Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Progressive Politics - No thanks

"Progressive" has a natural meaning. It means moving forwards. It also means continuous and unstoppable - a disease like cancer or multiple sclerosis might be progressive. Something is progressive if it is advancing towards a destination, the destination itself being immaterial. Progressive is impatient; it has two opposites: regressive, which means moving backwards, and static, standing still, immobile.

In politics, though, "progressive" has come to mean something rather different: not moving forwards, but moving leftwards. To be "progressive" is to believe in certain ideals: the transformation of society, the breaking down of traditional forms and their replacement by new and (to the progressive) better models, and the active use of the state and its proxies to effect such change. Traditional moralities, inherited institutions, the accumulated wisdom of past centuries: these things annoy progressives, they are stumbling blocks that need to be dismantled, they represent the past. They are, in a word, Conservative.

Writing in the Guardian, Peter Mandelson dismisses George Osborne's attempt yesterday, in a speech to the think-tank Demos (a quintessentially "progressive" institution) to rebrand the Conservative party as the true embodiment of progressive politics today. He says:


The Osborne argument is an audacious attempt at political cross-dressing that will convince few genuine progressives. It may also backfire. Because, given that most of the Tory party identify themselves as being to the right of their new leaders, it will also anger those Conservatives who have never aspired to such radical and positive change in Britain. The first lesson of political positioning is that you have to have credible ground to stand on. George obviously still has a bit to learn.


In this at least, I think he is correct. I have no desire to be "progressive". Liberal, yes. Compassionate, tolerant, I hope. Modern, if you really insist. But emphatically not progressive. It is twelve years of "progressive" politics - ideologically neutral, pragmatic but in love with the state and imbued with a profound distaste for traditional values - that have contributed so much to the bankruptcy, bureaucratic intrusiveness and uglification of modern Britain. The "progressive" belief in technocratic solutions, combined with impatience for results, has facilitated the growth of the surveillance state, has led to the proliferation of quangos - removing ever greater swathes of the state's functions from democratic accountability - and has progressively smothered the country in red tape and absurd political correctness. It has emptied education of factual content and rigour. It has bred, among the governing class, a smugness and disdain for the mass of people who have been the victims of their revolution. It has debauched our very language.

And now George Osborne proudly tells the world that he, too, is a progressive.

Peter Mandelson claims that Osborne is lying, that his claims to wear the progressive mantle have no credibility. He told Evan Davis this morning that he had "never heard anything so laughable in my life". Well, I hope he's right. Because the alternative - that the Cameron-Osborne agenda is indeed progressive, that it represents a continuation of Blairism by other means (or the same means, indeed) - is really too horrible to contemplate.

There are three possibilities. One is that Osborne's speech was an exercise in pure (or rather cynical) political positioning, and that clothing himself in the language of progressive politics was no more than an attempt to garner some good headlines. Many Conservatives will reassure themselves that this is in fact the case. It's the policies that matter, after all; so long as the policies are Conservative Osborne is entitled to call them what he likes. And it's true that the few policies he mentioned in the speech - all familiar - sounded convincingly Conservative. There's the need to improve the efficiency of public services by co-opting private enterprise, and the dismantling (to some extent at least) of Labour's centralised systems of micromanagement. Fiscal responsibility - which Osborne (citing Bill Clinton) claims is a "progressive" virtue - is inherently conservative. But if he chooses to pretend otherwise, no doubt he has his reasons.

Alternatively, he may be seeking to put forward a new interpretation of "progressive" - to rescue the word from its leftish associations. When he says "progressive" he means things like reformist, liberal, supportive of civil liberties and the devolution of power to the local level. There's some evidence of such re-writing of political history in yesterday's speech. For example, Osborne quoted Disraeli:

In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, and the traditions of a people.


There's sleight of hand, here. When Disraeli speaks of a "progressive country" he doesn't mean one that is, in a modern sense, politically progressive. He means, simply, that it is moving forward, at the cutting edge - as Britain was in the 19th century. Change is inevitable but should not be seen as an end in itself, nor should politics be conceived of as a permanent revolution. That's what Disraeli meant by "deference to the manners... of a people". It is a very different concept from "progressive" as it generally used today.

Osborne even tried to claim Margaret Thatcher as a "progressive", in the process yoking her with Attlee. He cited her "radical extension of ownership" as one of the "great progressive answers to the challenges of their day". Now there are many things that have been said about Lady Thatcher, complimentary and otherwise, but until yesterday I had never imagined that "progressive" could be one of them. Radical, yes. Unafraid to confront vested interests, certainly. Bold - no question. But "progressive"? If she was a progressive the word has truly lost its meaning.

If Osborne is being Humpty-Dumptyish about the word "progressive", or merely opportunistic, then one may perhaps praise his subtlety. But there are dangers even here. It concedes too much to the Left: that the progressive ground is the natural and most appealing place to be, for example. By using progressive as a synonym for concepts such as positive, modern, bringing about change, moving forward, Osborne he makes it more difficult to make the case for conservatism. At best, it is pandering. At worst, it enables Mandelson to claim that there is a "huge distance between the Tories' instincts and the progressive outlook of most British people". To claim that the British people are naturally progressive is also to make the claim that progressivism represents the cherished centre ground - which means, in effect, that Labour is the natural party of government. To allow that argument to go by default undermines Conservatism as a political force.

This brings me to the third, and most worrying possibility, which is that Osborne really is, or wants to be, progressive in a political sense. Yesterday's speech was replete with the type of political replacement theology Tony Blair used to indulge in before the 1997 election, when he was trying to convince the public that he was the heir of Thatcherism. He claims that

The torch of progressive politics has been passed to a new generation of politicians - and those politicians are Conservatives.


He states that "My politics are unapologetically progressive". He praises Demos, a think-tank whose original raison d'etre was to prepare the way for New Labour, as "the organisation that best carries forward the intellectual tradition of JS Mill, Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper" - an utterly preposterous suggestion. He heaps praise on James Purnell, greeting him as "a dissident intellectual" and living proof that there is still some residual brain activity in the comotose body of the Left. In his reading of history, the progressive strand in British politics is responsible for everything good that ever happened. Once, New Labour tended the eternal flame of progressivism - including Gordon Brown himself, one of whose speeches as shadow chancellor Osborne quotes with approval. But now,

"By pursuing a course of illiberalism, centralisation, fiscal incontinence and opposition to meaningful public service reform, the current leadership of the Labour Party has abandoned the field of progressive politics."


This argument is based on a fundamentally flawed analysis. There is a reason why 12 years of New Labour did not do what it set out to. And that reason isn't, Osborne seems to think, because they failed to follow through with their agenda. New Labour followed through very considerably with its agenda: hence the target culture, the spread of the quango state and the politicisation of so many of our public services. It wasn't that the agenda didn't go far enough: it was the wrong agenda. By setting up Gordon Brown as the sole obstacle to reform for all those years, they not only exaggerate his significance, they also ignore the role he played in developing the very policies Osborne now promotes.

What the Osborne thesis amounts to is the claim that New Labour was right all along, but simply failed to implement their ideas. The hailing of James Purnell as an intellectual refugee was partly a joke, of course, but it does demonstrate how Osborne sees himself as a New Labour moderniser rather than a Conservative. This is not merely a fallacy, it is alarming - especially given the Vulcan death grip that progressives have on public services and the state, as Tim Montgomerie noted yesterday. Government departments, local authorities, the police, charities and quangos are entirely dominated by the sort of people whose idea of a fun weekend off is a Common Purpose seminar. And George Osborne talks their language.

The country has had twelve failed years of New Labour, not two failed years of Brownism. For an incoming Conservative government to answer the public desire for change with a determination to go back to the year zero of 1997 and start all over again is a recipe for more disappointment, more failure, more lost opportunities. Because New Labour was never "progressive", or if it was, progressiveness is not a good thing.