Is “Progressive” a meaningless term?

5th July, 2012 11:50 am

I was asked this week to contribute to a conference on ‘progressivism’ organised by the University of Nottingham centre for politics. It was held in the University of London’s Senate House, the architectural inspiration for Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. The Orwell connection proved very helpful as the assembled academics, writers and politicians grappled with the term ‘progressive’. It was a term Orwell included in a ‘catalogue of swindles and perversions’ in Politics and the English Language. (Also listed were class, totalitarian, science, reactionary, bourgeois and equality.)

It is a word capable of adoption by virtually anyone. You couldn’t open a left-wing magazine in the 1980s without seeing an advert for ‘Progressive Tours’, the Communist version of Thomas Cook, offering sight-seeing trips to Leningrad, Sofia or Bucharest. Only slightly less disingenuous is the modern attempt by Demos to forge a ‘progressive conservatism’, which like ‘Red Tory’ has utility only to explain the concept ‘oxymoron’ to a child.

There is a historical use, to describe the ‘Progressive’ candidates who took control of the London County Council (LCC) in the 1889 elections. This group of Liberals and Labour leaders included Tony Benn’s grandfather John Benn, Harry Gosling, a founder of the TGWU and later a Labour MP, as well as various Liberal politicians. They were backed by the Fabian Society, including the member for Deptford Sidney Webb. Their platform was decent housing, schools, parks, sanitation and new public works, including County Hall on the south bank of the Thames, which was the home of London’s democratic government until the Tories turned it into a MacDonald’s.

But also the term denotes a broader meaning. At the conference, we heard about a survey conducted by YouGov which asked people about the word, and what it meant. There was a vague, warm feeling towards the term ‘progressive’. But the respondents then seemed to project their own political values onto it. The same was true when asked to order a list of individuals and institutions in order of ‘progressiveness’. The Royal Family came out top, and Jeremy Clarkson beat John Prescott. Devoid of real meaning, capable of adoption to any cause, but conveying a fuzzy sense of well-being, like a mug of hot tea: you can see why politicians use it so much.

I suspect I was asked to take part, alongside the likes of Jon Cruddas, Vernon Bognador, John Rentoul and Mary-Ann Seighart, was because I am a founder and contributor to Progress magazine. Progress was established in the mid-90s by those of us enthusiastic about what became known as ‘New Labour’ and the prospect of winning an election for the first time since 1974. I never liked the name of the magazine. It sounded too Stalinist, too redolent of five-year plans and tractor production figures. If I’m honest, it’s never really grown on me, but I couldn’t think of a better alternative.

I think my definition, studiously non-academic, disappointed the seminar. I concluded ‘I know it when I see it’. The day before I had been to Jack Ashley’s memorial service, and heard first-hand accounts of the causes and campaigns he championed. He shone a light on corporate and bureaucratic cover-up, scandal, and abuse of power, and won recognition for survivors of the Thalidomide scandal, wives who murdered their abusive husbands, the families of members of the armed forces who committed suicide or were killed in training, victims of contaminated blood products, deaf jurors, and  a range of other hidden and unfashionable causes.

Ashley was a ‘progressive’, in the sense that the LCC ‘progressive’ group was, by making lives more tolerable, ratcheting social attitudes away from ignorant prejudice, and turning the weapon of Parliament against privilege and property. On this definition, any politician who genuinely makes the world a better place for having lived in it can claim the mantle. Those politicians whose only ‘achievements’ are lists of committees, commissions and titles, cannot.

Running around my head for the whole day was a line from Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting:

‘None will break ranks/though nations trek from progress.’

After decades of economic, social and scientific progress, the assumptions of Owen’s generation were that it would continue unabated until the problems of society had all been fixed. You could buy a box in the Royal Albert Hall to last 100 years. That fixed idea of progress was shattered by the First World War, and again by the Holocaust.

We ended the day where we began, with Jon Cruddas telling us he thought the term meaningless. As a word, it probably is. Only if you connect it to deeper values – individual liberty, social solidarity, fairness and justice – does it start to make sense. And as Tawney argued, the only true test for social policy is its impact on the individual. So to test the ‘progressiveness’ of, say Lansley’s health reforms, Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms, or Cameron’s economic policy, look around your neighbourhood and ask yourself is it getting better or worse.

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  • Progressive has been used by other local government groups aside from the London one. In Scotland it was the term for the anti-Labour alliance in municipal politics in the middle of the century, whilst the South Tyneside Progressives only recently got eliminated from the council and were definitely an anti-Labour force. That it can be used for diametrically opposed groupings just emphasises how meaningless the term can be.

  • There was a joke making the rounds among Labour Students a while ago that Oxford University Labour Club had replaced their “Forward to Socialism” banner with one that read “Forward to Progress”. I wonder if, for some on the right of the Party, “progress” is just a fluffier, more ‘centrist’ word for the values usually associated with socialism.

    • treborc

       Associated with socialism?  I think that word died a death never mind progressive, which is used on Progress and it’s magazine often

      •  Well, the word has historically featured massively within socialist and liberal movements (though is semi-particular to the ‘radical’ side of liberalism – which outside of the actual political faction represented by the likes of John Wilkes is itself another one of ‘those words’…).

        One thing I do think is important, bearing in mind that words change so often, is that a sense of historical context is brought to them.

        How ‘progress’ was ever stretched (and accepted) to pertain to ‘let’s increase private provision of healthcare’ type arguments left me incredulous, I have to say…

        • treborc

          History and socialism after Blair and Brown , good luck

    •  “Forward to Progress”

      Progress to forwards!

      If there’s one thing we can all agree, it’s that progress is a process rather than a state. It can only be legitimately stated as a goal alongside a necessary admission that this goal is transitional or transitory…

      •  It’s basically become a type of political euhpenism for those too cowardly to argue for the ethics, systematic or otherwise, that they propose enacting.

        Very much in the way that ‘fascism’ is correctly identified by Orwell to have been reduced to ‘something I don’t like’, ‘progress’ can be taken to mean ‘something I do like, but refuse to debate’.

  • Hamish Dewar

    Even the technical sense of progressive taxation has been diluted so that some think it means simply that, for example, the more income you have, the more tax you pay. This ignores the basic meaning of paying at a higher RATE on higher income.
    Mind you the crude step-function of current UK tax rates hardly qualifies as progressive, which surely carries an implication of ‘gradual’.  About 1% per thousand would be about right in my view, so 5% for the slice of income between 5k to 6k, 10% for 10k to 11k, 50% for 50k to 51k. One can argue about where the cutoff point should be: 50%, 100%, infinity?

  • Guest

    ‘Progressive’ is no more meaningless than ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’ I suppose.  These words are all tools of politicians who love talking without saying anything. What some think is ‘fair’, others may find the opposite.  etc etc.

    I’d rather get rid of all these definition-less words and just have people use plain English to tell us what they think, so the electorate can make up its mind who to agree with without having to debate what every other word means.

    • Daniel Speight

      It’s a shame you add ‘equality’ to your collection. The word has both a meaning and it can be measured.

      • Guest

        I think there are differing views as to what equality means in practical terms.  Equality of outcome, for example, is rather different to equality of opportunity.  Paradoxically, when a word has more than one meaning, its definition becomes meaningless.

        • Brumanuensis

          Having multiple meanings does not make a word meaningless. ‘Liberty’, as Berlin pointed out, can be described in ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ terms, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use it as the basis for a political argument.

          • Guest

            But if the meaning of a word is not clear, then there’s no point in using it to describe a point of view. You’ll end up at cross purposes with a section of the audience who either will misunderstand your position or will simply not understand it.

          • Daniel Speight

            I wonder if they discussed all the possible meanings of the words before they stormed the Bastille?

  • I think I pretty much agree with all of this, so no complaints. I also think it’s well argued – well put, Paul.

  • PaulHalsall

    It’s a useful term in America, where “liberal” has become a kind of  swear word.

    We should go with “Democratic Socialist” here, since “Social Democrat” still stinks.

    • Brumanuensis

      Ironically, ‘liberal’ was devised as a replacement for alternatives like ‘social democrat’, which had fallen out of favour during the McCarthy era.

      I think ‘social democrat’ and ‘democratic socialist’ have distinct meanings today.

      • Daniel Speight

        Or has there been an attempt to give ‘social democrat’ have a very indistinct meaning? It has historical roots. Words do still have meanings and we should fight for what they do mean, rather than let others weaken that meaning.

        When Cameron or Progress use the word progressive we should ask them to define what they mean and point out the inconsistencies in any answers they give.

  • PaulHalsall

    Meanwhile, Orwell was a great author and documentarian, but his understanding of the use of particular English words is now past.  His insights  remain as clear as ever, but his 
    examples do not always compute.

    Besides, as Stephen Pinker showed in The Language Instinct, any real attempt to introduce Newspeak would fail rather quickly.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis does not really apply to actual human socities.

    • Brumanuensis

      Sapir-Worf is indeed a dud hypothesis, but the concept of ‘framing’ has some utility, as it enables politicians to take words with existing positive connotations and adapt them to their political purposes – i.e. Thatcher’s repurposing of ‘freedom’ and Cameron’s appropriation of ‘progressive’. Similar to the overall scheme of ‘Newspeak’, if a bit more benign.

  • Brumanuensis

    I think a lot of political rhetorical falls into Simon Hoggart’s ‘non-inversion’ category, where politicians say things the converse of which they would never utter:

    i.e. from Ed’s Fabian Society speech:

    “The values of integrity, responsibility and stewardship must be put back at the heart of the British banking industry”.

    Can you honestly imagine him saying instead “The vices of dishonesty, fecklessnes and negligence must be put retained at the heart of the British banking industry”?

    Well, maybe.

  • postageincluded

    Oh God! This takes me back to my student Marxist days in the 70s. “You need to define your terms”.  We were still defining them when Thatcher took over.

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