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.