What happened to progress?


One of the arguments used by the pro-AV campaign in the early spring was that a positive vote to change the electoral system would signal that there was a progressive majority in the country. The belief was that Labour, the Liberal Democrats and other elements could come together and show that Britain was a progressive country that wished to modernise and throw out outdated constitutional anachronisms, such as the first-past-the-post voting system and the House of Lords and, who knows, even the Monarchy.

Of course, we now know this was a fantasy, and the Royal Wedding, which was held in the preceding week, merely reinforced the fact that most people in Britain were broadly happy with the constitutional status quo. This led to some navel gazing about the future of the left and why it was that they appeared to be so out of step with majority opinion. Clearly it was difficult to suggest that the British people, who had so soundly rejected change and who had shown such affection towards the Monarchy, were cut from the same cloth as the metropolitan elite.

Of course, it is not only the left that might have a problem here, in that the Conservatives have sought to take up the label of progress. They have expended considerable energy trying to show that their policies, be they on deficit reduction, schools or higher education, are actually progressive.

Perhaps, then it was not coincidence that since the spring we heard rather less about progress from both the government and from the Labour Party. One idea that seems to be on the rise is that of Blue Labour. This is the belief that the Labour party should return to its more socially conservative roots and place the issues of family, faith and flag at the heart of its thinking. The Labour Party should not seek to be progressive, at least not in the manner it might be seen by Guardian leader writers, but instead focus on the bread and butter issues that are important to working class households such as immigration, jobs and housing.

What this leads me to speculate that the basic division in politics over the next few years will not be between left and right but between progressives and social conservatives. So instead of seeing politics as a matter of the old tribal divisions might we not be seeing a new split between those who wish to maintain and extend the socially permissive developments of the last generation against those who wish to put a halt to them on the grounds on the deleterious effects they have on British society.

But if this is the case – and it clearly needs a lot more argument and thought – what impact might this have for those who champion free markets? Is it possible to be both an economic liberal and a social conservative? I believe that it is, and that there are many who do quite readily mix these two views together. But there is a danger that needs to be guarded against: social conservatism can quite easily slip into craven populism and lowest common denominator politics. What has shown up the fantasy of a progressive majority might also make it hard to put forward complex arguments about the nature of markets and the need for openness.

There needs to be a stronger deliniation here between what is meant by 'Progressive' - it has a specific meaning, related to taxation, and two other meanings; the first meaning socially liberal, the second a rather amorphous concept really meaning change, but more perjorative than that, change for change's sake. This, of course, relates to the confused language of political discourse - words like 'liberal', 'conservative', 'fascist' and their capitalised versions are applied without any real thought and the word 'democractic' is reified. I think it's more helpful to remind oneself of the old c18th divisions Whig/Tory, Court/Country. Although the issues are rather different, this is a helpful means of understanding economic and social positions. The London middle-class Conservative or Labour voter often have as much in common, especially on social views, than they do with say a working-class provincial member of either party. Political parties have always been marriages of convenience between constitutencies of differing outlooks, let alone formal coalitions, which is partly why one government may introduce self-contradictory policies. To my mind, the only position that makes any sense and is coherent is to be 'liberal' (in the classic sense) in economics and laissez faire on social values. Of course, socialism is internally coherent, but lacks any sense! Being socially conservative on a political level is antithetical to economic liberalism; it involves the pursuit of high-spending on policing, opposition to drug liberalisation, gay marriage and adoption, restriction of free speech, restriction of free movement and immigration. It requires unequal treatment of different groups, priviledging the family, say, which is contrary to isonomia. It is also worth pointing out, however, that many social liberals advocate social policies which are economically illiberal to advance their own particular causes. However, it IS possible to hold socially conservative views and apply them to one's own life (marrying, not using drugs etc) but not see government as a mechanism for applying one's social conservatism to others but this is a position few seem capable of holding, sadly. That said, small, limited government would be one of the best means of restricting the ability of social conservatives (and social liberals) to pursue their objectives through government. The beauty of classical liberalism is that it allows individuals and groups to make choices and pursue them as they see fit - e.g. if Catholic orphanages seek to prevent gay couples adopting, they ought to be allowed to, as non-Catholic orphanages will offer an alternative. There is only a problem if state spending is supporting the orphanages. The real conclusion we ought to reach is that government ought to have no view of what society should look like and have no ability to affect what is or is not socially acceptable. The issue for government is property rights, not social mores over which it ought to have no concern.

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