s trying to go back to old school compassionate conservatism. But then, the Tories are still reactionary.

Consider their opposition to allowing lesbian mothers to have kids through IVF. Their anti-poverty policies are rubbish. (not that Labour is much better)… there is no compassion in their immigration policy.

What I mean is, apart from jumping on the environment bandwagon, how does all this translate into policies?

Sunny, a reactionary is someone who wants to change the country to be as it was at some point in the past, if the term has any meaning. Not just someone who opposes the changes you happen to approve of.

A Tory who wanted to radically change the NHS would almost certainly be opposed by many on the Left. Would they all be reactionaries?

Wanting to ban homosexuality would be reactionary. But not “opposition to allowing lesbian mothers to have kids through IVF”.

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