Whiggery Pokery

Keith Sutherland
11 May 2010

Most of the commentators on this site assume that the results of the election indicate a ‘progressive majority’ in the UK. For example, activists such as Billy Bragg and Peter Tatchell have claimed that the electorate in general is more progressive than the political class and the ‘Tory’ media. The evidence for this is the aggregate count of Labour and Liberal votes (52%), as opposed to the 36% who voted Conservative.

But in what sense does this really indicate a progressive majority? The word ‘progressive’ has two distinct meanings. The first meaning is derived from mathematics -- a progressive tax is a tax where the rate increases as the taxable amount increases. The left usually argues that this is A Good Thing whereas right-wingers are more disposed to a flat taxation system, but the technical term ‘progressive taxation’ per se is value-neutral.

However the other meaning of ‘progress’ is normative and derives from the Whig theory of history. Whig historians stress the rise of constitutional government, the growth of personal freedoms (including universal human rights and equality) and scientific progress. The term is often applied to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress toward enlightenment. (John Gray, for example, has explained the progress myth in terms of the secularization of Christian eschatology. Gray endorses a third [Darwinian] notion of progress, but we’ll come back to that later.)

I would suggest that Bragg, Tatchell and others are guilty of conflating the first two meanings. Labour voters have always been attracted by the first meaning, as progressive taxation is in the interests of the low paid. But there is considerable evidence that the core Labour vote is anything but progressive – in fact significantly to the right of Attilla the Hun -- when it comes to social attitudes (immigration, equality for minority groups etc), as Gordon Brown discovered to his cost when he had the misfortune to run into a disillusioned ex-supporter.

How about the Liberals? It would be foolish to argue that most LibDems (especially the SDP element) would not support progressive taxation; nevertheless the Liberal Party (as the successor of the Whigs) has always been more interested in ‘progressive politics’ in the second, normative, sense. In this domain social Conservatism has always been more in line with the views of most working people. After all the Labour Party has always been more Methodist than Marxist.

Labour voters have only tolerated progressive politics (in the second sense) in so far as the party also implemented a policy of progressive taxation. One of the achievements of the Blair-Brown administrations has been to gerrymander a progressive coalition (in the first sense) by blurring the boundaries of the tax and benefits system to the extent that most voters are now recipients of tax’n’benefits (alongside schools’n’hospitals). The other form of gerrymandering has been to extend the reach of the state to the extent that in some parts of the country most people work (directly or indirectly) for the government. This brought rich rewards to the Labour Party in the election.

So in this limited sense there can now be said to be a ‘progressive’ majority, but we should be clear that this merely indicates that voters will always privilege their own (economic) interests. The assumption has been that we are all net beneficiaries of the tax’n’benefits system, nobody pointing out the borrowing splurge that underwrote the largesse of the state. Perhaps when voters realize the annual bill per household on the interest payments alone is pushing £3,000 the support for ‘progressive’ politics in senses one and two will evaporate. It’s then likely that the third (Darwinian) notion of progress will triumph in the field of political economy as it has in every other applied science. And ‘progressives’ won’t like that at all.

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