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What’s new about Clegg’s ‘new progressivism’?

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On 23 November 2010, Nick Clegg announced a new division in British politics: that between 'new progressives' and 'old progressives'. The first of these categories encompassed those Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who supported the coalition; it excluded Labour members who, Clegg warned, were 'at risk of ...becoming the conservatives of British politics'. More than a striking piece of wordplay, this was an attempt to recast perceptions of British politics; in Clegg's hands 'old progressivism' became the new conservatism while old conservatism was eviscerated.

So, how new is Clegg's approach?

First, his speech could be seen as part of a long tradition of centre-left revisionism, which has sought to separate ends from means and to suggest that a static commitment to the established policy solutions of the left (from large scale nationalisation to uniform public services) is itself a 'conservative' response to a changing world. Back in 1962, Tony Crosland wrote a tract entitled The Conservative Enemy, much of which was aimed squarely at his own party. Thirty seven years later Tony Blair's conference speech focused on the battle between the 'forces of progress' and the 'forces of conservatism' and left listeners in no doubt that this was an intra- as well as inter-party conflict. Clegg went beyond this only in insisting that the entire Labour Party has become 'old progressive'. He is not, therefore, calling for Labour to reform itself, nor is he attempting to reunite the two strands of the 'progressive tradition' as previous Liberals, Social Democrats and Liberal Democrats have suggested. Instead Clegg wants to forge a new 'progressive partnership' between conservatism and liberalism.

This brings us to the second line of analysis: how does Clegg's rhetoric compare to that of previous Liberal-Conservative alliances? While the two parties have worked together in the past - and in the late 1940s even considered merging - reminders of these periods of joint working have been curiously absent from the Coalition's rhetoric. Instead, they have preferred to present their relationship as entirely novel, unexpected and counter-intuitive. That said, there are clear points of comparison. The emphasis on resisting Labour's 'big-statism' and attacks on civil liberties chimes with the anti-socialist rhetoric of Liberal-Conservative partnership after both the First and Second World Wars. To re-frame this as 'new progressivism' rather than 'traditional liberal conservatism' is a deliberate and striking decision. It indicates the extent to which British political discourse has coalesced around the ideas of progress and progressivism as seemingly uncontroversial, positive values.

This began a long time before Clegg's speech and even before the formation of the coalition. In August 2009 George Osborne claimed that 'The torch of progressive politics has been passed to a new generation of politicians - and those politicians are Conservatives'. The same year, Clegg argued that Labour had betrayed the progressive legacy and would be superseded by the Liberal Democrats as Britain's primary progressive party - although he did not yet envisage including Conservatives as partners in this endeavour. Gordon Brown, meanwhile, stuck to a binary definition of 'Left and Right, Labour and Tory, progressive and conservative', thus ignoring the Lib Dems and portraying Labour as the only possible progressive party. Despite this shared language, however, the three parties offered markedly different visions and policies.

'Progressivism' has always been something of a slippery term in British political discourse. Throughout the twentieth century, it has been used to indicate variously: a general sense of forward movement, a commitment to moderate pluralism and a centre-left or even radical-left orientation. Even the Edwardian Lib-Lab 'progressive alliance' was far less of a shared endeavour than political memory would have us believe. The dual meaning of the term - both temporal and ideological - only adds to its malleability. Cameron's Conservatives have made use of this by referencing both the social policy concerns of the 'progressive' Macmillan tradition and the radical 'improvement' rhetoric of the Thatcherite right. These are two opposed traditions of conservatism and two different uses of the language of progress.

Unlike Thatcher, Cameron and his colleagues have been more than happy to reference the centre-left associations of the progressive tradition, while rejecting its traditional emphasis on a strong, interventionist state. Even their proposed budget cuts were justified with reference to the centre-left politics of Clinton and Chretien, long before the Coalition with the Liberal Democrats necessitated such a shift in language. For his part, Clegg dismissed statements of 'progressive conservatism' as a contradiction in terms before the election. But it is the two parties' shared emphasis on localism, civil liberties, environmentalism and open government which forms the basis of his 'new progressivism'. It remains to be seen whether this language will prove enduring, whether 'progressivism' can be dissociated from its Lib-Lab past.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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