The royal family: a “progressive” institution
George Orwell listed “progressive” as one of the “meaningless words” of which he disapproved, in his essay Politics and the English Language, 1946. In a small act of homage, I included it in my Banned List (buy the book or download the e-book; or browse the blog), despite its being a favourite of that other Blair, the former Prime Minister, who used it as an even vaguer alternative to the “centre left” or the “left of centre” (always with the emphasis on “centre”).
The wisdom of both Blairs has been confirmed by a YouGov survey, which asked people what they thought “progressive” meant in politics. “Don’t know” came top on 34%. Where people gave substantive answers to an open-ended question, these were grouped according to theme. The commonest, accounting for 18%, was “modern, future, forward-looking”. Followed by 12% for “improvement”, althogh “innovation” accounted for a further 4%. Only 4% spontaneously mentioned that “progressive” was left-wing or to do with social justice; and 4% offered cynical readings such as “Double speak for capitalism” or “Wishy-washy liberal politics”. The largest category, though, at 22%, was “other”: a collection of uncategorisable answers, in which no single theme emerged from more than 3% of respondents.
Even when offered a list of words or phrases, only 35% plumped for “social improvement” and 32% for “political reform” ahead of 27% who chose “Don’t know”.
Despite such lack of clarity about what it means, when YouGov asked, “Generally speaking would you say being ‘progressive’ is a good thing or a bad thing?”, 57% of people said “a good thing” and only 9% “a bad thing”.
This helps to explain why, when YouGov presented a list of people and organisations, Jamie Oliver was named by the most people as progressive and the royal family emerged as the most popular choice as a progressive institution.
Joe Twyman of YouGov presented the findings at a seminar yesterday organised by the Nottingham University Centre for British Politics, about the changing meaning of the word “progressive”.
Emily Robinson presented an interesting paper on its use as a party label in the London County Council elections of 1889 (when one of the common meanings of the word was “profitable”). It was used to describe the Liberal-Labour coalition that took control of the LCC, but it was adopted partly because candidates did not want to be associated with any national parties, or indeed, with any political parties at all. The anti-politics fashion is not a recent phenomenon.
David Blaazer of New South Wales University and author of The Popular Front and the Progressive Tradition, gave a talk on why, despite having written the book, he thought that the word, although it meant something to groups of people, usually on the left, at some times, was essentially meaningless.
Orwell would be smiling comfortably in his grave.
Tribune poster courtesy of the LSE Digital LibraryTagged in: banned list, opinion polls, progressive, yougov
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