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Michael Merrick: The contemporary obsession with ‘progressive’ politics nullifies political identity and fuels personality politics

Picture 3 Michael Merrick is about to start a PhD in the School of Divinity, St. Andrews University.  Here he argues that the contemporary obsession with ‘progressive’ politics nullifies political identity and fuels personality politics.

On numerous occasions over the past few months Mr. Cameron has enunciated the rough outlines of a blossoming trend within the Conservative Party known as ‘progressive’ or ‘compassionate’ conservatism.  In his speech to the opening of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos a few months ago, Mr. Cameron gave a concrete indication of what he saw as the core values of this Progressive Conservatism; fairness, equality of opportunity, green thinking and individual and collective security.  Thus, if the exhortations of market institutions of a few months ago were fuelled by the belief that markets had started to transgress the ‘equality of opportunity’ mantra, then it is the ‘fairness’ principle that now encourages the Conservative leadership to side with the public over the politicians, and rightly so, when it comes to the broad denunciation of the expenses system. 

For the time being, however, it is these core values that I wish to explore, rather than the temporal events they have been applied to.  Now, Mr. Cameron has acknowledged in the past that the substance of these values, and the ideal society they speak of, are essentially the same as those held by the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats.  Which leads to the question, if all parties essentially agree on their vision of the ideal ends for society, then what makes the Conservative Party so different ?

As an answer, one phrase keeps cropping up: ‘conservative means’. And each time I hear this I am left with the lumbering question, what on earth is meant by ‘conservative means’?  Is being a conservative really no more than subscribing to one particular manual of action? I had always believed that being a conservative was far greater than operational preference, and was rather a vision of society that is indeed very much different from that offered by alternative political philosophies.  Accordingly, this is the principal danger of, and the principal objection to, the language of ‘progressiveness’ in all its unrestrained universality: communalising the ends and distinguishing only by the means gives legitimacy to the lie that ‘equality’ in the language of conservatives, socialists or liberals essentially means the same thing, even if it is achieved differently.  This is patently not the case.

Of course, I do not wish to deny operational distinctiveness between the three main parties.  My argument is rather that if one resorts to the means as the indicator of conservative thought, then one risks caricaturing such thought and, on occasion, sacrificing the grandness of the vision for the narrowness of its presumed structures.  In claiming commonality of the progressive vision, Mr. Cameron must fall back on precisely this operational posturing in order to claim political identity. 

From a short-term perspective, of course, one can admit that the ‘progressive’ language is profitable for the goals, if abstract, yet seem honourable, and offer a fertile ground upon which to plant any party flag and issue a rallying cry of humane thinking and generosity of spirit.  But one must ask, is this enough?  Of course it will attract, albeit temporarily, the disaffected, the discontent and the downright displeased.  But once one ceases to offer a distinctive vision, and found political identity on that distinctiveness, then is the whole edifice not capable of being hauled down by the slightest tremor of dissatisfaction? Is not a fragility, a personality politics, built into the system that a damning statistic or a uncharitable report can fatally expose?

Jon Cruddas has observed that Labour’s weak flank is its perceived lack of empathy with the common man, an emotional illiteracy currently supplied by Conservatives and their discovery of ‘progressive’ language.  What hasn’t been acknowledged is that it was precisely this space that New Labour so successfully occupied in the run up to the 1997 election: I was a child at the time, and New Labour were undoubtedly, we all agreed, the ‘good guys’. They, for the time, held the progressive space, and though now relinquished, it yet demonstrates the impermanency of the pursuit.

To transcend this cyclical possession of the ‘progressive’ space, alluring though it is, one must grasp hold of a particular end, not a particular means.  It has always seemed to me that this is the ace the conservative tradition has always held in its hands and has in modern times, save for occasional outbursts of banal nationalism, been disinclined to engage with.  That is, the conservative tradition is inherently radical precisely in its conservatism, capable of salving the peculiarly ahistorical and dislocated present through the nourishing roots of its past, were it only self-confident enough to do so.

And this narrative is something tangible enough for people to participate in, so that when the flower of success withers, when the facts and figures can suggest nothing but complete failure, when it is the opposition that are the good guys once again, there will nonetheless remain the seed from which the whole thing grew: a vision wounded though not terminally so, capable of drawing upon itself for the reinvigoration needed, and not merely having to wait on the sidelines for the other side to make the same mistakes and vacate the ‘progressive’ space into which one might once again jump.

In essence, if conservative thinking settles for saying ‘we’re essentially the same as them, but we’re nicer and will do a better and more efficient job’, then one commits oneself to fate in a manner that does little justice to the vibrancy and resilience of truly conservative thought.


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