Thursday, 25 November 2010

Who's more "progressive"? David Cameron, Hegel or Rick Wakeman?

It's a word that's starting to get on my nerves. Just before the last general election in the UK, the word 'progressive' was barely a soundbite away from spittle-flecked lips of politicians of every shade of political opinion. In the sense that no politician would wish to be regarded as regressive, I suppose it is natural that they would like to be thought of as progressive. But why did they all start using the word? And what, other than a vague notion that going forward may be better than going backward, does progressive really mean anyway?

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," (says Wheeler), "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 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".

All of which leads Brian Wheeler (and me and probably most other people of a 'certain age') to think back to another notable movement which once adopted the word 'progressive'. When rock music came out of the 'underground' and into the arena in the late '60s and early '70s, it was proud to call itself progressive. So-called "prog-rock"" bands such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Yes championed 'serious' rock music that demanded a long attention span and the ability to sit through ten-minute drum solos without squirming.

I am not sure that prog-rock really had any greater claim to being truly progressive than prog-politics. When punk came along in the mid-to-late '70s prog rock seemed to vanish almost overnight. The market simply dried up. Maybe that was indeed progress? But it probably wasn't the sort of progress that prog-rock stars such as Yes's Rick Wakeman had envisaged.

Who knows, maybe what we need next is a good dose of punk politics? Who, I wonder, might be the political counterparts of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious?

Read more on the BBC site: So what exactly is 'progressive' in politics?

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