As we look around, we find that England, and the UK as a whole, is increasingly becoming more progressive on practically every social front possible. This is not to say it is the most progressive, or that it has no ways in which to progress further, but it is a simple fact which is important to assert for the context of this article. To some, this is taken (as one would imagine) as a bad thing, a sign of deteriorating culture, or as Britain’s final stages in its collapse into globalism and Americanisation. However, to those of us on the socially progressive side, we find this to be a positive (what progressive finds progress unappealing?). This article is written to address two groups in each half of the article, Localists who are sceptical of progressivism, and progressives who are sceptical of Localism. Let’s make clear here that ‘scepticism’ does not necessarily mean ‘opposition’, as I don’t purport to be able to change the minds of those firm in their views within a single article, rather I am attempting to reach out to those who are undecided, uninformed or intrigued.
So, what is progressivism? Oxford languages defines progressivism as ‘support for or advocacy of social reform’. This is not a bad definition, though frustratingly broad, so let’s seek to specify a little. Progressivism as I am using it here is the belief in or advocacy for the rights of marginalised social groups. Still a broad one, but one which is much more serviceable for this article. Some may have an instinctual knee jerk reaction against the term. However, many things most would take for granted as positives (i.e. universal adult sufferage and abolition of slavery) were fought for by progressives. So, while we can debate whether or not progressivism is the term best used, that is the progressivism I refer to, not a frivolous or hyperbolic one, but a pragmatic and grounded one.
Second, let’s tackle the idea that progressivism is in some way a result of an overreaching globalism, this ‘globo-homo islamo-leftist’ conspiracy. This is fundamentally false. Globalism and progressivism are also not entirely disconnected, but as is often the case we mustn’t conflate correlation with causation. So, what is this link? The link is liberalism, a force which powers globalisation and is the spur of much social progressivism. This is tied to the liberal conception of individualism, which pushes both for a naive free market and the idea of social tolerance in the name of empowering the individual.
Progressivism, far from being forced on us from an outside entity, is in fact a movement stemming from within our country, as in all countries. In fact, historically, many within Britain have been at the vanguard of broader progressivism. Where there are communities who feel disenfranchised or maligned, we will find the sparks of progressivism. Perhaps you can already see the link to Localism? We will return to this. There are two reasons I can see someone pushing this narrative that progressivism is a product of rampant globalism, the former much more benign than the latter. The first reason is the reality that a lot of conversations are forced to go through an American lense before being discussed. A great example to illustrate this is BLM supporters calling for the defunding of police in Britain. In an American context, calls to defund the police make more sense, considering its sizable budget and often militarised nature. Within Britain however, these demands make little sense, with an already underfunded police force. If one wishes to see a monetarily weakened police force here, they need only demand the maintenance of the status quo. We can see how someone could thus conclude these movements were pushed onto us by external powers. I would instead argue that progressivism has become as much a victim to globalisation as other aspects of our society, so that now we must conform to the activism of the US regardless of the difference in context, damaging the ability of these movements to push for positive and practical goals. The second reason someone may argue this point is as a way to discredit the valid concerns of minority communities as being in some way alien to our nation. We can call this the ‘colour revolution narrative’, as often these movements are decried as such within nominally socialist nations such as China and Vietnam. Unfortunately for those who seek to discredit these movements, this idea holds little weight. Minorities seeking rights need no further agitations than those of the society they live within against them and the injustices which they face.
Why then is progressivism a positive to Localism? At the core of Localism and the local are the individuals who make up every community. I say this as I think it can be easy to forget that when the local is viewed as an abstract, and within those communities there are people from a wide array of backgrounds and social groupings. Therefore, a basic standard of social acceptance is a good thing to have within localism. I also believe that progressivism can allow for greater social cohesion, something I know many people sceptical of progressivism also value, since members of different identity groups won’t be arbitrarily excluded resulting in a more encompassing community. Some will reject progressivism on principle, but critical thinking is essential, regardless of the modern liberal connotations of words such as “progress” and “tolerance”. The basic ties between a future of Localism and a future of progressivism are clear.
Now that I have addressed the Localists, I must turn to the progressives in the same way. Progressivism has developed a strong association with hyper-liberalism and a centralised system, even an authoritarian one, in people’s minds. However, many progressives wouldn’t shun the label, or even if they were hesitant to accept it would do little in the way of action to dissuade people from assigning that label to them. Their argument is a simple one oftentimes: ‘there are many reactionary forces in our society, we need a strong state in order to ensure that minorities are not harmed’. I am of course sympathetic to this view, I also do not wish for anyone to be hurt for being a part of whichever group they may belong to, despite this sympathy I find that I have some clear objections. I will avoid the use of the cheap argument ‘but what if your strong state becomes reactionary, infested by the same forces you wanted to counteract’, while I think this argument does have merit, I feel it would be more advantageous to address the problems with this assuming that the progressive government does as it is supposed to.
The biggest issue is this idea of the progressive state does little more than put a bandage on a festering wound. While the law may dissuade more obvious acts of bigotry and violence, which is in itself commendable, it doesn’t resolve the root of the issue – the reactionary views themselves. Just because employers may not openly refuse to hire someone for their identity, or just because a thug is more reluctant to assault them, doesn’t mean those views have gone away. Rather, they are seething under the surface. I feel the need here to be clear that I don’t view laws against violent assault or employer discrimination as inherently oversteps of government power, I am merely using these as obvious examples of afforded protections which still do not address underlying problems. A gay man, for example, does not wish to live surrounded by contempt and malice, regardless of whether or not they face direct adverse effects as a result of this. So then, what is the solution? The answer lies in the local, the interpersonal and in direct action. It is only when change has occurred in peoples’ minds that real systemic change can occur. For an example of this, Ireland became the first nation to legalize gay marraige through referendum – with 62% for and 38% against. Regardless of what your views on this issue is, it becomes clear that this progressivism here is the people’s will. That is the kind of news which I see as a positive, rather than a government which pushes liberal progressivism onto people who do not want it. I also find it hard to believe someone could argue that Ireland is some far out progressive edge case, considering its strong Catholic and Protestant leanings. So, with all this considered, I’d ask my fellow progressives if they seek change through the local, spanning out in the form of more stable and long lasting change, rather than through a top down approach which fails to resolve the underlying issues.
A note on ‘the people’s will’. I have been asked what I would say if the Irish referendum had swung the other way. I have thought about this, because it is a fair question to raise. The answer I have arrived at is that I would obviously have been personally dismayed, and would have individually advocated that people continue to push for progressive policies, the same as I would if a bill I supported was struck down in parliament. We shouldn’t change our individual values so they match the peoples, especially if we regard those views as incorrect, we should instead hold true to our values and wait for a better opportunity when more support has been gathered. To fold at opposition is to give in to tyrannical majoritarianism. The popular will is not omniscient or omnibenevolent, it is simply the greatest vehicle for change in our society regardless of perspective. Similarly I don’t get unhappy when laws I agree with are passed, I simply think it is more hopeful when those laws come with the support of the people.
To conclude, I think there is great potential within Localism for progressives and a strong foundation for support of real progressivism within Localism. I am not without my personal biases, and I’m sure this topic will not be without contention, but I hope I have laid the groundwork for what can hopefully at least come to be a fruitful discussion. I simply hope that we can work together to build a future in which the individual and the local are able to exist positively together, under the banner of a genuinely progressive Localism.
Disclaimer: Articles on this website are written from the perspectives of various Localists, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Local Matters. Our contributors come from a wide array of varying political backgrounds, and we believe that cooperation across the political spectrum is essential.