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by Kirsteen Paterson
17 May 2024
Progressively confused: Are all politicians 'progressive' now?

David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon have each espoused 'progressive' politics, so what does it mean? | Alamy

Progressively confused: Are all politicians 'progressive' now?

Allow me to list for you things that are not, by any stretch of the imagination, ‘iconic’.

A corner shop in Coatbridge. The 90s indie band James. Lapwings. A disused church in Kilbarchan. The McDonald’s breakfast wrap. The Tarbet Hotel at Arrochar. A model train in a Paisley park. The Millport Raft Race. The flying elephant ride at the seafront in Largs.

Some of those things are probably more accurately described as ‘popular’, others perhaps ‘well-known’ or ‘long-standing’, but – with the OED as my witness – none are truly, definitively ‘iconic’.

And yet all have been described as such in news reports by enthusiastic PRs and reporters, or at least those using the old trick of throwing some adjectives in to increase their word count.

Burns may have written that “facts are chiels that winna ding/An downa be disputed”, but it seems the same is not true of words, which at times can mean whatever the user intends, and damn your definitions. What I’m trying to say, as the Tom Tom Club would have it in their 1981 single Wordy Rappinghood, is that “words can put you on the run”, racing to work out exactly what is meant by what is said.

I’m not convinced we ever came to a settled position on the meaning of ‘wellbeing economy’, for instance, but that may now have been stripped out of the Scottish Government’s lexicon, having been cut from ministerial job titles. Where Mairi McAllan was the Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Net Zero and Energy, Kate Forbes is simply now on Economy. Perhaps we’ll never really be sure what it was all about.

Buzzwords come and go, but the term ‘progressive’ has stuck around for several election cycles. As first minister, Nicola Sturgeon was a big fan of progressive politics. As prime minister, so was David Cameron. Tony Blair has espoused it. And so, of course, have Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater. 

A dictionary is no help with this one | Alamy

If the same term can be used by figures from across the party spectrum to describe their brand of politics, does it really mean anything? Or is ‘progressive’ the political equivalent of ‘iconic’, a descriptor chucked into conference speeches and interview lines in the same way as misused adjectives in news reports?

Certainly, each of those speakers seems to have known what it meant for them. For Sturgeon, it was about advancing Scottish independence, addressing child poverty, and keeping equalities issues high up the agenda. For Cameron, it was about moving his party to the centre, respecting diversity, and rethinking the role of the state in society. For Blair, it was about modernising and improving the lot of working people. And for Harvie and Slater, it is about climate justice and trans rights. 

How strange that one system of political belief can mean so many different things to many people. And how peculiar that, when the word is bandied about so frequently, we fail to question exactly what is being described – what we are being asked to vote for.

I am reminded of verse not by Burns or indeed Tom Tom Club’s Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, but by Norman MacCaig, whose work The Smuggler warned the reader about those who come bearing “bulging words” like “justice, fraternity, freedom, internationalism, peace”. “Make it/ your duty to spread out their contents/ in a clear light”, MacCaig wrote. “Nobody with such luggage/ has nothing to declare”.

The Edinburgh poet might have been on to something there. It’s iconic, really.

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