4 May 2021

The betrayal of progressive politics


Progressivism no longer defines the reformist movement it once was. It has been detached, or at best semi-detached, from the politics of working people, the ‘broad social movement on behalf of the underdog’, as the Labour Party used to define it. Instead, a large part of the modern left not only differs from its former positions but often actively contradicts or even seeks to destroy them.

In the UK, the most consequential betrayal of the progressive temper is its attachment to nationalism – every kind of nationalism, apart from English, which is both weak and unorganised.

Support for Irish republicanism, now most powerfully represented by Sinn Fein, has been a far left cause for decades – one whose prominence in the public imagination was enhanced by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Sinn Fein itself has performed a remarkable political transformation, putting behind it decades of support for republican terrorism to pose as a perfectly normal political party.

Scottish nationalism too hhas a strange hold on the progressive imagination, seemingly irrespective of the SNP’s miserable record in office. As another Holyrood election looms and yet another Nationalist victory seems likely, Scotland looks condemned to years more bad management and constant squabbling – both with the UK government and within nationalism itself, as the fundamentalists and the moderates battle over how to win the glittering prize of independence.

If nothing else, the SNP’s woeful handling of education, the health service and the Scottish economy is a back-handed compliment to the sheer power of nationalism placed in an anti-English frame: destructive of the close social and sentimental relations in the UK, as well as friendly understanding between the differing political clans in Scotland – yet still able to pose as a ‘progressive’ force, succeeding in gathering support on that basis in the British left (and, of course, the US Democratic Party).

Scottish politics seems ever more defined by flights of fiscal fancy. Take the recent Institute of Fiscal Studies report showing that all of the Scottish parties have hugely inflated their demands for public spending – even the Conservative Party and especially the SNP, an index of how politics as a whole and nationalism in particular have become unmoored from realities, especially if independence is achieved.  A survey yesterday by These Islands showed that a majority of SNP supporters believed that the official figures on the Scottish economy, compiled by Scots economists, were Westminster propaganda. Attachment to facts had been a progressive cause: support for nationalism has destroyed it.

Then there is the embrace of identity politics. Support for Black Lives Matter – a position distinct from revulsion at the killing of George Floyd and police brutality in general – has led progressives to bend the knee to a range of positions which will make societies worse, especially for people of colour. These include acceptance of concepts like ‘white guilt’ and ‘structural racism’, as well as the contention that only active anti-racism can prove a white person is not racist.

Few would claim we live in a perfect post-racial society, but Britain does quite well in reports by several European institutes in tackling racism and prejudice: in fact, the UK usually comes out top. The report last month from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Diversities was in tune with these findings: it found there was racism in the UK, but rejected the idea it was institutional in character.

Predictably, that finding provoked real rage from progressives: Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, characterised the report as “complete nonsense…a PR move to pretend the problem (of racism) does not exist”. The Cambridge Professor of Post-Colonial Studies, Priyamvada Gopal, cast doubt on the academic qualification of the Commission chairman, Dr Tony Sewell, whose Jamaican parents were immigrants to the UK: when she learned he indeed had a doctorate, she tweeted that: “Even Dr Goebbels had a research PhD”.

Identity politics has led progressives, especially young ones, into all kinds of crazy trends: no-platforming, pushing for dismissal for long-past and often innocuous comments and demanding de-canonisation of figures such as Gladstone and the Scots philosopher David Hume (whose name was removed from an ugly Edinburgh University tower the moment a complaint was made).

Brexit too, has betrayed many progressives into reaction, with rage at defeat leading hundreds of thousands to demonstrate for an immediate reversal of the vote. A common theme in that now becalmed movement was that the lower orders had been duped into voting against their own interests. I have heard many times that Brexiters voted “with their hearts rather than their heads”, an observation usually conveyed in tones of sympathetic, if regretful, understanding.

There may have been good, rational reasons for remaining in the EU to share the benefits of the single market – assuming that the UK could continue to dissociate itself from any drive towards further integration. But there were at least as good reasons for voting to leave, not least the desire to restore Parliament as the source of British sovereignty, over which some democratic leverage could be exerted.

The EU, by contrast, is not a democracy, and seems unable to become one: as the journalist Ben Judah wrote recently, consolidation in the EU “is consolidation without democracy: Empowered elites with alienated voters”. Judah was referring particularly to Italy, now with yet another unelected technocrat, former European Central Bank chairman Mario Draghi, as a parachuted-in prime minister. “The system”, Judah continues, “has depoliticised itself in order to survive”. That de-politicisation has itself long been a progressive cause, shifting power from elected centres to national quangos and global institutions. But that time is likely passing: the challenge now is to find a democratic politics which can empower, and bring into active political engagement, those who have been written off as ‘populists’.

Progressivism is not an entirely spent force: President Biden’s $2trln reconstruction plan announced last month – “the largest American jobs investment since World War II” – is one massive example. Unfortunately, many modern progressives see such projects as beside the point. Increasingly their definition of ‘progress’ is not material improvement for the poor, but anything that will destabilise and divide societies in the name of anti-racism, or anti-imperialism, or anti-statism, or anti-capitalism – even as they lack a plan to pluck a new order from the chaos these revolutions would usher in.

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.