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 mass of little rivulets—rights for women, for gays, for blacks, for animals, for anyone, in fact, except workers. The progressivists took over. Of course, they mellowed in the process, dropping the sandals and beards and wackier notions. They became new Labour. Now they are extending their grip over the Tories as well. We are all progressive now—or at least pretend to be.
Yet the word embodies a basic confusion. To call x progressive in relation to y is to say that a) x tends to occur after y and b) x is therefore better than y. This is a false and dangerous inference. No law of history dictates that things only get better. To assume the contrary is to disarm at a stroke all principled resistance to historical change. It is a tactic of Stalinism.
The crimes of the last century ought to have rendered Progress deader than God. Yet news has yet to reach all quarters. It was depressing, for instance, to hear defenders of the Equality Act 2010 argue that “in this day and age” or “in the 21st century” discrimination against gays is “unacceptable.” Unless one seriously believes that public opinion gets wiser by the decade, such arguments are little more than invocations of power. “The conquering cause pleased the gods,” wrote the Roman poet Lucan, “but the conquered one pleased Cato.” This attitude was once considered noble. Today it would be thought… unprogressive.