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
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.