I laughed, in a sympathetic way I hope, when I read a letter in the Daily Telegraph pointing out that Steve Hewlett, the media commentator who died this year, had admitted ruefully that when he had heard that his cancer was progressive he had thought for a moment this was a good thing.
The progressive alliance is this election’s equivalent to the old ‘broad left’, which once inserted foaming revolutionaries into respectable politics. I complained about this label progressive before the 2015 election.
Progressive politicians tend to favour progressive taxation, even though the term is merely technical, indicating that the higher the sum taxed (above £80,000 income, say), the greater the rate of tax on it. The Oxford English Dictionary mentions it under the term soak-the-rich.
The earliest known use of the word progress was Reginald Pecock, who in 1458 became the first English bishop to lose his see through heresy. He was accused of denying belief in the Holy Ghost after referring to ‘progress to outward works’ coming after prayer, a perfectly orthodox notion.
From the start, progress was often used abstractly and coupled with process. The great battle over progressive ideas came on the eve of industrialisation.
To the novelist Thomas Love Peacock, it was more apparent
in the march of science than in social development. In his Headlong Hall, Mr Foster, the perfectibilian, says: ‘Look at the progress of all the arts and sciences…’ To which Mr Escot, the deteriorationist, replies: ‘Look at the rapid growth of corruption, luxury, selfishness.’
The progressive party has not always been Labour. In the first years of the London County Council, the two sides were called Progressives (Liberal
and Radical) and Moderates, later Municipal Reformers (Conservative). The Progressives lost power in 1907 and were superseded by Labour.
Perhaps the prime example of the progressive cul de sac is the history of progressive rock, condemned by the New York Times in 1968 as ‘musically advanced but emotionally barren’. Perhaps so, but the real problem with prog rock was to define itself as appealing to a minority.