Enterprise and Prosperity as Progressive Values

I’ve spent the past few months trying to understand the way that the word ‘progressive’ was used and understood before 1889, when it became the name of the Lib-Lab coalition Progressive Party on the London County Council. As I expected, it was strongly associated with liberalism and reform. More surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to have been any pre-existing connection between the social questions which were concerning the New Liberals and ‘progressive values’. When New Liberals and social democrats described themselves as progressive in the late 1880s and 1890s, they seem to have been re-appropriating a term which was more often linked to enterprise, prosperity and a vigorous approach to national development. Indeed, in Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (available in Britain from 1880), it was exactly these ‘progressive’ values which were the problem.

I am now tracing this meaning through the interwar years, when cooperation between Liberals and Conservatives, especially at local level, often went by the name Progressive. At the same time, of course, ‘progressive’ was also used to indicate a position on the left, and was applied, for instance, to fellow travellers with communism. This is a complicated and tangled history, which I am trying to unpick in order to understand how the Lib-Lab ‘progressive tradition’, with which we are now so familiar, sits in relation to this other, rather more surprising, angle on ‘progressive’ politics.

I have been working from the assumption that the rediscovery of the Lib-Lab progressive tradition in the late twentieth century (in the political context of the SDP and later New Labour) has now largely eclipsed any previous meanings, so that when David Cameron claims to be progressive, this is a way of indicating a vague sympathy for social liberal and even (at a push!) social democratic principles, as with his election commitment to safeguard the NHS.

However, I am now starting to wonder if this connection with enterprise and prosperity has survived and is now underpinning Conservative understandings of  themselves as ‘progressive’. This piece on Conservative Home this morning, for instance, defines the Conservative administration on Walsall Council as ‘progressive’ because of its strategy of growth and regeneration. While this is not incompatible with the emphasis on social justice which we associate with the Lib-Lab progressive tradition, it perhaps fits more neatly with the robust approach to enterprise of classical ‘progressive’ Liberals, and the business-centred approach of Conservative-Liberal ‘Progressive’ local government in the interwar years.

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2 Responses to Enterprise and Prosperity as Progressive Values

  1. Cathy Elliott says:

    This is fascinating, Emily. It reminds me of the discourse of “development”, which – since the end of the second world war and the Bretton Woods agreement – has also long been articulated with economic growth, national development, prosperity and so on. It is a discourse with a genealogy that emerges from the liberal language of the “civilising mission” – for all that it functions in part by suggesting that it breaks dramatically with colonialism. Liberals talking about India in the nineteenth century were likewise very interested in promoting “progress”, but which they generally meant not only prosperity, but also the desire to purchase British-made goods. However, because of its concern with the very poor and countries overseas, it also became associated with the more “social democratic” concerns of Labour Party, particularly since the emergence of New Labour.

  2. Cathy, I’ve just revisited this comment and am finding it even more useful and thought-provoking than when you first made it two years ago. I’m looking at lots of adverts for ‘progressive’ products, industries and opportunities in early twentieth-century Britain and have come across a small sub-set which are promoting travel to/investment in the colonies and dominions (and South America) largely on the basis that life is good and industry is progressive. Only one (published in 1930) talks explicitly about Empire – it’s for Southern Rhodesia, is headed ‘Travel Imperially’, references Cecil Rhodes and Lord Curzon and talks about ‘young towns, progressive commerce’. I’ve been putting it in the same broad category as adverts targeting the ‘progressive business man’ in Britain and taking it all as evidence that the idea of being ‘progressive’ was still tied to Enlightenment ideas about the development of commercial society (even as it was also being used by the left to indicate social democracy, new liberalism, and popular front communism). I’m really saying that these two meanings have the same genealogy, that the left deliberately tried to redefine ‘progressive’ in the late 19th and early 20thC, and that older meanings survived for longer than we might think. But perhaps it’s more complicated than that…?

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