Progress the conservative way?

The term “progressive” has become the focus of a new struggle of rebranding at a time when the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are in tatters on both sides of the Atlantic. Hillary Clinton identified herself as a “modern progressive” in 2007 in preference to the exhausted term “liberal”. However to the surprise of many her new label was rejected by the Democrats on their ascent to power in the White House.

Given that the hard-core “liberalism” of President Obama has apparently put off mainstream America, a review within the Democratic leadership now seems likely. The Republicans could also take the opportunity to rebrand themselves as progressive, though a recent poll with USA Today Gallup found that just 7% of Republicans would describe themselves as progressive.

Despite its current attractions, the progressive “brand” was already utterly discredited after World War I. That unprecedented disaster of mankind destroyed the Enlightenment mantra of the inevitable progress of humanity, which had served radical Hegelian reformers in late 19th century on both sides of the Atlantic who strongly believed in state welfare interventions. A. J. P. Taylor described their role in Britain, arguing that “the state established a hold over its citizens [that] was never to be removed … The history of the English state and the English people merged for the first time.”

This unholy grip on our very lives has remained to the present day, thwarting our freedom to dispose of our own destiny. The influence of progressivism for more than a century was forgotten only because after World War I the term was replaced by the transatlantic Left with “liberal”. And right now a reversal of this brand bungling seems to be underway.

David Cameron has already taken the transatlantic lead with rebranding since the think-tanker Phillip Blond adopted the label “progressive conservative”. This is a rare example of political understatement and is somehow confusing since the new Tory policy attempts nothing less than the undoing of a century of progressive politics. It actually aims to give power back to the citizen: education administered by parents, healthcare by GPs (and their patients) and policing by citizens who elect their local chief.

The Labour term devolution comes probably closer to what is meant here but, more importantly, this fundamental sea change in British politics would indeed only return to the people what the Hegelian progressives once usurped.

I don’t think ‘devolution’ is really the term we’re looking for. Devolution is problematic for two reasons i) it has certain connotations connected with devolution of the Union so is likely to alientate many who oppose that and ii) it usually refers to what is known in the EU as subsidiarity – that powers should be exercised at the lowest possible level. In the UK this usually means at a local rather than national level. The problem is that this does not address the question of whether powers should actually be exercised by any governing authority (e.g. whether GPs or PCTs should commission healthcare ignores the question of whether there should be an NHS at all).

Of course, the term ‘progressive’ is entirely misleading because it implies we are progressing towards a known position, thus we can progress towards such a point and regress from it (in Labour eyes this seems to be a point where everyone in society is ‘equal’ – hence their adoption of ‘Spirit Level’ theology, but where factors of production are still privately owned!?!). The term we really need to resurrect in the UK (maybe not the US) is Whig or Whiggish which implies a Hayekian-type libertarianism based on English constitutionalism and the Common Law tradition.

The Conservatives have taken to using the term ‘progressive’ for two reasons. First, it is a virtuous term that can stand on its own with no need for qualification: one can be in favour of progress without having to state what one is progressing towards or seeking to achieve. Second, it is a deliberate attempt at rebranding by taking the term dearest to the left and adopting it as a core belief. Just as Blair took on some of the terms of Thatcherism, so Cameron is adopting some of the New Labour jargon. This both disarms and infuriates the left while giving the impression that they represent the future rather than the past.

Progressive (like ‘liberal’) is a loaded term, whose political connotations imply far more than its etymological denotation.There is a Whiggish strand toward greater individual liberty which in American parlance—at least since the late 19th century—equated to greater powers for the State: the end being not freedom but egalitarianism; equality, not of opportunity, but of result (see my links in this IEA comment.I believe Disraeli and Sir John A. Macdonald spoke of progressive conservatism, but in the context of a broader view of the ‘night-watchman state’, not of the ‘social democratic’ policies espoused by soi-disant contemporaries.

To get my two pence in also please do not take the term Progressive Conservatives in the UK out of context. We at the http://www.progressive-conservatives.org are the classical liberal grouping of the Conservative Party. Influences include the Austrian School of Economics, minimal state interference, lifestyle freedoms and a complete commitment to the free market.

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