Emily Robinson traces the parallel paths of ‘progressiveness’ in rock music and politics – in both cases, she argues, to be progressive was at first something optimistic and forward-looking but in the end came to be derided as ‘expertise at the expense of authenticity’.

What makes social democratic politics and prog rock ‘progressive’? The obvious answer is that they are both about improvement, about striving for advancement – whether that is measured in terms of social justice or musical experimentation. But there is nothing exclusive here. Definitions of what constitutes ‘progress’ are clearly subjective. One person’s great leap forwards is another’s worrying decline.

I’m writing a history of the meanings of ‘progressive’ in British political and cultural history, and one of the first things to strike me was that these current associations are relatively recent. Both, I think, only really developed in the mid-1970s.

In the case of prog rock, this was a matter of taking a term that in the late 1960s had been applied to everyone from the Beach Boys to the Rolling Stones and narrowing it down to describe only a very specific genre. In 1972, even MC5 – often seen as being proto-punks, opposed to everything progressive rock stood for – were described as an ‘act of progressive hard rock with a political slant’.[1]

In political terms, this was when the history of the Edwardian Lib-Lab ‘progressive alliance’ was revived, and came to play a significant role for social democrats hoping to change the direction of the Labour party. Simultaneously – though not necessarily relatedly – the term acquired a derogatory association with what was otherwise known as ‘trendy liberalism’.

The term ‘progressive’ is generally seen to have emerged as a political label in the late 19th century as a way of describing the alliance between Liberals and the fledgling labour movement. In the interwar years, many of the members of this progressive movement slipped to the left of the political spectrum, and we find them gathering around the Left Book Club and the attempt of the Communist party to draw together a popular front of ‘progressive forces’. In later decades we can trace a similar spirit in the wartime Common Wealth party and later still perhaps the New Left.

Yet, the term was not exclusively associated with this tradition. Liberals and Radicals had been described as progressive from the early 19th century on, and even after liberalism splintered a century later, the term continued to be applied to economic as well as to social liberals. In both its social and economic forms, progressive politics was associated with forward movement, personal development – with progress – but carried no intrinsic ideological content.

Between the wars, anti-socialist business-led ‘progressive parties’ contested municipal elections in England and Scotland, and ‘progressive business men’ like Harry Gordon Selfridge traded on their ‘get-ahead’ attitude. Even in the immediate postwar years, ‘progressive’ was applied at least as frequently to the values associated with free enterprise as to those of social democracy. So while the Attlee government portrayed itself as progressive, to many Britons its programme of nationalisation actually seemed to threaten progressive free enterprise – one advert placed by an omnibus company, for example, asked whether this ‘vital and progressive industry’ was to be ‘sacrificed to a political experiment’.[2]

In this period, ‘progressive’ business methods tended to be about maximising productivity, which tied into the ‘declinist’ fear that Britain was falling behind its competitors – that it was not, in the words of the Daily Mail, ‘half the progressive workshop she once was, and could be again’.[3] This was also the sense in which the term was applied to decolonisation – not that anti-imperialism was a progressive cause in itself, but that the newly independent nations were on their way to becoming modern, prosperous, progressive economies. One supporter of apartheid (writing to the Guardian in 1964) even argued that South Africa was ‘a prosperous, wealthy and progressive country, made so by the brains, industry and capital of white men’.[4]

Yet, at the same time, a derogatory use of ‘progressive’ was creeping into popular discourse. Again, this was particularly associated with decolonisation, such as a Daily Mail reader’s complaint that the sanctions on Rhodesia represented ‘a further manifestation of the current “progressive” cult that the white man is always wrong and the coloured always right’.[5] Other targets included ‘progressive’ attitudes to criminal justice and to education. One particularly vitriolic letter, sent from a retired lieutenant-colonel to the Times in 1973, blamed ‘a false sense of post-imperial guilt, which induced an unprecedented outbreak of trendy liberalism’ for creating the conditions in which ‘the handful of so-called progressives who dominate the mass media and education, were able, slowly but purposefully, to create our present permissive society’.[6]

The BBC was seen to be particularly guilty of this. One reader of its magazine, the Listener, suggested that it had become the mouthpiece of the ‘“progressive” establishment’, ranging ‘all the way from the Hippy Left […] to the Hard Left’.[7] Most famously, Mary Whitehouse focussed her Clean Up TV campaign on ‘those who call themselves “progressive”’, adding that: ‘This is no doubt because they themselves have become the new “Establishment” within broadcasting – and elsewhere – and are therefore more concerned that power should remain in their hands than that true progress should be made.’[8]

This distinction between ‘progress’ and ‘progressives’ is crucial. In the course of the 1970s, the two terms became dissociated from one another in a way I don’t think had been true before. The question of whether or not supposedly ‘progressive’ reforms would really lead to progress had always been contested. And self-described ‘progressives’ had often been seen as cranks. As the ‘Tory democrat’ Pierse Loftus put it in 1912:

‘Most “Progressives” are tee-totallers, many vegetarians and anti-tobacconists; some believe in the abolition of marriage and the State taking complete charge of all children; and Mr Bernard Shaw professes belief in breeding humanity by the methods of the Stud Farm. All these opinions are very “Progressive” no doubt, though we may question whither the progress along these lines will lead humanity.’[9]

But I think that it was only in this period that the right relinquished their claim to the term. In 1983, for instance, Robin Butler, who was Margaret Thatcher’s principal private secretary, suggested that ‘progressive’ had ‘the right vibes’ to describe monetarism, before being corrected by Ferdinand Mount, who pointed out that ‘These days it is almost exclusively associated with the Left’.[10] When Cameron’s Conservatives described themselves as ‘progressive’ more than 20 years later, they made clear that they considered this to be an advance into centre-left territory.[11]

Of course there’s an irony here, as it was in the 1970s – exactly the point at which this connection between social democracy and progressive politics became fixed – that the left were seen to be losing their claim to the future, to being progressive in any meaningful sense. As one of the characters in David Lodge’s 1988 novel Nice Work put it:

‘You and I, Robyn, grew up in a period when the state was smart: state schools, state universities, state-subsidized arts, state welfare, state medicine – these were things progressive, energetic people believed in. It isn’t like that any more.’[12]

Although in the 1980s and ’90s Labour’s modernisation revolved around resurrecting the partnership between social liberalism and social democracy, in the 1970s it was clear that it was this Keynesian ‘centre’ that had failed. Left-leaning Young Liberals, for instance, felt they had more in common with the participatory culture of the New Left than with the statism and expertise-fetish of social democracy.

There is an odd parallel here with prog rock. As we have seen, the specific application of the term ‘progressive’ to certain types of rock music developed only gradually. But it became ‘almost exclusively associated’ with this very particular style of music at exactly the time when it was seen to have become bloated, decadent and out of touch. Bands like Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Yes and Genesis looked elitist and anti-democratic, in ways that mirror the position of ‘progressive’ intellectuals within the Labour tradition. Critics complained that they had betrayed the ‘authenticity’ of rock and roll and chosen to prioritise technique over emotion.

The intellectualism of progressive rock was about its content as much as its form, particularly in its preoccupation with fantasy, folklore and science fiction. Again, there is a point of comparison with the progressive movement here. Key figures in both circles shared an interest in eastern-inspired spiritualism, and were also preoccupied with the contrast between an idealised pre-industrial past and a terrifying technological future. It is no coincidence that HG Wells’ War of the Worlds later appealed to Jeff Wayne. On Genesis’ 1973 album Selling England By the Pound, pastoral nostalgia gives way to consumer madness, while Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery (also from 1973) moved from Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ to the dystopian ‘Karn Evil 9’, with its evocation of tyranny-by-computer.

Yet, while the preoccupations of progressive rock musicians (like those of the early Fabians) may have led in esoteric directions, they did reflect a wider ambivalence about the nature of social and scientific ‘progress’ in postwar Britain. Fewer than half of the people who responded to a 1947 Mass Observation survey felt that mankind was progressing, and one in 12 feared it was ‘progressing backwards’; indeed, the authors of the report felt that this probably underestimated the proportion that had reservations about the nature or direction of progress.

Throughout this period, Labour thinkers struggled to come to terms with the culture of the affluent society. The reassertion of a ‘progressive’ identity was a deliberate attempt to overcome this cautious and conservative attitude and to insist that Labour needed to be a modern party, in tune with social changes. However, as many of the post-mortems of New Labour (from Blue Labour to the Purple Book) have suggested, this morphed into a relentless insistence on change, modernity and technocratic solutions. Although Anthony Crosland famously insisted that ‘total abstinence and a good filing system are not now the right signposts to the socialist Utopia’, in this account he is bundled together with Sidney and Beatrice Webb as an advocate of expertise over experience and rationality over romance. Progressive politics also failed to take account of the extent to which the cultural imperative to be up-to-date ran alongside uncertainty and scepticism about the direction of social, political, scientific and cultural ‘progress’.

Part of the attractiveness of ‘progressive’ as either a political or cultural term is that it is anticipatory, with connotations of being ‘ahead of your time’. But that leaves it in a very awkward position with regard to both ‘common sense’ politics and ‘popular’ culture. Although labelling certain ideas as ‘progressive’ gives them the appearance of inevitability, it also suggests that they are the preserve of a forward-thinking elite, out of step with the natural inclinations of the general public. Both progressive musicians and progressive politicians came to be associated with cold intellectualism, artificial experiments, and upper-middle-class expertise at the expense of the ‘authentic’ expressions of either rock and roll or labourist culture. If punk was the reaction against the first, Ukip may well be the response to the latter.

Emily Robinson is a lecturer in politics at the University of Sussex and author of History, heritage and tradition in contemporary British politics: Past politics and present histories (Manchester University Press, 2012).

This article appears in edition 22.3 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.

[1] Lyndon N (1972) ‘Rock’s Valhalla’, Listener, 10 August 1972.

[2] British Omnibus Companies Public Relations Committee advertisement, Picture Post, 23 November 1946.

[3] ‘This is what matters’, editorial, Daily Mail, 2 March 1966.

[4] Charles Heath, letter to Guardian, 6 December 1964.

[5] ST Woodger, letter to Daily Mail, 15 November 1965.

[6] Lieutenant-Colonel HV Rose, letter to the Times, 13 December 1973.

[7] Robert Stanton, letter to Listener, 17 August 1967.

[8] Mary Whitehouse, letter to Listener, 3 July 1969.

[9] Loftus P (1912) The Conservative Party and the Future: A Programme for Tory Democracy, Stephen Swift and Co Ltd: 35–36.

[10] Arthur Cockfield, letter to Robin Butler, with annotations by Butler and Ferdinand Mount, 2 November 1983. Thatcher MSS (Churchill Archive Centre): THCR 5/1/5/229 Part 1 f66. Emphasis added.

[11] Clark G and Hunt J (2007) Who’s Progressive Now? Conservative Party.

[12] Lodge D (1988) Nice Work, Secker and Warburg.