Being old-fashioned doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong. Of course it does with our Old Etonian fop Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP, the surprising new darling of the Conservative faithful; but then pushing ‘old-fashioned’ back 200 years is a bit of a stretch. Since then things have got better. For a start we (the British) now have democracy, of a sort; have stopped trying to rule the world; and have advanced tremendously in how we look after our people – a.k.a. ‘social reform’. That took a long, heroic struggle during those 200 years, mainly by ‘ordinary’ folk and their enlightened leaders, against the forces of ‘reaction’. It was called ‘progress’. We all agreed on this. While it was going on, the old ways were, quite reasonably, dismissed as ‘backward’.
But then a curious change took place. History – not only in Britain, but in America too – itself took a backward step. It was done quite deliberately, as witnessed by Margaret Thatcher’s explicit call for a return to what she called (misleadingly, I believe) ‘Victorian values’. But they were no longer called ‘backward’. Instead, free marketism was viewed as the new ‘progressive’ way, and yesterday’s ‘progressives’ cast as the villains who had turned our history ‘back’. Unrestricted capitalism was the new expression of ‘modernity’. (Marx, incidentally, would have agreed. Did Thatcher realise what a Marxist she essentially was?) It was the welfare state, the mixed economy and trade unions – those engines of progressiveness up until then – that were old-fashioned. Thatcher, Major, Blair and Cameron all danced to this tune, as they sought to free up and so ‘modernise’ the British economy. People came to accept this new definition of ‘progress’. All you had to do in order to dismiss anyone with vaguely ‘socialist’ ideas, for example, was to present them as a throwback to the 1970s. That was enough, supposedly, to make Jeremy Corbyn unelectable. Never mind the virtues of his policies, such as they may have been. There was no need to debate them on their merits. Their ‘backwardness’ was enough, on its own, to damn them. We’d been there before. (And what had it brought? Endless strikes, apparently; unburied corpses; and swivel-eyed Bennery.) We had to ‘move on’: for the sheer sake, it seemed, of moving on.
Thus does ‘progress’ become defined: relatively to the politics and mythology of the day. One period’s reaction becomes the next’s progress, and vice-versa. (I give another example of this in https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2015/08/07/bernard-porter/whos-a-dinosaur-now/.) But this can change too. Many on the Left today – though they don’t like to say so – are literal reactionaries, because they want to go back to (some aspects of) the 1970s too. They (we) see that decade as the one where their (our) sort of ‘progress’ faltered, to be replaced by one which seemed at the time to be more up-to date, but in fact was ideologically far more regressive. In any case, whichever it was, it shouldn’t have been distinguished by the name of ‘progress’, which simply deterred people from looking at its true merits and demerits. And as the demerits of Thatcherite capitalism become clearer and clearer today, there’s just the chance that socialism might take up the banner of ‘progress’ again. Which could give it a fillip among those who only follow ideas – like wearing clothes – that are fashionable. (I’ve always stuck to my 1970s gear, by the way.)
I was hoping that Theresa May’s disastrous speech at today’s Conservative party conference might help in this, and exemplify the shift in the political ‘centre ground’ – and consequently the perceived direction of ‘progress’ – that I wrote about earlier (https://bernardjporter.com/2017/09/28/centre-ground/). It was widely anticipated that she was about to give a huge boost to council (aka ‘social’) housing, and reintroduce private rent controls; which would have reversed one of Thatcher’s flagship policies of thirty years ago, and really returned us to before her time. I’ve just watched her speech, however, and if it was there – between her coughs and splutters (poor woman; I know what it’s like, it’s happened to me) – it was in a very watered-down, or perhaps heavily-disguised, form.
The most memorable ‘return to the past’ at the conference was Boris Johnson’s rampant, sub-Churchillian jingoism yesterday; which clearly got the old delegates’ vaginal and – what’s the male equivalent? – juices flowing again, but wasn’t the kind of old-fashionedness I had been hoping for. As with Rees-Mogg, that was a reaction too far. Do they teach this sort of stuff at Eton? Still?
And ‘progress’, remember, is just a word.