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Keywords:

  • progressivism;
  • liberalism;
  • Labour Party;
  • Liberal Party;
  • Conservative Party

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Characterising the Progressive Tradition
  4. Progressivism and Party in the Early Twentieth Century
  5. Touchstones of the Progressive Faith
  6. The Progressive Tradition since the 1960s
  7. Conclusion: Progressivism and the Progressive Tradition in Contemporary Britain
  8. References
  9. Biography

All three main parties at the 2010 British election attempted to describe themselves as ‘progressive’. While this term has generally been reserved for left-of-centre politics, such claims compel some re-examination in order to establish whether the term still has any meaning or analytical value. The author's earlier study of the progressive tradition during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century located it in a range of organisations, and especially in the shifting boundary between the Liberal and Labour Parties. Progressivism in this period was characterised by profound commitments to anti-imperialism and anti-sectionalism, combined with an empirical approach to the possible benefits of state intervention in the economy, and an open and fluid attitude to organisational affiliations. Progressive principles have enjoyed little success in recent years, especially with respect to the Iraq War and government support of the City's sectional interests. While these defeats do not in themselves signify the disappearance of progressive principles or even the progressive tradition, which are clearly manifest in many contemporary movements, the constellation of beliefs that characterised ‘progressivism’, together with its underlying moral purpose, has disappeared, as has the specific political context that gave rise to it.

The call for papers for this symposium drew our attention to the fact that the three main parties at the 2010 election all described themselves as ‘progressive’, or tried to lay claim to the ‘progressive tradition’. For people on the left of politics, such claims coming from the Conservative Party tend to arouse an instinctive cynicism. My own understanding of the progressive tradition leads me at first in the same direction: to an automatic assumption that claims by Conservative leaders to be progressive are simply untruthful and insincere, while similar claims from Conservative lesser lights are merely naïve and woolly headed. Such responses cannot be left unexamined but, rather, should provoke self-reflection on our understandings of the term. In my own case, as the author of a monograph on the history of the progressive tradition, it leads me to wonder whether my own usage signifies merely that I am among those whom Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt (2007) have accused of using the term ‘lazily to refer to left-of centre politics’. Alternatively, could it be argued that any characterisation of ‘progressive’ that refers to any other kind of politics is so broad as to be meaningless? Or indeed, is the category simply useless anyway: a piece of analytical marshmallow suitable only for politicians to serve up to uncritical supporters and potential voters?

Asking these questions forces me to some sort of reappraisal of the ways in which I have used and understood the term progressive in my own earlier work, and whether that usage has any relevance to the political circumstances of today. This paper is therefore a recapitulation and meditation on that work, which aims to discover whether the concept of a progressive tradition retains any current meaning or analytical value, whether it remains useful only as a historical category, or whether the current promiscuous use of the term has merely exposed the fact that it never had any meaning, and that attempts to use it as a category of political analysis or historical interpretation have always been misguided.

Characterising the Progressive Tradition

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Characterising the Progressive Tradition
  4. Progressivism and Party in the Early Twentieth Century
  5. Touchstones of the Progressive Faith
  6. The Progressive Tradition since the 1960s
  7. Conclusion: Progressivism and the Progressive Tradition in Contemporary Britain
  8. References
  9. Biography

Twenty years ago I published a book called The Popular Front and the Progressive Tradition. It traced roughly 70 years in the life of the British progressive tradition from the 1860s in order to mount the argument that the support that Labour leftists and some Liberals lent to the Popular Front campaign of the late 1930s could best be understood by reference to their own acculturation in that tradition. Naturally, I had to argue that the British progressive tradition was useful as a category of analysis in political history. Specifically, I contended that adherence to the progressive tradition helped to account for behaviour and attitudes that could not be adequately explained in terms of party affiliation, adherence to any fixed ideological position or the pursuit of personal political advancement. Indeed, the behaviour of many people during the relevant episodes flew in the face of all of these, creating paradoxes, and implying the existence of an explanatory or conceptual gap needing to be filled.

The ‘progressive tradition’ could only fill the gap if it carried enough meaning to delineate some reasonably consistent constellation of beliefs, attitudes and behaviours, and to distinguish them from others. But its very nature militated against definition. While its adherents were apparently motivated by a broadly shared outlook and by certain shared principles, they were also distinguished by their ideological openness, intellectual eclecticism and institutional fluidity. During the seven decades covered by my study, people who regarded themselves and each other as progressives could be found in a variety of (sometimes competing) political associations and parties, taking up widely differing views on such key questions as the proper role of the state and the individual's relationship to it.

My own solution to the problem of characterising a political tradition was to describe it as a political discourse carried on through historical time (Blaazer, 1992, p. 19). An adherent of a political tradition could be recognised by his or her place in a historical discourse: by the people he or she acknowledged as influences, or with whom he or she felt a need to ‘settle accounts’ in an intellectual sense, and upon whom he or she in turn had influence. Writers as philosophically divergent as John Stuart Mill and Thomas Hill Green were clearly in the progressive tradition because large numbers of people who regarded themselves as adherents of that tradition, and who were accepted as such by others, drew inspiration from them, or felt a need to explain the basis of their departures from their views. This did not mean slavish following of a canon, but creative interaction with core ideas. Indeed, if there was a progressive canon it was so eclectic as to make uncritical adherence impossible. Among the figures I identified as being recognised as part of the progressive tradition by at least some of my subjects were – as well as Mill and Green – William Gladstone and Richard Cobden; an assorted bunch of socialists and proto-socialists like Marx, William Morris, William Godwin and Robert Owen; radicals from the more distant past like Oliver Cromwell; and ethical teachers like Jesus. These were all accepted as legitimate voices in an ongoing conversation, even when subjected to sharp critique. Thus when Sydney Webb and Bernard Shaw wanted to lead progressives in both the Labour and Liberal Parties towards what they regarded as a more ‘progressive’ stance on questions of national self-determination, they understood that their essential task was to critique the Cobdenite and Gladstonian heritage in foreign policy (Webb, 1901, p. 369). On a more intellectually elevated level, writers such as L. T. Hobhouse and J. A. Hobson both devoted a great deal of energy to developing the case that advancing the progressive aims of figures like Mill, Cobden, Bright and Gladstone required modification or abandonment of their commitments to philosophical individualism and laissez-faire political economy (Blaazer, 1992, pp. 38–41; Clarke, 1978, pp. 25–7; Freeden, 1978, pp. 47–8, pp. 113–6; Hobhouse, 1972 [1904] , p. 229). These arguments rested on two pillars: first, the state, having become democratic, rather than the organ of a narrow, aristocratic interest, could now be trusted to serve the interests of the people as a whole; second, experience had shown that laissez-faire capitalism reduced many people to a condition where they had no capacity to exercise meaningful choice, to pursue the good life or to contribute to the life of the community. Moreover, the growth of monopolies meant that it was possible for some capitalists to manipulate markets in ways that were detrimental to the common good. State action was not only compatible with progressive principles, it was necessary if they were to advance. Underlying such reasoning was a pragmatic attitude governed by empirical observation: when and where competition had harmful effects, or private enterprise failed to provide necessary social goods, state action – even including state ownership – should be considered. Such an approach contrasted sharply with any ideologically driven advocacy of either free markets or universal nationalisation.

While these arguments may help us to grasp the concept of a political tradition, their attempt to identify the distinguishing features of a specifically progressive tradition, being based on self-identification and mutual recognition, are somewhat circular. Such a procedure is legitimate in such a context; but the examples cited above will do little to parry the charge of lazily identifying the progressive tradition with the political ‘left-of-centre’. To move beyond this point it is necessary to suggest what the progressive ‘discourse carried on through historical time’ was actually about. The answer I proposed in the book, and would still maintain, can be found in a phrase used in different contexts by both Mill and Green, despite the huge philosophical gulf between them. The purpose of politics, indeed, the purpose of a life worth living, was the ‘improvement of mankind’ (Mill, 1874, p. 100) – an idea whose centrality both John M. Robson and Peter Clarke have highlighted in their choices of book and chapter titles, respectively (Robson, 1968; Clarke, 1978, ch. 1). The evolution of Mill's thought shows that he believed that the means to pursue this end would change over time (Robson, 1968, p. ix). Green put it explicitly: ‘The passion for improving mankind, in its ultimate object does not vary. But the immediate object of reformers, and the forms of persuasion by which they seek to advance them, varies much in different generations’ (Green, 1969, p. 367). Such a belief was necessarily founded on an optimism about the improvability – but not perfectibility – of human beings and social life which progressives would have said distinguished them sharply from conservatives.

Progressivism and Party in the Early Twentieth Century

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Characterising the Progressive Tradition
  4. Progressivism and Party in the Early Twentieth Century
  5. Touchstones of the Progressive Faith
  6. The Progressive Tradition since the 1960s
  7. Conclusion: Progressivism and the Progressive Tradition in Contemporary Britain
  8. References
  9. Biography

Whether a lack of this optimism is a defining characteristic of conservatism – a proposition ‘progressive conservatives’ must presumably dispute – would require a discussion of conservatism beyond the scope of this paper. Be that as it may, those who argue for the existence of progressive conservatism can take some heart from another aspect of my characterisation of progressivism, which is that it could not be defined around party affiliation. In fact the opposite was true – one of the abiding habits of progressives was a tendency to subordinate party affiliation, or any kind of organisational loyalty, to what they saw as fundamental moral and political principles. This was one of the reasons that the Labour Party leadership, and much of its rank and file, often found progressives infuriating. That party, whose trade union base was forged in industrial struggles in which solidarity and discipline were essential, necessarily demanded those virtues in ways that progressives could not always live up to – not even working-class progressives from trade union backgrounds like Aneurin Bevan.

The evidence around the turn of the century suggests that organisational promiscuity was deeply ingrained in the progressive character. The Fabian Society's strategy of ‘permeation’ of any available organisation with socialists was predicated on it, and to a large extent was merely descriptive of its members' established practices. Among the society's members in the 1890s were members of the Social Democratic Federation, various secularist groups, Christian Socialists, the Irish Nationalist League and, of course, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and their local Liberal or Radical Clubs. Tellingly, many appear to have joined the Fabian Society when already members of these other bodies, rather than the other way around (Blaazer, 1992, pp. 48–57).

Despite this fluidity, there is no mistaking the large migration of most (but not all) progressives from the Liberal Party to the Labour Party – a process dramatically accelerated by the First World War. Many progressives, before and after they took the plunge, tried to set out what drove them to it, or why they hesitated. Their reflections provide us with some reference points for determining the limits of the progressivism of their time, and for assessing the claims of those who might claim the progressive mantle today.

In a letter to C. P. Scott, editor of that great organ of progressive opinion, the Manchester Guardian, Hobhouse put the issues at stake succinctly when commenting on the record of the first Labour government:

Labour in office has on the whole represented essential Liberalism … better than the organized party since C[ampbell]-B[annerman]'s death … Liberals may be full of fight but as against the main body of Labour what have they to fight for? Internationalism? Free Trade? Ireland, India, any kind of Social Reform? No, on all these there is agreement (Hobhouse, 1924, emphasis in original).

Gilbert Murray came to a similar conclusion in a more existential mode. Commenting on his experiences at meetings of the Workers' Educational Association and the Workers' Travel Association, he declared:

the thing before me was true Liberality, though it happened of course to call itself Labour. We belong on the side of these people, not on the side of those who wish to economise on schools and to stir up feeling against foreigners. … Labour … believes in progress, enlightenment, self-mastery, ‘plain living and high thinking’ and all the other ideals which we Liberals secretly cherish (Murray, 1925, pp. 13–4).

Murray was addressing progressives who, like himself, had chosen to remain within the Liberal Party. From his point of view, and that of Hobhouse, it was reasonable for any progressive in the period after the First World War to adhere to either of the two non-Conservative parties on the basis of a pragmatic judgement about which was likely to be more effective. As the Liberals' wartime split became more deeply entrenched, and the Labour Party improved its electoral standing, the latter became the more plausible vehicle for the advancement of common progressive causes.

Touchstones of the Progressive Faith

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Characterising the Progressive Tradition
  4. Progressivism and Party in the Early Twentieth Century
  5. Touchstones of the Progressive Faith
  6. The Progressive Tradition since the 1960s
  7. Conclusion: Progressivism and the Progressive Tradition in Contemporary Britain
  8. References
  9. Biography

For many progressives, however, the question of party affiliation was decided on what they regarded as fundamental differences between the Liberal and Labour Parties on touchstones of progressive faith: free trade, sectionalism and imperialism. Progressives' views on these questions are in many respects more instructive than their views on the questions of the day on which they found comfortable agreement. I will consider them in turn.

Free trade was a shared item of Liberal and Labour faith, under attack from Conservatives and Liberal Unionists. For J. A. Hobson (at this stage, at least) it was non-negotiable, and it was the Liberal Party's abandonment of free trade principles while in office during the First World War that led him to join the Labour Party, which at that point still kept the Cobdenite faith (Hobson, 1938, p. 126). Despite the fact that free trade has been a part of the political consensus at various points in Britain's history, it is worth noting progressives' particular grounds for adhering to it. For progressives, free trade was not essential because it would increase material wealth by increasing the volume of trade – although Adam Smith and his successors had certainly convinced liberals that this was the case. Much more importantly, progressives' support for free trade derived from Cobdenite beliefs that it would advance the spread of civilisation, international cooperation and peace. It was also based on a profound moral repugnance at taxing ‘the people's bread’, which the Liberal and Labour Parties had both inherited from the middle-class and working-class activists of the Anti-Corn Law League (Pickering and Tyrell, 2000).

Underlying the repugnance at taxing food was a profound progressive principle: opposition to sectional interests – a belief that governments should govern in the interests of the people at large. This had been the ostensible raison d'être of the nineteenth-century Liberal Party, which regarded the Conservative Party as the representative of the aristocratic, landowning interest. For many Liberal progressives, this gave rise to very serious doubts about the capacity of the Labour Party to carry on the progressive spirit. For the Labour Party, by definition, was the representative of a sectional interest, albeit one that represented a larger section of society than the Conservative Party. This argument had been bubbling along for decades since the formation of the ILP in 1893, but reached its peak in the aftermath of the First World War. Hobhouse worried that the ‘constitution of the Labour Party binds it tight to the Trade Unions and their sectional selfishness, a most serious defect’ (Hobhouse, 1924). At its most extreme, such concerns led to direct comparisons between the Labour and Conservative Parties that showed why both were beyond the progressive pale. As one Liberal of the progressive milieu put it:

The old typical aristocrat … claimed to be above his fellow-creatures in respect of his birth and status. The zealots of Labour do the same. They too hold by caste, merely turning the scale upside down. … Alike, they obliterate in their professed politics the moral grounds of a sane human valuation. Alike, they take for granted that to be born in their ‘class' is a certificate of merit. Alike, they refuse to ask whether the man of their class is good, kind, truthful, wise, or public-spirited as distinct from being merely class-spirited’ (Robertson, 1921, pp. 7–8).

Needless to say, this author never joined the Labour Party, but even progressives who did continued to nurse similar concerns. As late as 1938 Hobson admitted that he had ‘never felt quite at home in a body governed by the trade union members and their finance’ (Hobson, 1938, p. 126).

Rather than embrace claims that they represented the working class and their instruments of industrial struggle, Labour leaders repudiated the charges tout court. Philip Snowden, for example, argued that the party represented ‘men and women of every class who live by honest and useful work’. He also pointed out that Labour proposed to bring the means of production into the ownership of the community as a whole, not of any one class. In fact, Snowden argued, ‘The Labour party is the very opposite of a Class Party. It has come into politics to abolish class government and class control’. If further proof were needed, Snowden pointed to the wide range of class backgrounds of the party's members (Snowden, 1922, p. 2). Snowden clearly understood that these were the only kinds of arguments on this question that were likely to sway progressives, for whom sectionalism of any kind remained anathema.

While concerns about sectionalism kept some progressives out of the Labour Party, the pressing questions of international politics pushed a larger number rapidly in the opposite direction. While international politics was not the only factor that led progressives to quit the Liberal Party in the era of the First World War and Versailles, there is no doubt that, for many, the conduct of the Liberal leadership before, during and after the war made their own membership of the party untenable.

The prime location of progressive opposition to British foreign policy during and immediately following the First World War was the Union of Democratic Control (UDC), founded in August 1914 by progressives from the Labour and Liberal Parties, including two junior ministers who resigned in protest at Britain's entry into the war. By 1920, both of them had joined the ILP, as had every other Liberal in the UDC. Consideration of the UDC's platform will allow us to complete and reinforce our characterisation of progressivism before moving to some observations on whether progressivism retains any meaning or salience in contemporary politics.

The UDC was a case study of progressive eclecticism and its limits. Almost all of its members had a record of involvement in the spectrum of progressive organisations and causes. It was not pacifist, although it had pacifist members along with serving soldiers. Even on the war itself, it was heterodox. As its first pamphlet put it, ‘Many men and women have already joined us holding varying shades of opinion as to the origins of the war. Some think it was inevitable, some that it could and should have been avoided’ (Union of Democratic Control, 1914, p. 1). As well as committed socialists who believed that capitalism caused war, the range of opinions on socialism and capitalism within the UDC was as wide as that of the progressive milieu from which it was drawn. It included no Conservatives.

What united the UDC was commitment to four ‘cardinal points’ about the conduct of foreign policy and the post-war settlement: these stipulated all-round disarmament to follow the war and the nationalisation of arms production; the establishment of an ‘international council’ to replace balance of power diplomacy; no territorial annexations without popular consent; and, above all, the abolition of ‘secret diplomacy’ in favour of parliamentary control of foreign policy (Swanwick, 1924, p. 39).

The UDC platform thus gave clear expression to a number of long-standing concerns and beliefs of Cobdenite and Gladstonian Liberals, including the rights of small nations, and distrust of those with a vested interest in war. But its more immediate context derived from the restatement and extension of principles developed to justify progressives' opposition to the Boer War in the face of the pro-war attitudes of other Liberals, including Herbert Asquith and the Earl of Rosebery, and socialists including the Webbs and Bernard Shaw. It was during this debate that Hobson irrevocably identified twentieth-century progressivism with anti-imperialism by weaving its liberal anti-militarist, anti-jingo, anti-sectionalist, democratic traditions into a critique of contemporary capitalism which was non-doctrinaire in the sense that it left open the question of whether the imperialist tendencies of capitalism were curable. In a number of works, of which Imperialism: A Study was merely the most famous and influential, Hobson argued that imperialism served not the interests of the nation as a whole, nor even those of the generality of capitalists, but only financiers and the most anti-democratic, militaristic elements of the aristocracy. Imperialism was incompatible with all the things that progressives valued: peace, free trade and international cooperation. Its ‘economic taproot’ was the search for outlets for surplus capital which accumulated owing to the maldistribution of purchasing power, a state of affairs that imperialists sought to maintain for their own selfish interests. Imperialism was therefore hostile to democracy, which was the only force capable of destroying it. As Hobson put it, ‘Secure popular government, in substance and in form, and you secure internationalism: retain class government, and you retain military Imperialism and international conflicts’ (Hobson, 1902, p. 171).

This last point reflected another core progressive belief, which also found expression in the name and platform of the UDC. It was that democracy was an instrument of virtue because the common people were morally sound, and that any process – including diplomacy – that could be brought under genuine popular control would necessarily become more just, more moral and more pacific. Unfortunately, however, as Hobson and other progressives argued, the masses could be manipulated by jingoistic newspaper proprietors acting in support of the narrow, sectional, pro-imperialist interests of which they formed a part.

These arguments for the centrality to progressive thought of anti-sectionalism and anti-imperialism allow a somewhat tighter characterisation of progressivism than generic ‘left-of-centre’ politics, showing how progressives could have severe qualms about the ontological nature of the Labour Party, and could stand opposed to socialists and liberals who justified military adventures in the name of a modernising and civilising ‘internationalism’. Moreover, they leave the way open for progressives to be identified elsewhere on the political spectrum than the centre-left. In the 1930s many progressives moved sharply leftwards, believing that the multifaceted crisis of that decade signified that capitalism had reached a stage of development that made it incurably hostile to progressive values. They thus became strong supporters of campaigns for a united front of all anti-capitalists before falling back to an appeal for a popular front of all anti-fascists – a category that could include politicians such as Churchill, who made no claim to be progressive.

The Progressive Tradition since the 1960s

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Characterising the Progressive Tradition
  4. Progressivism and Party in the Early Twentieth Century
  5. Touchstones of the Progressive Faith
  6. The Progressive Tradition since the 1960s
  7. Conclusion: Progressivism and the Progressive Tradition in Contemporary Britain
  8. References
  9. Biography

While this brief survey of progressivism clearly offers little accommodation to Conservative claims on the progressive tradition, it also suggests that some progressives' misgivings about the Labour Party as a progressive force have turned out to be largely correct. On the issue of sectionalism, while individual trade unionists or trade union campaigns may have aligned with progressive aims at various moments, progressives' alignment with the trade union movement within the structure of the Labour Party proved fatal in the long run. The Labour Party was eventually hollowed out by a trade union sectionalism that often did as much harm to other workers as it did to capitalist employers – or to the employing state in the case of nationalised industries. Barbara Castle's proposals in In Place of Strife (Department of Employment and Productivity, 1968) to recast industrial relations around notions of the common good was a clear manifestation of the progressive tradition in which she had grown up – a point underlined by a civil servant's comment that the White Paper ‘read like a WEA lecture’ (Perkins, 2003, p. 289), that archetypal vehicle of progressive endeavour and discourse. Her comprehensive defeat within the Labour movement was but one sign of a structural and intellectual malaise which ensured not only that the electoral defeats of 1979 and 1983 would be followed by a comprehensive industrial defeat in 1984, but that the two together would render the movement a nullity, incapable of defending workers' rights and livelihoods when such defence was desperately needed, partly because Conservative attacks on trade unions could be portrayed as an attack on vested interests – itself a favourite progressive theme. This was reinforced by the necessity to defend nationalised industries in the face of free market fundamentalism, no matter how sclerotic these industries had become, and no matter how clear it was that the model of public ownership implemented after 1945 was no longer successful in achieving the objectives for which it had been developed. The progressives' all-important attitude of pragmatic empiricism on the role of the state had been abandoned.

As this historical discussion moves into the recent past, and threatens to encroach upon issues of contemporary politics, it is time to return to the questions raised at the beginning of the paper, and to consider, in the light of the historical characterisation developed here, whether the progressive tradition is still alive, and whether the term ‘progressive’ retains any meaning or value.

There are a number of possible ways of approaching this task. The most obvious is to consider current and recent political statements and actions against a set of criteria derived from what we now understand about progressives' beliefs. Such an approach requires a great deal of caution. All political creeds change and evolve, and to assess a politician's actions on the grounds of what some figure from the past might have to say about them is little more than a parlour game. It would be fruitless to speculate about what the progressives discussed here might have said about, for example, the sale of public housing, or private–public partnerships. One can easily imagine them disagreeing with each other quite strenuously, as they did on many questions during their lifetimes.

That said, it is clear enough that some of the principles that progressives regarded as fundamental find little place in current parliamentary politics. On foreign policy, the principles that drove many out of the Liberal Party around the time of the First World War included commitments to the use of war as a last resort; the importance of international bodies (such as the League of Nations); and democratic control of foreign policy. None of these had any place in the Labour government's decision to engage in a ‘preventative’ war of aggression in Iraq in defiance of popular opinion at home, as well as the opinion of the United Nations and most of the nations of the world, and to justify this on the basis of transparently false claims about weapons of mass destruction.

A mere defeat, however, does not mean the end of a tradition or a principle. Parliamentary opposition to the Iraq War (the Liberal Democrats, Labour backbenchers, Robin Cook) based on principles that would have been clear to progressives of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was at least as numerous as parliamentary opposition to the Treaty of Versailles, and enjoyed far more support outside the parliament. Indeed, while it requires no effort of the imagination to see J. A. Hobson or any of his fellow progressives addressing one of the massive anti-war rallies of 2003, it is impossible to imagine such a protest being mounted in 1919–20, when passionate opposition to the peace settlement was confined to a minority (many of them former Liberals) within a deeply unpopular Labour Party (Bridgen, 2009, p. 111).

Progressive anti-sectionalism has fared even worse than anti-militarism and anti-imperialism. Despite belated murmurings of regret, all parties have eagerly promoted the identification of financial interests with the national interest, and the complete subjugation of the common good to that of the City. And while events since 2008 have led to public expressions of anger and dismay at selected misdeeds, it cannot be said that any coherent critique or alternative approaches to financial policy have attracted significant support. Underlying this, however, and cementing the finance sector's public support until 2008, has been a collective frenzy of material consumption and a worship of every display of personal wealth that nineteenth- and twentieth-century progressives would have found more alienating than any particular decision on foreign or economic policy, and which makes their constellation of beliefs seem utterly remote from the mainstream of contemporary politics, society and culture. From the point of view of these progressives, David Cameron's claim that the Conservative Party is progressive because it promotes policies designed to allow clever children to escape from bad state schools so that they can ‘get on in life’ (Cameron, 2010) is simply unintelligible, but no more so than similar New Labour rhetoric about individual advancement.

Conclusion: Progressivism and the Progressive Tradition in Contemporary Britain

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Characterising the Progressive Tradition
  4. Progressivism and Party in the Early Twentieth Century
  5. Touchstones of the Progressive Faith
  6. The Progressive Tradition since the 1960s
  7. Conclusion: Progressivism and the Progressive Tradition in Contemporary Britain
  8. References
  9. Biography

The influence of various progressive political principles waxed and waned during the period studied in The Popular Front and the Progressive Tradition, and continues to wax and wane still. The fact that progressive principles are currently at a low ebb does not therefore signify that they have ceased to exist, or to have meaning, or that they cannot reasonably be described as ‘progressive’, in contradistinction to the doctrines of individual material acquisition and status advancement at home, and bellicose moralising abroad, which appear to have inspired every British government since at least 1979. Opposition to the latter doctrines is not hard to find. One need only cite the Occupy movement, think tanks-cum-pressure groups like Positive Money, journalists who clearly belong in the tradition fostered by C. P. Scott, environmental movements and their electoral expression in the Green Party, and the movements that have arisen to oppose almost every military venture since Tony Blair signed Britain up for the so-called ‘war on terror’. Indeed, the House of Commons vote in August against military intervention in Syria not only marks one of the most stunning political triumphs of progressive principles in foreign policy, but suggests that those principles have once again found voice in the leadership of the Labour Party.

However they may be critiqued, the contemporary movements just cited share a great deal with the progressive tradition of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: institutional fluidity, anti-imperialism and anti-sectionalism, and (for the most part) a non-dogmatic approach to the economic role of the state. More fundamentally, they also share a moral concern for the common good considered as something that transcends the mere material advancement of individuals.

While the progressive tradition thus remains a force in British public life, the ‘progressivism’ of which I wrote two decades ago should perhaps now be viewed purely as a historical phenomenon. The ‘secret’ ethos of ‘progress, enlightenment, self-mastery, “plain living and high thinking” ’, identified by Gilbert Murray in 1925 now seems to belong irrevocably to a milieu populated by children of the late Victorian age. Similarly, the political environment that gave rise to progressivism was also specific to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – defined by the struggle between the Liberal and Labour Parties for the mantle of the ‘party of progress’. Whatever their differences, the protagonists in that struggle were agreed on one thing: a key task of the victor would be to lead the opposition to Conservatism.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Characterising the Progressive Tradition
  4. Progressivism and Party in the Early Twentieth Century
  5. Touchstones of the Progressive Faith
  6. The Progressive Tradition since the 1960s
  7. Conclusion: Progressivism and the Progressive Tradition in Contemporary Britain
  8. References
  9. Biography
  • Blaazer, D. (1992) The Popular Front and the Progressive Tradition: Socialists, Liberals and the Quest for Unity 1884–1939. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bridgen, P. (2009) The Labour Party and the Politics of War and Peace, 1900–1924. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer.
  • Cameron, D. (2010) ‘Progressive Conservatism will mean a Fairer, Greener Society’, The Independent, 4 January, 32.
  • Clark, G. and Hunt, J. (2007) ‘Cameron is Proving Tories are the True Progressives’, The Observer, 16 December, 18.
  • Clarke, P. F. (1978) Liberals and Social Democrats. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Department of Employment and Productivity (1968) In Place of Strife: A Policy for Industrial Relations. London: HMSO.
  • Freeden, M. (1978) The New Liberalism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Green, T. H. (1969) The Works of Thomas Hill Green. New York: Kraus Reprint Company.
  • Hobhouse, L. T. (1924) Letter to C. P. Scott, 7 November, Scott papers132/318. Manchester Guardian Archives, John Rylands Library, University of Manchester.
  • Hobhouse, L. T. (1972 [1904]) Democracy and Reaction, ed. P. F. Clarke . Brighton: Harvester.
  • Hobson, J. A. (1902) Imperialism: A Study. London: James Nisbet & Co.
  • Hobson, J. A. (1938) Confessions of an Economic Heretic. London: Allen & Unwin.
  • Mill, J. S. (1874) Autobiography. London: Longmans, Green.
  • Murray, G. (1925) What Liberalism Stands For. London: Liberal Party.
  • Perkins, A. (2003) Red Queen: The Authorized Biography of Barbara Castle. London: Macmillan.
  • Pickering, P. A. and Tyrell, A. (2000) The People's Bread: A History of the Anti-Corn Law League. New York: Leicester University Press.
  • Robertson, J. M. (1921) Liberalism and Labour. London: Liberal Party.
  • Robson, J. M. (1968) The Improvement of Mankind: The Social and Political Thought of John Stuart Mill. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Snowden, P. (1922) What is the Labour Party? A Reply to Liberal Misrepresentations. London: Labour Party.
  • Swanwick, H. M. (1924) Builders of Peace. London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • Union of Democratic Control (1914) The Morrow of the War. London: UDC.
  • Webb, S. (1901) ‘Lord Rosebery's Escape from Houndsditch’, Nineteenth Century, September.

Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Characterising the Progressive Tradition
  4. Progressivism and Party in the Early Twentieth Century
  5. Touchstones of the Progressive Faith
  6. The Progressive Tradition since the 1960s
  7. Conclusion: Progressivism and the Progressive Tradition in Contemporary Britain
  8. References
  9. Biography
  • David Blaazer is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, where he is also Associate Dean (Education). He has published on the non-communist British left, including The Popular Front and the Progressive Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1992) and articles on guild socialism. More recently he has been working on the social and cultural history of money and finance in the British Isles, on which he has published numerous articles and delivered many papers. He is currently completing a book on currency, power and nationality in the British Isles since the sixteenth century. David Blaazer, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, PO Box 7916, Canberra BC 2610, ACT Australia; email: d.blaazer@adfa.edu.au