The New Statesman Essay - Why I am really a progressive

Melanie Phillips is regarded by some as an apologist for the authoritarian right. She argues that sh

Once upon a time, in one of the most enlightened countries on the globe and in the most enlightened era known to mankind, there lived and worked a journalist. Let us call her M. This journalist subscribed to certain unshakeable principles. She believed that members of a civilised society had a set of duties towards each other, that selfishness was wrong, that the strong had a particular responsibility to help the weak, that harm to others could and should be avoided and that the lies with which all power was abused should be exposed. She believed that, by adopting these principles, it was possible to build a better society. She was thus indistinguishable from the left-wing circles in which she moved, which congratulated themselves repeatedly on being the most progressive social grouping in the country, if not the world.

One day, M stumbled across some disturbing facts about education. Children were not being taught to read; nor were they being taught history or maths or languages or anything very much. A view had prevailed that children were as well equipped as adults to make sense of experience. So teachers, who decided that teaching children facts or the rules of language or maths might stifle their innate creativity, were taking a back seat. This view was said to be progressive. Yet the result was school-leavers who could barely write an application letter and even university undergraduates who needed remedial courses in the basics.

M was baffled. She wrote that teachers should transmit knowledge to give children the mental maps by which they could find their way in the world. Parents and teachers wrote in support. Her left-wing friends, however, told her that she had become a reactionary Gradgrind and appallingly right-wing. Yet how could it be progressive to support a philosophy that inflicted its most devastating damage upon children at the bottom of the social heap?

After a while, M stumbled upon another perplexing finding. Rising numbers of people were abandoning their spouses and children, or breaking up other people's families, or bringing children into the world without a father around at all. M's enlightened friends claimed that these activities made the women and children involved happy; they were a refreshing change, they argued, from the bad old days when simply everyone was miserable because marriage chained women to men who were essentially feckless wife-beaters and child-abusers.

Yet M knew that there was a huge amount of evidence that family disintegration and re-formation did incalculable damage to children, and that there was far greater risk of abuse of children or violence between adults in cohabiting or serial relationships. So since marriage, by and large, was a protection for both children and adults, M thought that the state should promote it as a social good. Again, she was told that she was reactionary, authoritarian and right-wing. Yet how, she wondered, could it be progressive to encourage deceit, betrayal of trust, breaking of promises and harm to children?

What was really weird was that the more loudly such "liberals" proclaimed their progressive credentials, the greater the harm they seemed to promote. They were now advocating legalisation of cannabis and even "hard" drugs on the basis that it was possible to regulate safe drug taking and reduce harm. Dismissal of this view was to "suppress grown-up debate". Yet M was reading clinical studies that were documenting alarming effects of this "soft" drug marijuana. These studies showed, among other things, permanent damage to brain function among people using cannabis between 10 and 19 days a month: far greater carcinogenicity than tobacco; damage to the immune system; damage to unborn children; the onset of psychosis, memory loss and, among some people, aggression; implication in road-traffic accidents and at least one aircraft crash; and, unlike alcohol, long-term retention of the effects in the body.

So legalisation of cannabis, let alone other drugs, would not minimise harm - it would nationalise it. Yet when M wrote all this, self-styled liberals accused her of being "criminally insane" and "evil". "You're a Nazi," one reader wrote. Another, who claimed to work with drug users, accused M of "spreading bile and lies" and that she was "worse than any drug dealer could ever be - and probably responsible for killing more people, too". Far from being thought irrational or wicked, such writers would be considered to be in the very vanguard of progress. Is not legalisation, after all, said to be the liberal position on drugs? Another reader wrote to M to confess his thought crime. "I am reasonably liberal, but I really fear this dreadful culture shift." The "but" revealed how far liberal values had travelled to become their own antithesis.

As you have probably guessed by now, I am M. Over the past 15 years or more, I have come to the conclusion that great harm is being done to some of the most vulnerable people in our society through the collapse of normative rules of behaviour - harm that I think is inimical to a liberal and civilised society. This position is said to be reactionary. The harm itself is redefined as entitlement and those who advocate it are said to be progressive or liberal. How can this be?

What has happened is that language itself has been twisted out of recognition in order to conceal the deeper lies that are being told. In a country notable for its suspicion of theory and where political history has been all but abolished in schools, it's only too easy to sow confusion. What, after all, do these slippery terms - liberal, progressive, conservative - actually mean? I don't accept the Prime Minister's Manichean division between progressives and the forces of conservatism. Many who claim to be progressive in fact subscribe to what David Selbourne has called the "corrupted liberal orders". They are social wreckers in progressive clothing.

Our liberal values were first given to us by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. Right from the start, these values contained elements that were later to threaten the whole project. In particular, they suggested the perfectibility of mankind, that, through open-ended advance, society would be improved and human goodness would flourish. As the late Christopher Lasch once wrote, the outcome was that the economic machine came to be driven by "insatiable desires". Pursuit of happiness became the highest goal of society. As the individual took ever greater priority, moral questions turned from how we ought to behave towards each other to promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Moral obligations were in effect junked, opening the way for a libertarian revolution in which freedom became an end in itself and liberalism was directly threatened.

Liberalism was essentially a moral project based on recognising the difference between right and wrong. As John Stuart Mill warned, a free society would be threatened if its "restraining discipline" were relaxed. This is because the paradox of liberalism is that, although it is a philosophy of freedom, it depends on moral restraint as the basis of liberty. Licence, by contrast, is a threat to freedom because it observes no obligation to others. As the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has put it: "For liberalism, freedom is collective self-government, and morality consists, at least in part, in those virtues which support it. For libertarianism, by contrast, freedom is the protection of individual choice."

So in our libertarian society, where individual choice is all, "liberal" and "progressive" have come to mean something very different. Liberals took for granted that freedom depended upon self-discipline. Libertarians decided that all such restraint was repressive. The individual had to be free from all attachments to family, culture, nation, institutions and traditions that might fetter freedom of choice. Since every individual was equally entitled to such free choices, the distinctions that were the basis of morality were eroded. To be progressive was thus inevitably redefined as to be free to do harm, with harm itself being reinvented as virtue. So to walk out on your children was, in the remarkable words of Michael Ignatieff, an act of the "liberal imagination" because it upheld an individual's needs against "the devouring claims of family life".

People who criticise this attitude as not only selfish but socially destructive are told, however, that they are illiberal, prejudiced and reactionary. They are also intimidated into silence. In his devastating pamphlet Moral Evasion, Selbourne bears witness to the vast vocabulary of Orwellian distortions used by the "liberal" media. Terms of abuse routinely hurled at ideological opponents include "moral crusaders", "moral muggers", "moral panic", "moralisers", "authoritarian moralists", "mullahs of the religious right", "new puritans", "priggish", "hectoring", "baying", "guilty of knee-jerk intolerance" and even "ushering in a new Reich". How can these assailants possibly be liberals?

In our culture of rights, what we desire is elevated to an entitlement regardless of the consequences for others. Anything goes, all ethical bets are off, and anyone who objects is a reactionary. Yet, as John Gray has written, far from creating tolerance, group rights are likely to lead to more intolerance because issues become non-negotiable and permit only victory or surrender, leading to a kind of "reverse apartheid". A prime example of this is the tactics of the gay rights lobby, which brands opponents of the reduction in the age of consent or the abolition of Section 28 as homophobes and subjects them to hate campaigns of rare viciousness.

It is perfectly possible to be tolerant and compassionate towards gay people while opposing a militant campaign which may do harm to children. Not to think so subscribes to the view that minorities that claim victim status can do no wrong, and so anyone who opposes anything they say is to be branded a bigot. Indeed, it is not just heterosexuals who are so branded but even some homo- sexuals themselves, whose own principled opposition to such measures may expose them to "outing" campaigns whose vileness beggars belief but on which phoney liberals, forever trumpeting their concern for gay sensibilities, are strangely silent.

The trump card played by all those in favour of group rights is "equality", the claim that all the minorities ask is to be treated in the same way as everyone else. This, though, is another debasement of the language. Equality once meant the equal worth of persons expressed through fellowship, shared experience and mutual respect. Now it has come to mean identical material ends and outcomes. Yet people are not identical. Their behaviour and circumstances are very different from each other. To treat them as identical may therefore be unfair or harmful.

That's why, for example, the woman who doesn't want a man around but gets pregnant via a sperm-bank - on the basis that she has the right to be a mother "like any other woman" - is reckless of the disadvantage to her child. That's why, in education, the "all-must-have-prizes" doctrine that says there is no difference between academic and vocational qualifications is leaving young people both uneducated and unskilled. That's why divorce court judges who award children and assets with no regard to behaviour routinely cause the manifest injustice of rewarding wrongdoing and punishing blamelessness. How can any of this possibly be considered progressive? This radical individualism worships autonomy and deems obligation to be oppressive. Yet without obligation there can be no such thing as society. Isn't this what liberals were supposed to find so objectionable about Thatcherism? Progress has been reduced to a hedonistic selfishness which unites the so-called progressives of the left with the so-called conservatives of the right. Consumerism rules in personal relations as much as in economics. Our most advanced thinkers regularly genuflect before the altar of globalisation, loudly reasserting their powerlessness to make a fairer society in the face of market forces.

In such a world, it has become a positive merit to stand for nothing because this means that nothing can stand in the way of change and the march of global capital. All tradition becomes a suitable case for disposal. Yet this is as backward-looking as it is ahistorical. If the nation state is to be junked as an anachronism, we may enter what the French thinker Alain Minc has called "a new Middle Ages" characterised by tribal conflicts and hostilities. As for the claim that the traditional family should now be consigned to a museum, no less a liberal than the social historian Lawrence Stone has warned that the present anarchy in personal relationships would take us right back to the pre-modern period.

To reject the barbarisms that are flowing so strongly from this reductive view of progress is not to be illiberal or reactionary. On the contrary, to resist them is to be progressive because a forward-thinking world-view is one that genuinely cares for individual human beings. It recognises that, for our situation to improve, we must connect with reality rather than construct a fantasy of utopia. Human nature is neither intrinsically good nor bad. Rather, human beings are capable of both good and bad deeds, and they have a fundamental need for attachments. We have to encourage good behaviour and socially useful attachments and discourage the bad and socially harmful. In other words, moral distinctions are crucial. Progressives should resist the "happiness above all" philosophy which collapses those distinctions and takes heavy casualties.

The idea that all pre-existing traditions or values are, by definition, unprogressive baggage is as philistine as it is risible. Values dismissed as conservative are actually universal: attachment, commitment to individuals and institutions, ties of duty, trust and fidelity, the distinction between constructive and destructive behaviour. Without these things, freedom cannot flourish nor society exist. The paradox is that only by conserving such values can progress occur. Small, incremental steps are the best way of bringing about beneficial change. Radicalism or revolution are likely to implode and leave us worse off than before.

In other words, we have to rescue progress from the progressives. We need a liberal, not a libertarian, social order with deeper values than contract, and with other criteria for progress than material advances. Moral restraint is the glue that provides social cohesion. Liberty is not achieved but threatened by the relativistic pursuit of autonomy and rights.

The task for progressives is to defend liberal democracy. That means, paradoxically, using conservative weapons. The old enemy that brought liberalism into being remains. There is still the danger of fanaticism, authoritarianism, abuse of power, exploitation or abuse of the old and the young, corruption, rigged elections and harm to minorities. In our confused discourse, some people who embody these very threats have disguised themselves as liberals. Their deep intolerance and intimidatory techniques must be resisted in the interests of preserving a decent, fair and free society.

That is why I am a progressive.

The writer is a "Sunday Times" columnist