Sunday, January 16, 2011

Progressive problems

Alert readers may have noticed my use of the word 'progressive' in inverted commas in the last post.

The usefulness of this term for Liberal Democrats seems to be the source of some debate, most recently in Lib Dem Voice, and which I have previously addressed here.

One can make a case for the use of the term 'Progressive'. It does have some historical validity, it is a suitable description for graduated taxation, and is a useful catch-all term for all those, of differing political traditions, whose goals are to improve the position of the less well off and less powerful in society.

But why say 'Progressive' when what we mean is 'Liberal'? Here, the problem lies in internal debates among Lib Dems, and particularly the tendency on the 'left' of the party to caricature 'economic liberalism' as crypto-Thatcherism.

I am more than happy to be considered Liberal in political, social and economic views alike. As Asquith said, I am a Liberal "without prefix or suffix" (except 'Democrat' in the party title but that's a different matter.) I don't see why the concept of 'economic liberalism' should be defined by those who aren't Liberals but right-wing Conservatives. And for Lib Dems to disavow liberal economics is to preclude any possibility of differentiating our approach to economics from that favoured by socialists.

Unfortunately the term 'economic liberal' is tainted even among many Lib Dems. If I say I support the government's economic policy because it is 'liberal', what I mean is that with some reservations and caveats I believe it to be aimed at protecting the poor and less powerful. But in this context support for 'liberal' policy can easily be misrepresented as meaning that the government is engaged on an ideological Thatcherite project to slash public spending that I endorse. Hence one resorts to describing policy as 'Progressive'.

The answer is for Liberals to champion a consistent Liberal ethic not hedge their Liberalism with qualifying adjectives.

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