The current general election in the United Kingdom has a number of peculiar features and, despite taking place against a background of serious economic news, has the potential to remake the image of what political engagement can mean. There is, however, some resistance to this view amongst a broad spectrum of people, not least those who might be thought naturally to be most clearly disposed to adopting such a view.
In the UK the natural home of "progressive" sentiments has, since the end of the First World War almost a century ago, been the Labour Party. This should no longer be the case, not least because of many problems with the record of the last government, problems which alone should give serious pause to anyone. Even more should they give pause to anyone interested in the view of promotion of a "progressive" view of politics.
What are the reasons why I make this claim? Well, prior to looking at the details of specific policies or thinking through recent British political history, the central reason concerns a need to look again at what it means to describe a political position as "progressive". When Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997 he spoke of the need for a "progressive" view of politics and he, for at least a time, consolidated behind him a coalition of people who viewed him as embodying such a view. By the time of the last election in 2005 it was very difficult to see Blair in this way and, consequently, hard to view the party he led as the vehicle for progress.
But what went unasked in a general disillusionment that was illustrated in the fact that each of Blair's election victories produced a falling support in terms of percentage of electors, was the question of what was meant by the notion of "progressive politics". It is easiest perhaps to begin to define the notion by reference to what it opposes, the notion of "reactionary" politics. What is "reactionary" is not simply, as many dictionaries would suggest, resistance to change. Any political party or force wishes change. But there are different kinds of change. There are changes which reinforce injustice, deepen social divisions and entrench vested interests and there are changes which aim to reduce injustice, promote that which is just, reduce division and promote an enhanced view of the polity that is not at the service of a given interest. The former is a reactionary change, the latter a progressive change.
This general view of the division between progress and reaction does not emerge from nowhere in political history. It is grounded in divisions between groups that date back to the time of the Glorious Revolution in Britain. At that point monarchical power and vested privileges were broken in favour of a parliamentary system of representation. This victory was accomplished by a party of progressive change that defeated the Tory view, a view that can broadly be understood as legitimist and which took its last stand in 1745. The defeat of this view then produced a consolidated landed oligarchy that entrenched its own patterns of privileges that were challenged by a series of events in the 19th century including the Great Reform Act of 1832, Catholic and Jewish emancipation, the opening of the universities and the granting, after sustained agitation from the Manchester School of Liberalism, of manhood suffrage (albeit not a universal one).
This struggle continued in terms of movement to universal manhood suffrage and the final universal granting of suffrage to women also, something initially championed by John Stuart Mill. The universal opening of representation formulated the uniquely modern political system we term "democracy" and its advent was the result of sustained and continued struggle between those who advocated it and those who opposed it. The former were the "progressives" and the latter the "reactionaries".
The twentieth century produced, however, new political forces that created confusion and articulated positions that did not easily fit this classical pattern. These forces included the labour movement and socialist and communist parties. This is the origin of the contemporary confusion that obfuscates the clarity required to recognise that the contemporary Liberal Democratic Party in the UK is the natural home of "progressive" sentiment. The view became consolidated in the 1930's and 1940's that labour movements were the ground of "progressive" demands and that liberalism had been left behind.
There were, nonetheless, many peculiar elements to this view. One was that the economic doctrine that won most adherents in this period was not, despite much pressure to the contrary, a Marxist one. There were many reasons for this, not least that Marxism provides no positive economic model. Marxists are extremely good at providing critical attacks on economic models and economic systems but, in practice, have produced no sustainable economic model for governing a society other than totalitarian coercion, better known as the "command economy". Such a position has consistently failed to secure sufficient adherents in advanced Western countries to be adopted and this is certainly to the good. Some time ago Ludwig Von Mises exposed in detail the difficulties of such a view in his classic work Socialism.
Von Mises' own positive economic position was, however, not one that was adopted during the crisis years of the middle of the 20th century. Rather, at that time, it was the works of John Maynard Keynes that were turned to. Keynes' economic arguments provided the basis of much of what became orthodoxy in politics after the Second World War especially when combined with the welfare state proposals of William Beveridge. Despite being implemented by the Labour Party both these men and their ideas emerged from the Liberal political tradition.
The elements that were added to the positions of Keynes and Beveridge that came directly from within the labour movement were emphasis on sustained state intervention into running the economy, that is, nationalisation. The model of such nationalisation was what became seriously challenged in the advent of the newly globalising world of the 1970s. As economies became more inter-dependent so the insular models of labourism that supported the implementation of trade barriers of all sorts and underpinned unsustainable protectionist views of labour became undermined.
This was the beginning of the end for the traditional Labour Party which, during the years of Conservative hegemony, was gradually destroyed such that Tony Blair could eventually emerge as the leader of a quite different force in the 1990's. The remaking of Labour was sometimes presented, by Blair himself amongst others, as a revival of "progressive" politics and that good things were done in many directions by Blair's government is clear enough. So civil partnerships were recognised, an equal age of consent for gay people was won and invidious forms of discrimination were removed. Similarly, the Blair government formulated and defended a view of the public services that enabled their expansion including an expanded higher education sector.
Blair, however, had no feel for much that is central to a serious "progressive" view of politics. Under his leadership there was little confrontation with inequality and, under Labour, inequality has increased such that their rule has led to a redistribution of wealth towards the very wealthiest. Similarly, deregulation of the finance sector of the economy gathered apace such that the unstable credit boom of the first decade of this century was allowed to emerge. In such respects, as in others, Blair's government moved in lock-step with the Bush regime in the US.
Confrontation with finance, expansion of the productive base of the economy and concern with redistribution of wealth towards the poorest, did not feature in Blair's view. Similarly, Blair paradoxically also articulated a shift towards defence of religious privilege, as in his endorsement of faith schools and a privatised model of education that even allowed creationist academies to be given state funding. In these respects the Blair project represented something reactionary. Similarly, civil liberties were never related to by Blair's governments as anything other than a nuisance in a foreign policy that resolutely presented the fight against terrorism as the number one agenda. The hopes for an ethical foreign policy at the origin of the Blair government were lost.
It is time to realise that the Labour Party has no natural claim to represent "progressive" opinion and that what was most creative in its responses to the political crises of the last century in fact came from Liberal thinking. Once this is recognised it also becomes clear that liberalism is the philosophy that is progressive, not socialism. Liberalism has been re-born as something that incorporates the gains of social democracy but which also rests on a stronger connection to civil liberties and to an emphasis on individual freedom that socialists have always been loath to acknowledge.
The socialist force, such as is left, is itself now reactionary. It stands for out-dated positions, recognising sectional interests that cannot promote the renewal of politics. Further, in the context of economic crisis it suggests dangerous illusions concerning the nature of the state and its relationship to the economy. Conservatives, by contrast, have, unashamedly, revealed themselves once again to stand in the long tradition of basic reaction, standing only for vested interests of the super-rich that recognise little in the broader society. The leader article in The Guardian articulates this well.
Given these parameters it is the case that the moment has come to once again recognise that the basic force that represents the possibilities for progressive reform that exist are liberal (and Liberal). This is not a notion that many find easy to see but no other force can bring change that will respect the imperatives of social justice. If social justice is the guideline for what is progressive then it should include such matters as support for free education, emphasis on the need to re-build the economy by rebalancing it, increased and focused regulation of banking and finance, a proportional voting system that ends the shame of governments being formed that have no real majority and a serious commitment to the safeguarding of civil liberties. It should and must also relate to foreign policy through engagement with Europe and the US based on the pursuit of liberal ideals and internationalism. There is much that is problematic in the current Liberal Democrat platform, as I have stated in previous postings. It is, however, the case that only this party and only the general position of liberalism can represent the cause of progress. Given this situation it becomes a clear duty to support the Liberal Democrats and to engage with them in order to further the cause of democracy and to deepen the roots of liberalism. As Obama's struggles in the US have shown it is possible for progressive agendas to be presented successfully and for them to secure victories in the struggle with reaction. Such a struggle is a philosophically deep one and it is one to which this generation, like others before it, is called to engage with.