UK Politics

So what exactly is 'progressive' in politics?

Rick Wakeman
Image caption Rick Wakeman: Progressive and a Conservative

If you still associate the word "progressive" with "prog rock" - all 20 minute keyboard solos and long-haired men in capes - then you probably haven't been paying attention to the news much lately.

Progressive is everywhere.

As he faced his final hours in Downing Street, it seems Gordon Brown tried to reach out to Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg as a fellow "progressive".

"I have studied history," the former prime minister is said to have intoned.

"I know that the future of our country is a progressive alliance between two progressive political parties."

Mr Clegg agreed - but, unfortunately for Mr Brown, it was the Conservatives, traditionally seen as anything but progressive, that he formed the "progressive alliance" with.

Explaining his logic, in a speech on Wednesday, he claimed Labour were now "old progressives", while the Lib Dem/Conservative coalition were "new progressives".

David Cameron, meanwhile, has been busy rebranding himself as a "progressive Conservative" since well before the general election.

So what is going on? Why are British politicians from all sides so keen to be seen as progressive (it is a different story in America, where the right tend to use "progressive" inter-changeably with "liberal" as a term of abuse)

And what exactly does it mean?

Seem kinder

It does not help that there are two separate, but related, meanings in circulation for the same word.

When applied to taxation, progressive simply means hurting the rich more than the poor by taking a progressively bigger slice of their earnings.

For days after the government's spending review, debate raged over whether the cuts to public services and welfare payments were "progressive" or not.

Coalition ministers were keen for their policies to be seen as progressive because it made them seem kinder and not bent on wiping out jobs and services for the fun of it.

They want to be seen as - to use another increasingly worn-out political buzz word - "fair".

The other meaning of "progressive" is harder to define.

It is often used as shorthand for a vaguely left-wing way of looking at the world, even though those who describe themselves as "progressives" insist it is not an exclusively left wing club.


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".

These progressives tend to see themselves as people who believe in reform, in changing society for the better, as opposed to conservatives, who they believe want to keep things the same or even turn the clock back.

They are socially liberal - favouring more rights for women, gay people and minorities. They believe in "modernisation" and technological progress. They also believe in the redistribution of wealth.

But a new breed of liberal and conservative thinkers is challenging this - much to the irritation of the traditional keepers of the progressive flame on the left.

It is getting pretty heated out there.

Former Lib Dem media chief Mark Littlewood, who now runs the free market think tank The Institute of Economic Affairs, argues that "progressive taxation" is quite separate from being a "progressive".

He is evangelical about low taxes for all - including the rich - and reducing the power of the state.


Pressed for a definition of what "progressive" means to him, Mr Littlewood, who briefly ran a think tank called Progressive Vision, said: "Support for reform and modernisation, a cynicism about entrenched institutions and an open mindedness about changing those institutions - and a belief that new technologies are beneficial to mankind, if they are properly harnessed."

David Cameron has latched on to the word, he adds, because "it smacks of modest, moderate modernisation, not particularly of the radical right - a counterbalance to the word conservative".

One of Mr Cameron's favourite think tanks, ResPublica, says redistribution of income can play a part in being progressive but adds: "A more robust view includes functioning communities, social networks, civic groups, families and other institutions amongst the proper means and ends of progress."

But the idea that you can describe yourself as "progressive" without backing progressive taxation is met with ridicule by Labour supporters.

Richard Angell, of Blairite think tank Progress, says it is not necessary to be left-wing to be a progressive but you do have to believe in wealth redistribution - as well as a basket of other causes such as electoral reform, gay rights and more rights for women, on which he claims Mr Cameron does not measure up.


Asked for his definition of "progressive," he says it is a "combination of fairness, equality, democracy and modernity".

Mr Cameron, he argues, only passes one of those tests: "He doesn't look like a traditional Tory, so in that sense he is modern."

He adds: "They (Cameron's Conservatives) are desperate to try and get on New Labour's territory. They want the centre ground for themselves and they know that the British public are more progressive than just about anybody in the Conservative Party."

When he made a speech in January on "progressive conservatism", Mr Cameron said he shared the same "progressive" goals as Labour and the Lib Dems to build the "good society" and the "good life" - but he wanted to use "conservative" means, such as shrinking the state and handing power to individuals, to achieve them.

Nick Clegg has yet to describe himself as a "progressive conservative" but his definition of what it means to be a "new progressive" sounds suspiciously familiar.

Old progressives, he argued in a speech on Wednesday, "emphasise the power and spending of the central state", while new progressives "focus on the power and freedom of citizens".

Labour and its new leader Ed Miliband he argued, risk becoming the "new conservatives of British politics" as they obsess over income tax distribution, while ignoring the wider social picture, such as access to good public services and life chances.

"For old progressives, reducing snapshot income inequality is the ultimate goal. For new progressives, reducing the barrier to social mobility is," said Mr Clegg.

But the real mark of a "new progressive", he added, was that they believe in coalition governments.

And that, ultimately, is the problem with a word with no fixed meaning - it can be made to mean anything you want.

As Mr Clegg's former Lib Dem colleague, Mark Littlewood, says "progressive" is an example of the "rather vacuous language that has infected modern politics" and "it begs as many questions as it answers".

But if all this has left you yearning for a simpler time when "progressive" really did just mean a long-winded form of rock music, even that movement was not quite the anti-materialistic, hippy enclave that it seemed.

"Touring with Yes was generally great fun and I got on well with the rest of the guys but we were like chalk and cheese in many respects," prog rock keyboard legend Rick Wakeman recently revealed.

"I was unique in the band as a card-carrying Conservative."

Here is a selection of your progressive views.

Brian, if you still associate "prog rock" with 20 minute keyboard solos and long-haired men in capes - then you probably haven't been paying much attention to Prog Rock lately......Like the politicians... it's moved on. Nigel, Plymouth UK

Yet another word has had a reversal of its' own definition. Those using the word progressive are regressive, destroying everything that true progressives have improved. Ian, Derby, England

No mention of the original 'Progressive Conservatives' who were continuously in power in Ontario (Canada) for well over 30 years starting just after WWII. It seems to have worked for them and their opposition were not Socialists but the (original) Liberal Party. Tim, Cambridge UK

"Political ends as sad remains will die" - a line from one Yes song reflecting a consistent theme in the band's work, which emphasised the potential of humanity to achieve a more enlightened and spiritual existence. Some may have believed this was possible in the 60s and early 70s, but will have had that knocked out of them by the events of the next few decades. The latest crop of "progressive" politicians are working with the same ideas that shaped the last thirty years. If we are lucky the next thirty will be no worse. Stuart, Oxford, UK

"Progressives" are people who believe that humankind can be perfected, transformed from a base or fallen state to an enlightened or exalted state. Most modern religions depend on this view, as does Marxist political thought and western humanism. The trouble, of course, is that having a Great Idea on behalf of everyone else usually ends in tragedy - Stalin, Mao, the Crusades, Iraq, Afghanistan... As John Gray so brilliantly outlines in his books - try Straw Dogs - the progressive view is fundamentally flawed. It cannot overcome the species nature of the human animal, and all attempts to do so are chimerical. Give me a non-progressive politician any day. David, Cirencester, UK

"When applied to taxation, progressive simply means hurting the rich more than the poor by taking a progressively bigger slice of their earnings."

In what sense is someone on a million pound salary, losing half in tax and keeping £500,000 'hurt' more than a person earning £15,000 and paying 5% tax?

It should be remembered also that in the 50's and 60's - periods of rapid economic growth - the top bands of tax in the UK and the US were much higher (90% in the US, in fact). At a time of supposedly unavoidable austerity, why aren't these tax bands being reintroduced? And why is corporation tax still going down and not up? Paul, Reading

I think I'd ratter stay with the "progressive" with capes and never ending keyboard solos. They might be Old self-indulgent farts by now, but at least with them, we know what to expect.All this renaming reminds me so much of the "New" Labour that came out with nothing really new. Just sounds like old tosh to me.I say, Rick Wakeman for President. Mike, London, UK

In the US, if you're a Socialist, you call yourself a progressive, because it sounds like you're "for progress", even though in reality, Socialism is completely "regressive", given that it has failed every time that it has been tried, leaving countries economically stagnant or devastated. The only reason why David Cameron calls himself a "progressive", is because he agrees with the morality of collectivist-altruism, which lies at the root of Socialism. How can he oppose an insidious political ideology, such as Socialism, when he can't even bring himself to oppose its moral code? Rougie, London

When I saw the picture on the BBC Homepage, I wasn't sure if it was Rick Wakeman or Boris Johnson. Graham, Kingsbury, London

I understand "progressive" in the context of politics to relate to the word "progress" - literally, continuing towards a goal (presumably of making things better). No matter how disingeniously the term may actually be applied! Andrew, Glasgow, UK

The word "progressive" seems to have lost any real meaning, ("old progressives" is an oxymoron!) despite its left wing connotations. However because it is heavily associated with progress, every movement wants it as their label. Politics now seems like a squabble over semantics in order to please the electorate. Virgil, London, UK

Hopefully all these progressive politicians will end up in the same dinosaur's graveyard as the did those "prog rock" giants of yesteryear. Progressive politician is a prime example of an oxymoron! KG, Manchester

"Progressive" had meaning in UK politics a hundred years ago, before the two world wars dramatically changed the country. How can you be "progressive" if you have to regress a century for it to make sense? In 1946, George Orwell highlighted it as one of those words "often used in a consciously dishonest way" in his famous essay 'Politics and the English Language'. Look at the way self-proclaimed progressives use it. They believe it means fairer, more just, and so forth. This makes it short hand for "I am morally superior to those other people". As Orwell points out, such notions lie at the heart of politics by deception. It is political jargon without clear meaning - the most useless kind of word. Jon, Reading, UK

I remember the era well and I own most of the vinyl to prove it. Listening to the music it seems to me that most of it sounded OK at the time but looking back it never actually went anywhere at all. Perhaps the politicians are making an entirely valid use of the word...... Rodger, Manchester

Surely the term 'Progressive Conservative' is a contradiction in terms. This is especially truegiven that the Con Dem alliance is busily taking us back to an age of even deeper divisions in society where the have nots will never have the opportunity for self improvement that anyone in their mid 30s has had. Rob, Gateshead, Tyne and Wear

As the article briefly alludes to, Cameron and Clegg's coimbined use of the word 'progressive' is much more akin to late 19th and early 20th century British usage of the word than it is post-War usage. Since WW2 (at least) it has been regarded as almost uniformly a synonym for 'socialism' or 'social democracy'. Before WW1 and back into the 1880s it tended to be used interchangeably with 'Radical' (which was usually, though not exclusively a factional term for a branch of the Liberal Party). Those who claimed the name stood for ongoing reforms to the constitution and structure of British state and society, opening up access to education, the franchise and opportunities for employment and social betterment and for the 'lower classes' and other previously excluded groups. They were often in favour of handed back governmental conntrol to the regions, away from London-centric vested interests. They could also favour measures that would actively involve the state in financially benefitting the underprivileged, but were not always uniform in this. Very few of them are describable as 'social democrats'. They differed very mcuh among themselves in how much they respected the existing leaders of the nation, and how much they identified with the 'working classes' personally. Tellingly, these 'progressives' ended up scattered across the political spectrum - although some ended up in what became the Labour party, others ended up in what are now the Conseervative and Liberal Democrat party. Maybe this new usage of 'progressive' has had our modern leaders studying the history books?Matt, Bristol, England

Progressive seems to involve taking money from those who work hard, scrimping to get by and hand it to those who rely on the state to do everything for them. The rules are rigged to ensure that those who do the least and put most strain on the system get the most. Anyone who protests that this isnt fair is labelled regressive. Geo, Glasgow

The cynic might conclude that politicians are perfectly happy for the hoi polloi to associate the word "progressive" solely with taxes that squeeze the rich until the pips squeak. They know they can win an election on that, and then with a hurt expression claim that they were misunderstood. They know, too, that most people will not even read their angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin definitions of what the word means when they use it - and fewer still will be able to make head or tail of them. Ian, Biggleswade, UK

I first noticed an increase in the use of the word "progressive"by Labour politicians after they failed to win the election. It was almost as if they were suffering from Tourettes Syndrome. Unfortunately to me it appears to have become a noise word in the same way that a teenager would "yes, but, no, but"

Geoff, Enderby Leicestershire

Another word that seems to have undergone a change in meaning when it comes to politics is "new". Judging by its recent use, it now seems so mean "not," hence New Labour = Not Labour and the Lib Dems' claim to be "new progressives" says nothing more than they are in fact "not progressives". Cameron, Oxford, UK

'Progressive' in politics? This is really dreadful news. Rick Wakeman a Conservative!!! I'll be returninfg all my 'Yes' and 'Wakeman' Albums. Thomas, Farnham, Surrey

I think Rick Wakeman is great! In the early 1970's he lived in Gerrards Cross. I bought a copy of his Six Wives LP, knocked on his front door and he autographed the cover for me. I still have it (and also on CD as well). Lucy, Brandon, UK

The trouble with any fashionable word is that it becomes a mere slogan without any precise meaning that you can either agree or disagree with, so that it muddles thought rather than clarifies it. 'Progressive' now means no more than something the speaker agrees with; thus you call your own policies progressive, and brand those of your opponent as 'regressive' without any need to show rationally why this is so. In the same way, to call your opponents' ideas 'undemocratic' is to rubbish them out of hand, for who would want to be thought to be against democracy? The use of slogans closes off arguments without the substance being rationally discussed, and is a form of thought manipulation. Trevor, Uxbridge, England

I grew up with progressive music. Recentlly, the organisation I work for was taken over by a Blairite, who gushed about his progessive style of management. Unlike progressive music, it's all down the pan. Many people have left and otjers are totally dissillusioned. A shame. Steve, Cheshire

Also don't forget that in the early and mid 1970s the progressive rockers got so carried away with their 20 minute keyboard solos, capes, whole albums inspired by arcane Hindu scripture, and all other manner of overblown silliness that popular culture revolted and spawned the punk movement. When the current "progressive" political trend dies, who will be the Sex Pistols of politics? John Haywood, Hampshire, England

Progressive rock, by definition is progressive. Looking back at the seventies and saying "That's progrock" isn't really accurate at all. To modern progressive rock standards, what you refer to as "all 20 minute keyboard solos and long-haired men in capes" is (Although very good) mere "rock". British politics however will never be progressive, by definition it is set out to cut lines that differentiate the proletariat and bourgeoisie. The workers and the slavedrivers. In this country you're worth what you're born into, daddy's bank balance and the skin on your back. Any exceptions are anomalies. T, Yorkish

Don't you just love the way politicians squabble over buzz words! The more so recently. I think it is a demonstration of how pivotal the centre ground has come to mean in UK politics in the last 15 years. The Blairites used to love to use the term radical which had very much come to the fore in the Thatcher years even though there was absolutely nothing seriously radical about any of their policies. They did however openly commit to and steal the Tory policies in order to win the middle ground. The word "progressive" did indeed take centre stage in the recent election. When defining the meaning of "progressive", in the political sense, I think of it as defining policies for change, quite literally "progress" and not for remaining with the status quo. In that sense I think David Cameron and the coalition have every right to use the word since they have already broken the mould and set up a coalition government. This might indeed be progress to get away from the bi-lateral bickering between government and opposition. At the same time I see nothing progressive about Labour's policies, which seem to be drifting back into the past. Phil, Milton Keynes

Progressive rock was (and still is) simply a term for music that pushed the boundaries of what was considered possible. It moved music forward a generation in about 5 years until some bands decided money was more important than the music. For politicians to call themselves progressive, they have to change society for the better in a radical way. The Conservatives and Labour parties are too tied to vested interests to do this. The Lib Dems might have done so, but change frightens the electorate too much to let them win outright. Tony, York

In the Court of the Cameron King, Close to the Clegg, Tales of Torygraphic Oceans, Wish you were Peer, Selling England for a Pound Jon, Vale of Glamorgan

I suppose politicians like this word precisely because it is so vague and can be bent to mean anything they really want it to. Speaking for myself though, whenever I hear a politician using this I equate it with being extremely old fashioned - especially when someone from the socialist left uses it (it just seems mildly embarrassing when our current government use it). I'm not sure why the word has these connotations to me - I am no fan of Wakeman et al's odious rock operas - but in politics I don't really connect the two. It just sounds like a very weak and tired word. "Progressive" just seems like the user of the word is trying too hard to appear modern while in reality being completely outdated and irrelevant. I wonder if I'm the only one who feels that way?

Maybe we need punk politics or new wave politics? At least new wave to me sounds new rather than tired. Maybe someone can wake me up when we get to Acid Politics? John, York

An interesting article. Wakeman has long been known as a Conservative Party supporter and fund-raiser. Yes collectively up-rooted themselves and moved to Switzerland in the late '70s - for tax reasons and Rush founding member Neal Peart is a fan of novelist Ayn Rand. 'Progressive' might well be a political phrase du jour but 'Progressive' is also still very much synonymous with Progressive Rock.Darran, St Helier Jersey

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