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So, this is Progress?

25/10/2010
Solly Zuckerman, Tobruk 1943

Solly Zuckerman

It was good to read Matthew Parris’s excellent op-ed piece in The Times at the weekend on that wonderfully British but ever-so-slippery word fairness.

I would recommend anyone to read it as it really underlines the need to “First, define your terms…” as my old maths master used to say. We all know that, if you aren’t ready to do that, then others will do it for you.

Without the obvious references to Humpty Dumpty or to George Orwell’s essay on Politics and the English Language, Parris makes the point that politicians choose their watchwords for good reasons. Not least among these is that old ruse of finding a positive description which, if opposed by other parties paints them as unfair: the baddies.

In this, the coalition has seized the initiative. They have defined terms but also created a hostage to fortune. If their measures start to appear unfair, they lose credibility. Those of us with long memories can remember how a previous government fell to pieces around a commitment to family values…

Another phrase that has returned to prominence this year is the adjective progressive. The last months of the Brown government as well as the first of this have seen both sides claiming their policies were progressive. But what does this mean?

When we say something is progressive, we usually mean that it is moving forward in some way. It can mean that it is a cumulative benefit, or (if of a political party) that it is favouring or implementing social reform. Of course, it can also mean that it is modern, efficient and forward looking or (if referring to taxation) that it increases in rate with the sum taxed.

As if this wasn’t complex enough, my two main encounters with progressives have been ideological – within the worlds of science and religion.

A student research project looking at the infamous Two Cultures debate which took place fifty years ago between CP Snow and FR Leavis and their followers led me to discover the work of the socialist scientific progressives who rose to influence in this country in the 1930s and 40s.

Leading scientists, such as Haldane, Bernal, Needham, Hogben, Blackett, and Levy were members of Solly Zuckerman’s London-based Tots & Quots dining club. (From quot homines tot sententiae – loosely translated ‘as many opinions as men’).

This club met regularly from 1931 to 1933 and debated the general significance of science to society and the conscious role science might play in social development. Its second phase – from November 1939 to 1942 – was stimulated by concern that science and scientists should be effectively deployed in the war effort.

The core of the group was Zuckerman, the physicists J. D. Bernal and P. M. S. Blackett, and the geneticist C. H. Waddington. Zuckerman recalled that ‘not one was yet a member of the Royal Society; in the end, all were’.

From their discussions came much of what we now consider as common-sense in terms of the state, science and society. Their role as scientific advisers and government insiders leading to much of what we now think of as the welfare state.

Of course, in religions across the world, progressivism is opposed to orthodoxy’s belief in the once and for all revelation of the word of G’d. Religious progressives believe in the continuing interpretation by humans inspired by and working in the spirit of their religion. On the one hand immutable law, on the other gradual development of modern law based on traditional precepts.

In Judaism, for example, Liberal and Reform Jews are part of the progressive movement, while Orthodox adherents, by definition, are not. There is a similarity to left and right in politics, and, unsurprisingly, there is a greater likelihood of political conservatism in orthodoxy than in the liberal progressive movement which, although politically neutral, espouses more inclusive and egalitarian practices.

But, here we come to the problem of progressivism. How can you be sure that, by changing something – a tax or a religious practice, for example –  in order to make things better for one group of people, you do not lose something good and worth keeping, or make conditions worse for another group of people, who are equally entitled to have their needs met?

The Tots and Quots might have asked whether decisions are based on good, scientific, rational research? We do not have a tradition of evidence based policy in this country. Perhaps, in the interest of progress, it is time we started…

Parris M (2010); ‘Fairness isn’t about arithmetic, it’s about morality’; The Times; 23.10.10; p.21

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From → Communities, Policy

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  1. Making Progress | Γονείς σε Δράση

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