So, what is a progressive anyway?

By - Wednesday 4th November, 2015

Jonny Rose takes a critical look at the notion of ‘progress’ in Croydon

Hegel with his Berlin students, by Franz Kugler.
Image public domain.

“The belief that humanity makes moral progress depends upon a wilful ignorance of history” — Roger Scruton

What is a progressive, anyway?

I read this piece by Sean Creighton some months ago with much interest – not because I care about psephology (I don’t) or tactical voting in Croydon (I don’t), but because of his very intentional use of the word “progressive”. I promptly forgot about it until Tom Black’s most recent article reactivated the word in my psyche.

‘Progressive’ is not a word that you often hear in British politics and it’s certainly not one that I’ve heard before this year in the context of Croydon politics. By contrast, the word ‘progressive’ seems to be a mainstay in American parlance where cultural and political wars often seem to be waged between self-styled ‘progressives’ and conservatives.

You’d think that with such transatlantic pedigree that the definition of a progressive would be done and dusted. Not so: a cursory search around the internet reveals that the definition is far from agreed upon.

Progressivism as a political movement

There is an interesting article on the BBC web site that sheds a little light. Political reporter, Brian Wheeler, explains that politicians use ‘progressive’ to describe two very different things (though to the rest of humanity the distinction may not be at all obvious):

“When applied to taxation, progressive simply means hurting the rich more than the poor by taking a progressively bigger slice of their earnings.”

The other meaning of ‘progressive’ is, he concedes, harder to define.

“The first progressive movement emerged before the First World War, when followers of the philosopher Hegel promoted the idea of history as progress out of ignorance and division towards peace and prosperity. But the term began to gain currency again in British politics during the Blair years – when many Labour politicians felt uncomfortable about describing themselves as ‘socialists’ or even ‘left-wing’”

Left wing politicians initially adopted the term ‘progressive’ to describe social liberalism. This was supposed to be a left-wing ideal. But now even the right-wing Conservative prime minister tends to favour this kind of liberalism – he thinks that women and gay people are jolly decent sorts and doesn’t actively frown upon the poor and working class either – so he too is happy to be called progressive. In fact, he now talks about something called “progressive conservatism”.

The lazy nobility of being a ‘progressive’

Regardless of where one places the progressive on the ideological spectrum, one of my favourite things about the term is how it immediately confers a weight of (undeserved) nobility on the bearer.

You don’t have to be a disciple of Barthes and Levi-Strauss to understand that words do not exist in an essentialist vacuum; they are defined by what they are not as much as by what they are. If to be ‘progressive’ suggests the preponderance of many positive attributes, the implication is that conservative, liberal, anarchist, etc do not. Self-identifying as ‘a progressive’ strikes me as a fabulous bit of ‘virtue signalling’ but not much else.

Who’s to say what is progress and what isn’t?

To my mind, progressivism seems to lack a consistent eschatology; cultures seem to have their own localised and subjective ideas about what progress looks like. Westerners, for example, seem to have faith in progress over time, yet many continue to just as strongly express nostalgia for times past. Others have a more cynical view of progress believing life and history to be more cyclical, while others who have recently experienced oppression have no doubt that progress is real and something to strive for.

Progress doesn’t just mean going forward: It means going forward to a better place. But where is this place and what about those who don’t want to go?

I was recently struck by the juxtaposition of two headlines that I saw in my Twitter newsfeed: MIT solar start up aims to make solar competitive with coal – peak oil; and Luxury massage seats in the Volvo S80 and XC90 Executive. While both express the continued development of new technology (surely a sign of ‘progress’), the ends of maximising comfort or increasing the supply of available energy reflect very different ideas of progress.

Progressives in Croydon

If we accept that there is a sizeable body of people in the borough that identify as progressive, and agree it can be a political, philosophical or practical label then progressivism should have deep and material implications on the future of Croydon. I suspect the spirit of progressivism can be seen as much in Croydon’s lefty apparatchiks as it can in the machinations of Croydon Tech City, but I’d be keen to see this spirit manifest into something more conclusive around which the people of Croydon can either rally or be repelled.

Let’s clear this up once and for all

So, what is a progressive? Do you self-identify as a progressive? And, importantly, what do you think the impact of progressivism on Croydon could be?

Please do take the time to explain it to me in the comments section below. If you could get me to understand, I’d consider that real progress.

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose is a committed Christian who has lived in the Croydon area for nearly twenty years. He is an active participant in his local community, serving at Grace Vineyard Church and organising Purley Breakfast Club, and was ranked "Croydon's 37th most powerful person" by the Croydon Advertiser (much to his amusement). He is the Head of Content at marketing technology company Idio, the founder of the Croydon Tech City movement, a LinkedIn coach, and creator of Croydon's first fashion label, Croydon Vs The World. Working on Instagram training. Views are his own, but it would be best for all concerned if you shared them. Please send your fanmail to: jonnyrose1 (at) gmail (dot) com

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  • Robert Ward

    “Progressive” entered my list of Humpty Dumpty words (words that mean whatever you want them to mean) some time back. It has not yet challenged ‘affordable’ in terms of its usage but it is bubbling under the top ten.

    The wooliness of the definition and the positive spin is ideal for politicos, in this case of the left. It is used as a stamp of approval for themselves. They can then accuse others of not being progressive enough, rather than saying they want to increase taxes.

    In their interpretation it means a situation where the more money you earn, the higher proportion of those earnings you pay in tax. Others may interpret it as the more you earn the more money you pay in taxes.

    A good example of similar usage is ‘feminist’, which is ahead of ‘progressive’ in my Humpty Dumpty league table. You see the same strategy being applied in persistently asking David Cameron if he is a feminist. He rightly qualifies his response by saying what he does believe in. If he were to agree to being a feminist then others will use their definition of the word and engage in the pointless yah-boo exchanges so beloved of parts of the politico community.

    • Anne Giles

      A feminist is simply someone who believes in equal rights for women.

  • Tom Black

    Thanks for reading my own article, Jonny.

    I can’t be of much use here because I decidedly do not identify as a ‘progressive’, though I accept I probably identify with many positions that would lead others – perhaps progressives themselves – to call me one. For me, it’s a wishy-washy word that has, as you say, all the hallmarks of not wanting to stake out a position in the ‘oldspeak’ of yesteryear, as if to say the words ‘left wing’ out loud will conjure up a reanimated Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, who will drag the speaker to an eternal purgatory of beer and sandwiches and nationalised car companies.

    For me, ‘democratic socialist’ is as good a label as any. But this isn’t about me, it’s about the definition of progressivism – I don’t know how much help I am being, but it is perhaps worth noting (and I think you will enjoy) that in America, at least, progressive has meant (at different times) both ‘anti-fascist’ and, er, ‘fascist’. And in Canada, of course, the recently-defeated Conservative Party went by the name ‘Progressive Conservatives’ for 60 years.

    I would never tell someone what they are, in ideology any more than gender, but often when I speak to people who say they are ‘progressives’ I draw one of two conclusions, that I happily keep to myself. One is that the person I am speaking to is basically a left winger who doesn’t like the word ‘socialism’ for whatever reason. The other conclusion is that they believe in Nice Things (the kind of voter who voted Lib Dem until the Armacleggon) and that their brand of change or reform is inherently A Nice Thing, and is thus ‘progress’.

    It can, however, be a useful term – for some. In Sean Creighton’s case, in the article that triggered this, for example, I saw his use of ‘progressive’ as a deliberate blanket term seeking to reach out to people who were left-of-centre but did not necessarily identify with socialism or the Labour Party. I know that Sean has no problem with the former and, shall we say, a ‘complex history’ with the latter. ‘Progressives’ is a much catchier term for such a headline than ‘Croydon’s left of centre voters’ or ‘Croydon’s left wingers’ (which does, even I admit, sound more exclusive than ‘progressive’). So I saw little problem with Sean’s use of it, myself.

    What I’d be interested in is whether we will see ‘regressive’ or ‘reactionary’ become reclaimed as positive labels by some. I think some people will start this process during my lifetime (for some time I have suspected that my generation will be the first that is more socially conservative than its predecessor, something that has begun to be proven by polling on some topics). Anti-immigration attitudes and discomfort over gay rights are thankfully not majority positions but it’s clear that sizeable minorities are beginning to hold them. If we are to avoid the Orwellian horror of an argument over whether it is more ‘TRULY PROGRESSIVE’ to ban homosexuality, end all benefits to people who have the use of one or more limbs, or station the entire British Army in Folkestone, something will need to change – we can’t just have one generic label that means Good Things and everyone chasing after it.

  • Sean Creighton

    The word ‘progressive’ has many meanings including: ‘Happening or developing gradually or in stages’; ‘Increasing as a proportion of the sum taxed as that sum increases’; ‘A person favouring social reform’; and ‘Favouring change or innovation’.

    Back in the late 1880s onwards the Progressive party in London was a group of Liberals, radicals and leaders of the labour movement. In the first elections of
    the London County Council (LCC) ithe Progressive Party won 70 of the 118 seats. It lost power in 1907 to the Municipal Reform Party (a Conservative organisation). In Battersea a Progressive Alliance of socialist, radicals, liberals and others was formed which took control of Battersea Vestry in 1894 and Battersea Council in 1900. It held power 1900-1909, 1912-1919. It introduced fair wages, direct labour, pioneered and developed a range of health, welfare and leisure services, and built housing for the working class.

    Members of the London Progressives included Stewart Headlam a priest of the Church of England who was a pioneer and publicist of Christian Socialism, the Methodist Rev. John Scott Lidgett, who believed it was important that the
    church engage with the whole of society and human culture, and CoE Rev.
    Frederick William Verney who had a particular interest in promoting small

    Drawing on the legacy of Franklin D Roosevelt, Martin
    Luther King and others a group of Americans has nicely defined it
    as: ‘everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. As progressives, we believe that everyone
    deserves a fair shot at a decent, fulfilling, and economically secure life. We
    believe that everyone should do his or her fair share to build this life through
    education and hard work and through active participation in public life. And
    we believe that everyone should play by the same set of rules with no special
    privileges for the well-connected or wealthy.’ Their key principles are: freedom, opportunity, responsibility and co-operation.

    ‘We believe that the purpose of government is to advance the common good, to secure and protect our rights, and to help to create a high quality of life and community well-being. We want decent paying jobs and benefits for workers and sustainable economic growth. We want growing businesses producing the world’s best products and services. We want an economy that works for everyone, not just the few. We want all nations to uphold universal human rights and to work together to solve common challenges.’

  • Stephen Giles

    Otherwise known as “prog”, as in “prog rock” which is more my cup of tea!