Saturday, 13 June 2009

The progressive (14th) century

Can you be a progressive without having a clear view as to whether your politics would express a preference for the 21st century over the 14th?

That was one question I put to in debating the very engaging Phillip 'Red Tory' Blond, when invited by Demos to debate the question "Labour vs Tory: Who are the real progressives?" at the Compass conference today. But Phillip rejected the idea that this was a valid litmus test for those holding progressive ideas.

My rather simplistic opening arguments was that the left might have a better claim to the 'progressive' banner because we believe in progress, while Conservatives and the right often do not.

Some conservative warnings against utopianism and the dangers of believing in the perfectability of mankind are important and useful. But we do believe our societies have made progress - the idea of human equality and human rights, the spread of democracy and autonomy, the extension of citizenship.

So we prefer the 21st century to the 19th, and the 19th century to the 14th, without a doubt. And I wondered whether this view was one which a "progressive Conservative" like Blond would endorse or contest?

"Its a close call", interjected Blond, perhaps half in jest, as I made the point. Pushed later, he refused to play. He had some good arguments for refusing to express a preference between medieval times and modernity. It was simply ahistoric to the question in those terms.

In any event, if the route to the 21st century had to be through the horrors of the 20th, then he would prefer not to get here.

If Blond was to play the game, I suspect the 14th century may just edge it - though he may also feel that was when the slippery slope began to where we are now. Indeed, Blond is an accomplished medievalist, and something of a fan of the middle ages. Indeed, he has written


The late middle ages especially were marked by a vast plurality of horizontal relationships, often overlapping, and a myriad of reciprocal and mutual duties and responsibilities. Likewise it is right that a medieval network of a predominantly horizontal communal and social order, exemplified by the church but also including guilds and agrarian communities organised around differential property relationships, was destroyed by the new vertical "secular monarchs". From the 14th century on, they asserted their power and corrupted a pre-existing highly plural and reciprocal community with demands for top-down allegiance, authority and control. Updating and recovering this earlier medieval model for the modern age is of course the task.


Perhaps it is too simple a point - and Phillip may have thought it something of a low blow. And I expect the Tory frontbench would (probably, mostly) be with me when it comes to taking the very long view, though perhaps Mr Oliver Letwin would be a swing vote.

But I would lay claim - for progressives - for the 21st century over the 14th on the basis of representative government, human rights, freedom of religion and freedom of speech, and the extension of political, social and economic citizenship driven by the ideas of equality, liberty and fraternity. There may have been some losses as well as gains - time to think, and a sense of the local - but, from my progressive perspective, the moderns would have it by some distance.

Today's debate was an enjoyable one. The Red Toryism is an intriguing set of political ideas - in its radical communitarianism, its localism, its anti-modernity and its anti-liberalism (well captured in this New Statesman profile). There is much to engage with and argue about at the level of ideas - though I remain sceptical as to whether its (important) distributionist agenda of recapitalising the poor has much purchase with Tory high command.

Whatever it is or is not, I am ever less sure that labelling the Red Toryism as "progressive conservatism" makes much sense.

5 comments:

John said...

Philip Blonde is talking rubbish.

Progressive conservatism is an oxymoron. Anyone who claims to be a progressive conservative is a moron.

Piggy said...

Isn't it also ludicrously ahistorical to suggest that the 14th century can act as a guide to the problems of the 21st century? There are, after all, one or two differences between the two periods.

It's also worth noting that those medieval centres of power that Letwin & Blond get all misty eyed about included nobles with their own private armies. They were the main target of the state-building 'vertical monarchies' and rightly so because they had a frustrating tendency to plunge the country into near terminal civil war.

And, while I'm on a meandering rant, is it not worth considering the possibility that the modern version of the medieval order that Blond wants might end up looking a bit like Tammany Hall.

Batteredstrat said...

Of course Conservatism can be progressive. It must be about conserving the things which are useful and further society's aims, while reforming the things which work against the general good.

For example, we wish to work against poverty, there is no argument between left and right on that.
Most young, never married, single mothers live in poverty. Do we

a) fund single mothers better so that there is no diference between marriage & work or benefits for the child.

b) fund single mothers less so that there is little encouragement for a young woman to have a child unless they are in a position to support it.

Most people would say a) is more desirable, because it hurts less children immediately. But if that then encourages more children to be born to mothers who see their child as a meal ticket, is it hurting more children in the long run? Is the problem self perpetuating? Are we even allowed to ask such questions in a 'progressive' society?

b) seems heartless, but would probably be more effectve in reducing poverty over a 25 year period.

Which is the most progressive?

Progressiveness is really the ability and will to make policy which while not electorally popular (or even morally attractive), will have positive effects long after its time.

Robert said...

Progressive labour-ism makes even less sense.

James said...

Oh do fuck off, Batteredstrat. Pregnancies often happen by accident. You inflicting misery on people isn't going to solve anything, much as you'd clearly love to.