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Shane Frith: Reclaiming the "Progressive" mantle for the Right

Picture_3 Shane Frith is director of the classical-liberal think-tank Progressive Vision. He has worked for Conservative MPs in the UK and National Party MPs in his native New Zealand.  He is a former chairman of the International Young Democrat Union, linking young people involved in centre-right political parties worldwide, including the Conservative Party.

The left-wing think tank Demos has recently launched a project entitled “Progressive Conservatism”.  Two of the most misused words in the English language are liberal and progressive, often used by left-wing politicians or organisations to cover a socialist agenda.  In the United States, the term liberal has been so maligned by the actions of those calling themselves liberal, that they now call themselves “progressives”.  In the United Kingdom the term liberal is closely associated with the (il)Liberal Democrats, so many new Labour types describe themselves as “progressive”.  When did anyone call their opponent a “progressive”?

While liberalism is a coherent philosophy - confused by association with illiberal politicians wearing this banner - progressive is merely a description.  While we call our think tank Progressive Vision, as we are a forward-looking think-tank seeking progress, we openly describe our philosophy as liberal.  We combine individuals from both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats who believe in the genuinely liberal traditions of both.  The last Conservative Government was deeply liberal (and progressive), by freeing individuals from the slavery of the state and trade unions and standing up to the totalitarian (and socialist) Soviet Union.  Yes, more could have been wished for in terms of social liberalism, especially on gay rights, but Margaret Thatcher did much to reduce the size of the state and promote greater individual freedom.

As for “progressivism”, the label is now used by socialists, rightly embarrassed by association with a philosophy responsible for the impoverishment and death of millions in the 20th Century.  Progress isn’t increased regulation – witness the meltdown in the highly regulated finance industry; increased taxes – witness economic growth rates in countries with high taxation; more union powers – witness Britain in 1979; or a state run healthcare system with some of the worst results in the developed world.

Progress in Britain would be a vast rollback in the regulatory state, allowing industry to get on with the business of business; a substantial reduction in taxes, allowing individuals to spend their own money; a reform of schooling allowing parents to choose which school to send their children; and replacing the NHS with a system of individual health savings accounts.

Socialists will argue that progress can be achieved by their philosophy, yet there is no evidence.  Classical liberal philosophy, of which capitalism is part, has demonstrably produced prosperity and happiness on a massive scale.  Whether it is Britain in the 19th Century, the United States in the 20th or China in the 21st, progress was provided by economic liberalism and capitalism.

The Conservative Party should be wary of their new friends in this project.  In a podcast to accompany the launch of the Progressive Conservatism Project, the director of Demos, Richard Reeves (former Guardian and New Statesman columnist, not to mention Labour special adviser) discusses his view of “progressivism”.  He starts with the definition of individuals having power over their lives or “self authored” – all very nice until he goes on to talk about a "fairer distribution of that power".  We all know that that is code for a socialist agenda of compulsory redistribution of wealth. 

He continues by saying that “the enemies or progressive thought are those that believe that institutions, be it the state or the market or multi-national corporations or unions, should have power over us”. This is where the left are deeply wrong.  The only institution that has power over the individual is the state or the others empowered by the state.  OK, the “market” isn’t an institution, so he’s downright fussy here.  Multi-nationals only have power over individuals when granted monopoly power or protected from increased competition by the state. Even trade unions have no more power over individuals than any voluntary association until the state grants them special privileges. Only the state has coercive power over the individuals.  Trade unions, multi-nationals or even the corner shop are, without state intervention, voluntary associations of individuals with which we engage with voluntary.

In a Guardian article late last year, Mr Reeves wrote:

“The Conservatives' claim to be a progressive party is a bold one, especially in the light of the Thatcher years…  Cameron's "pick'n'mix" approach to his party's history cannot disguise the fact that the establishment of the welfare state, including the National Health Service, was the single biggest progressive step in our nation's history, and which owed little to the Tories.” 

If he believes that Britain didn’t progress between 1979 and 1990 I’d like to see him define “progress”.  If the NHS was the greatest achievement of progressivism, I’d hate to see what failure looks like. With some of the worst health outcomes in the developed world, the NHS is a national embarrassment, not a source of pride.

I fully agree with the Conservative Party moving to take the mantle of “progressive” from the left.  It was a label we should never have allowed them to get away with.  In his podcast Mr Reeves stated that "progressive Conservative" isn’t necessarily an oxymoron.  I would go further and argue that while "socialist progressive" is indeed an oxymoron, progressive, liberal and Conservative should be synonyms.


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