Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Inertia of the Progressives

A massive leader in The Guardian says Brown should go but the columnist Jonathan Freedland says it's too risky. Progressives, says Freedland, should vote Green and then work to save the Labour Party. Exasperation is the mood of the leader. Brown really doesn't get it. 'The McBride affair was poisonous to his reputation, but he did not seem to understand why.' 'Does not' would probably be more accurate. McBride was one of the nastiest eruptions in British politics I can remember. If Brown doesn't understand why, then he's not just inept he is wicked. But the big theme here is the word 'progressive' and the underlying assumption of both the leader and Freedland that the Labour Party is the only viable upholder of progressive values. This assumption - combined with a naive view of the meaning of progress - explains why the British left has long been and remains intellectually inert. First, let us say we accept the left's definition of progress. On that basis, Ted Heath's administration was more progressive than Labour because it took Britain into the EU. Equally, Margaret Thatcher outdid her Labour predecessors by breaking the anti-progressive, anti-democratic union bosses, destroyers of industries and jobs. Being 'progressive' does not necessarily mean being Labour. Secondly, to assume that progressive values do, indeed, inhere in one Party and, more particularly, one programme is to embrace the historicist fallacy. There is no one direction to history. So, for example, organised labour is not always right, sometimes it is dangerously wrong. If you want progress you must accept this or be lost in a wilderness of ideological struggles - like, in fact, the British left. Thirdly, the word 'progressive' cripples thought; politicians should avoid it at all costs. This is, in part, because political progress - like ethical, moral or aesthetic progress - has never happened and never will. For periods of time certain regions grow richer and more comfortable. This is not progress, it's luck and it ends. In such regions, the truly noble political goal is the pursuit of sustenance and stability, the protection of whatever it is - and, in our condition of radical ignorance, we can never be sure we know - that has provided us with this respite from the normal condition of the human animal. If, in this context, you redefine progressive so that it means this pursuit, a general ideal of sustenance and improvement within a system that we know is beleaguered and incapable of perfection, then it begins to make some kind of sense. It frees the mind from the demands of party, permits a humble acceptance of radical ignorance and supports the highest and most characteristic British political virtue, pragmatism. So yes, Brown should go now and saving Labour is a self-evidently frivolous goal, as will be, when the wheel turns again, saving the Tories.


  1. philip wallingJune 03, 2009 8:36 am

    These 'progressives' would rather destroy the temple than see someone else occupy it.
    That's why Brown won't go without being got out with a flamethrower and why they call for the 'system' to be changed rather than calling a general election. And why they choose to discipline errant MPs internally rather than allow their electorates to decide. And why they will try to create dozens of Labour life peers from those who will have lost their seats, so that they can frustrate everything that an incoming Conservative government might try to do.
    Their instinct (Brown represents this tendency) is now to destroy the whole body politic - apres eux le deluge.

  2. In the last part of your excellent post I think you re-defined the 'progressive' as a classic form of conservatism. The only civilised and reasonable game left in town, I would have thought.

  3. Philip: Interesting explanation and prediction. But I think you're dignifying Brown's manouevres by giving them some ideological content. I think it's all now about the egotism and power hunger of him and his clique. For all his faults, I can't imagine Blair going down the road you describe.

    I suspect Brown will end up proving the importance of the individual in history by single-handedly destroying the Labour party's chances of government for a generation.

  4. The use of the self-description progressive is enough for me to mark the speaker as a fool.

    "My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday." - G.K. Chesterton, New York Times Magazine, 2/11/23

  5. It is curious the way the Left has hijacked the term progressive - making them appear even more smug and righteous.

    In terms of universal education and healthcare, the safety net of the welfare state, state pensions, greater employment protection and the like, socialists at the turn of the 19th century would have seen many of their aspirations made a reality. Whether they would have liked some of the results very much (in particular over 5m workless people reliant on state benefits, and the detrimental effects that has had on vast areas of our towns and cities) is a different thing.

  6. You got me reading that Freedland piece ... Tactical, self-centred, shallow, didactic, conservative, patronising, long-winded, tribal and finally unprincipled -- in other words everything about political discourse, except that which might make politics worthwhile.

    Uniquely irksome was the conceit that on his say-so alone, the faithful readership might be persuaded to "play" with their vote too. How very "progressive" of him to insist on muddying the public well with that particular pearl of advice.

  7. Dear Gaw
    I don't think Brown's doings do have any 'ideological content' - as I say I think they are instincts, and they are common to a great group of people whom, as shorthand, I refer to as the liberal left.
    The BBC is run by people with the same mindset. For example did you see (Newsnight last night) J Paxman trying one of his bullying rants at William Hague (who handled it graciously and with obvious amusement) after relatively light questioning of John Denham, Hattersley and that Liverpool MP whose name escapes me. It is not hard to see where his sympathies lie, but it is hard to work out why they lie there when one considers the dreadful mess the Labour party has made of everything it has touched in the last twelve years.
    To say they are 'progressives' doesn't explain their purblind tribal loyalty to liberal left nostrums, many of which have exactly the opposite effect to what they say they are intended to achieve. I'm sure I don't need to give examples, but human rights (reducing liberty) is one and state education (keeping the children of the poor ignorant and poor) is another.
    Oh, and Paxman sneered at Hague accusing the Conservatives in a future European grouping were going to ally themselves with a Polish Party that claims homosexuality is a sin, and a Czech party that doesn't accept global warming as a fact. It was clear that Paxman (as spokesman for the left liberal ruling elite) considered such views not as wrong, but as heresy, which it is a sin even to believe, never mind to utter. Who is 'progressive' here?

  8. This is a very well argued piece that rightly challenges ideological cliches - with one exception. I can't accept that Thatcher was the savage saviour you appear to believe she was.

    But I fear that Cameron is a threat - and might well turn out to be worse than Blair and Brown. The Times as well as reporting Brown's now fast motion descent has Cameron linking arms (or whatever they link) with some very nasty Euroseptics. Forget the BNP: the Etonian right will do, if anyone wants fascism, or a near relative. Mark my words.

    Is a visit to Dignitas the only answer?

  9. What is there of Labour to save anyway? There can't be too many parties that have come more free of their ideological moorings than has New Labour.

    I suppose you can make a (weak) case for comradeship on the Left, but too many people seem to support political parties like they would football teams. Cheering on Newcastle as they sink is nuts, but respectably nuts. Supporting rotten political parties shouldn't be.

  10. The elite liberal mindset is a psychological mechanism by which one justifies privilege and exclusivity by professing a cosmic egalitarianism. Our technocratic, governing class is unsettled - this is a good thing.

  11. Good, sensible, Burkean stuff, Mr. Appleyard.

    "Progressives" are destined to forever fall foul of the law of unintended consequences. If such a thing as social progress can be said to exist, then it comes as a result of the continuous process of shift and counter correction and when by good fortune we fall upon something that is good, it is our duty to recognise it as such and stop it leaking away, which is a great enough task as it is.

  12. Pat Davers, on the other hand, is destined forever to fall foul of the law of split infinitives. Doh...

  13. Spongebob, agree strongly. The unsettling might well be good, might even lead to progress. But that would be of a spiritual kind first. Couldn't the presence of false gods imply there's a real thing?

    John Gray is good on Enlightenment progressivism having a Christian base and being obviously false. The base itself though has not yet perhaps been properly understood. Sure, it needs to be recast. And if anyone comes closer to the truth as a result that is progress, however painful.

  14. Progress today is largely about women's rights - in the Guardian sense. So if a woman MP subscribes to a more moderate, or saner version of feminism (as most women do anyway) Jackie Ashley and Polly accuse them of being anti-feminist. So basically a party needs to be pro-positive discrimination for them to be deemed progressive - and that means being blessed by the Guardian editorial and Polly. (which is probably what Cameron has been trying to do.)

  15. Interesting point. But I don't think it's a matter of western feminism being more moderate but becoming more consistent, as Clive James argued brilliantly two weeks ago. Progress is possible but only if we're facing the right direction in the first place.

    James deals with one set of taboos, to do with male violence and military intervention. Not unrelated is Muslim separatism in the UK. If you don't know who to vote for tomorrow I suggest you give Alan Craig four minutes of your time. Has anyone made the point better, without the least chance of being mistaken for the BNP? I have met the guy a few times. I just hope the other candidates on the ticket are as good as he is.