The launch of the “progressive conservatism” project by Demos last year signalled a new milestone in the decline of political language. So meaningless have both terms become that few people noticed the oxymoron. The Conservative party has long since ceased to be conservative. And calling something “progressive” is like calling it “cool”—it creates a frisson of modernity without committing you to anything.
The word “progressive” once meant something a bit more definite. In the early 20th century, it stood for a constellation of ideas on the margins of the socialist movement. Progressive schools such as Summerhill and Bedales ditched chapel and rugger for craftwork and hiking. Progressive intellectuals drew up manifestos of free love, atheism and dietary reform. Some sported sandals and beards. All were middle class. They were the kind of people George Orwell loved to mock.
Then something strange happened. The broad river of socialism dissipated into a