A recurring theme in British history over at least the past 200 years – if not quite a constant one – has been the idea of ‘progress’. Not merely the idea, but people’s belief in it, as one of the defining elements of their times, and of all their futures. This may be a characteristic of other countries too, but in the 19th century it seems to me, as a historian, to have been far stronger in Britain. It was a mark of her peculiar identity, the thing that distinguished her from her Continental neighbours. ‘Progress’ took different forms in different periods, of course. In the early and mid-19th century it was associated with the expansion of free trade, as the panacea to all Britain’s problems; later, as free trade began to disappoint, progress became identified with the growth of political democracy; and later still with the development of social democracy and equality, culminating in the welfare state. In the middle of this process, around the turn of the 20th century, there was a short period when self-styled ‘progressives’ identified, perhaps perversely, with ‘imperialism’, as a means (many of them believed) of spreading political and social progress into the wider world; through what now became known as the ‘Commonwealth’ – softer to the ears, and more ‘liberal’, therefore, than the word ‘Empire’.
As a boy and a young adult in the 1950s and ’60s, I remember fully imbibing this belief in ‘progress’, which Conservatives shared as well as Liberals and Socialists, and usually genuinely embraced – Churchill and Macmillan, for example; although there were always some backwoodspeople who couldn’t reconcile themselves to it: the welfare state, Labour governments, decolonisation and the rest. ‘Country’s going to the dogs. Hrumph.’ They were almost universally derided: in Beyond the Fringe, Private Eye, the Goon Show, and the common ‘Colonel Blimp’ stereotype; right up to Monty Python’s Upper-class Twits. In this environment, few of us thought they posed any real danger to the ‘progressive’ status quo. So it wasn’t worth studying them. In school and university history courses they were marginalised, as history’s losers. (And most of them near death.) The ‘Social History’ department in my university, for example, only taught the progress of the working classes, as if other classes – uppers and middles – weren’t part of ‘society’ at all. There were dozens of histories of the Labour movement, but almost none of Conservatism, let alone the further Right. Even as one of those ‘progressives’ myself, I felt this wasn’t right. My decision to do research on the British Empire – a largely upper-class and reactionary entity – was a way of re-balancing things. In fact my work was always implicitly if discriminatingly anti-imperial; but because of the subject I had chosen, rather than (say) the growth of the Co-operative movement in Flintshire, or Chartism in Chelmsford, the Social Historians had me marked out as a reactionary from the start. When I became a member of the local Hull Labour Party some even suspected me of being a Tory mole. That’s how difficult it was to study the Right at that time.
One reason for my discomfort at this state of affairs was my rather broader knowledge of history than the Social historians’, and my realisation, deriving from that, that British history didn’t always ‘progress’, on a steady upward path. Even by the Progressives’ own reckoning there had been slip-ups in the past. I wasn’t confident that another wouldn’t appear soon. As indeed it did.
Over the last few months commentators have been remarking on the fundamentally reactionary nature of both of the great revolutions that have hit the Anglo-American world recently: Brexit and Trump. ‘Back to the ’60s’ is a common description: unravelling Obama’s health and climate-saving reforms, the retreat into nationalism, racism, Trump’s rampant sexism – that photograph of him signing an anti-abortion measure surrounded only by men – and so on. – This YouGov survey of voters’ opinions on social issues is telling; with 53% of Brexiters calling for the return of capital punishment as against 20% of Remainers, and 42% as against 14% favouring corporal punishment in schools: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10156105125957818&set=a.10150645663127818.480194.503857817&type=3&theater; the ’60s – or even the ’50s – with a vengeance.
Yes, it certainly looks like that: a sudden Reaction against the progressive tide of the past. Except that it isn’t so sudden as today’s commentators appear to think. I’d push it back to the late 1970s; which is where in one of my (neglected) books, Britannia’s Burden (1994), I placed the beginning of what I called there ‘the Great Reaction’; symbolised – but not strictly caused – by Thatcher’s 1979 government, and her assault on two of the great engines of progress before then: the Trade Unions and the Welfare State. That’s when the reaction set in.
One reason why it wasn’t seen at the time for what it truly was, is that in many areas of social life ‘progressivism’ was still healthy, and running on apace. This is especially true with regard to gender issues: the place of women, equality for gays and transsexuals, and so on; their ‘liberation’ not fully completed yet, but the tide of history still seeming to go their way. The expansion of consumer choice also made a difference. People were becoming ‘free-er’ individually: or at least, insofar as they could as individuals. All this obscured the ‘Great’ reaction that was under way in the political, collective and economic spheres. And on which Brexit and Trump have suddenly cast such a blinding light.
What’s different now is that gender progress seems to be under threat from the Reaction too. Hence those great women’s marches. Trump and Farage really should keep off the women. They may be more resistant and resilient than we men. They give birth to babies, after all.
What’s interesting in retrospect is the way that New Labour [sic] presented itself as Progress incarnate (even using the word as the name of their pet membership organisation). Labour taking over from the Tories was progress, banning racism and discrimination was progress, making local authorities and other agencies work together was progress, the PM attending cabinet in his shirt sleeves and addressing ministers by their first names was progress… but raising public spending, renationalising privatised industries and supporting trade unions wasn’t progress – in fact, any of those things would actually be regressive (in some never quite specified way). In some areas the Blair government did block the Great Reaction, but in far too many it stood aside and let it happen – or even tried to take ownership of it. I thought at the time that we were storing up trouble for the future; I didn’t think it’d be so long in coming, or so bad when it did.
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How did progressivism fare in Britain in the 1930s?
One of the ‘slip-ups’; to be corrected – and Britain (and the world) returned to their ‘progrssive’ tracks, after the War.
I think we’re more aware to-day of human complexity and motivations, the way people can hold contradictory views on political, social or economic issues. The Tory Party has always had ‘liberal’ voters and Labour many conservative ones. Psycho-History was once fashionable in ‘Great Men’ of History type biographies, but applied on a much wider basis could have fruitful results.
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