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Progressive politics always (in the end) wins. Here’s why.

Throughout modern history, conservatives have won battles but lost the wars. It’s the other side – the reformists or ‘progressives’ – who eventually shape the world.

Slavery was held to be an economic necessity … until it wasn’t.

History moves to the left.

Some time in the second half of the eighteenth century, the way the world worked started to change. What we now know as the Age of Enlightenment – the rise of new ideas of personal and political freedom, of economics, of the place of women and minorities – provided the framework for a world that shapes us now.

Those writers, pamphleteers, politicians and their followers were, at least in the context of their time, of the centre-left. Voltaire, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Shaftesbury, William Wilberforce, Mary Wollstonecraft  and the rest were not rabid, violent revolutionaries. They were centre-left reformists. We’d call them progressives.

In this context, we can look at three main categories of political and social belief: progressive, conservative and reactionary.

Progressives believe in the continual and rational evolution of society by generally non-violent means, promoting equality of opportunity, political self-determination, social justice and government intervention in economics and commerce.

Conservatives tend to oppose any change except the most gradual, grudging and inevitable. They cling to traditional values, oppose most government intervention, advocate lower taxes and advance the interests of the upper and (more lately) middle classes.

Reactionaries want to return to a past, often mythical, time: the Good Old Days. They supported the restoration of vanished monarchies, the political and social domination of established religion, authoritarian leadership and the supremacy of hereditary aristocrats.

The even greater extremes – fascism and communism – fall outside of this left-right pattern. Stalin was supposed to be on the left and Hitler on the right. But what was the real difference between them?

At least since the end of the medieval era, change has become ever more pressing and unavoidable. Economies and societies developed in tandem. Education became necessary in a mechanised and, now, digitised economy. As education extended further and further down the social order, more people became able to understand politics and demanded their political rights.

Conservatives and reactionaries have all, in their ways and in their times, fought all of these changes. Only progressives have fostered them.

The process has never been easy, quick or certain and never will be. Conservatives have won many of the battles and not every progressive idea has been a good one; but, in the end, societies change because they have no choice.

History moves to the left.

In any age, the big progressive ideas have proved unstoppable: abolition of slavery, votes for ordinary people, social welfare, equality before the law, acceptance of minorities, care for the environment. But humane and rational reform cannot happen unless broader economic and social conditions fall into place first. This essay is about that.



Perhaps the single greatest achievement was the replacement of the old theories of economics, mercantilism, with a new framework that came to be known as capitalism. Mercantilism assumed that gold was wealth, and that the only way a country could increase its wealth was to find more gold or to take it from someone else.

So rather than trade with each other, to the profit of all, they restricted or banned trade with other European countries. New wealth had therefore to come from somewhere else – and that meant colonies, which could supply raw materials for the new factories at home. They also needed cheap labour and plenty of it, so mercantilism also meant slavery.

Nicolas de Condorcet, a minor French noble but a significant figure in political philosophy, had this to say about slavery and colonialism:

“The unfortunate beings who inhabited these new countries were not treated as men, because they were not Christians. This prejudice, more degrading to the tyrants than the victims, stifled all sense of remorse; and abandoned, without control, to their inextinguishable thirst for gold and for blood … The bones of five millions of human beings have covered the wretched countries to which the Spaniards and Portuguese transported their superstition and their fury.”

Condorcet, a moderate Girondin during the French revolution, wrote these words as a prisoner of Robespierre and the Jacobins. He died in gaol, possibly murdered by the fanatical elements who, in the end, destroyed both themselves and the revolution.

In 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, putting newly-emergent ideas into printed form.

He described a perfect capitalist market, which would ensure the production and exchange of goods at a low price. And he declared that gold was not, in itself, wealth but that a newly-produced loaf of bread was.

(Smith and his followers made one immense mistake. They did not recognise market failure – that the capitalist system cannot work unless both parties to a deal have equal power and information. Smith was the pioneer, a philosopher and theorist, who can be forgiven for not seeing the whole complex picture at once. Those who today still don’t see it have no excuse for the havoc they wreak.)

The sea-change in the way national economies worked – fostering trade and production – meant slaves were no longer significant to the economies of most European nations. As slavery lost its main purpose, the balance between profit and human decency changed. Decency was, slowly and painfully, permitted to win.



“It is time,” wrote Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792, “to effect a revolution in female manners, time to restore to them their lost dignity, and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world.”

She was not alone in this thought. Female emancipation was a central notion in the Enlightenment.

In 1790, when the French revolution still looked as if it might achieve something permanent and good, Condorcet wrote this:

“The rights of men result simply from the fact that they are rational, sentient beings, susceptible of acquiring ideas of morality, and of reasoning concerning those ideas. Women having, then, the same qualities, have necessarily the same rights. Either no individual of the human species has any true rights, or all have the same; and he or she who votes against the rights of another, whatever may be his or her religion, colour, or sex, has by that fact abjured his own.”

But why were these ideas appearing now, when the subjection of women by men had been usual throughout recorded human history? And if the world had actually changed, why are we still wrestling with the issue over 200 years later?

It can be argued, at least, that the division of responsibility and role between men and women made sense in pre-modern societies. Men clearly had greater physical strength and were more suited to hunting and to fighting the tribe over the next hill. Women necessarily had to look after young children; this could perhaps also explain why they took responsibility for gathering (rather than hunting) or, when permanent settlements developed in the neolithic era, for growing garden produce, processing food and cooking.

As societies developed, power became more and more concentrated and centralised. Local chieftains gave way to powerful warlords who, in time, assumed patrician rank and sat at the top of a feudal society which, in western Europe by the ninth century, had become entrenched and static. Legally, women were chattels, essentially owned by their nearest male relative – father or husband.

This had deep and stubbornly unvarying foundations. The Roman paterfamilias had life-and-death rights over his wife, his children and his slaves. Christianity continued and cemented the relationship not only in law but in religion. Here are some quotations:

I suffer not a women to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. St Paul (I Timothy 2: 12-13).

If a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. St Paul again (Ephesians 5: 22-24).

What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman. . . I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children. St Augustine.

The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes. Martin Luther.

The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians. Pat Robertson, US evangelist, 1992.

The rational scepticism of the Enlightenment fell away during the 19th century as religion’s grip tightened but then came the Industrial Revolution, Darwin and the First World War. The rigid, male-centric world of the Victorians was shaken when women (of the lower class at first) left the home to work in new factories: in 1833, women and girls accounted for 58.6% of the factory workforce. During the war, they were indispensable to the war effort on both sides of the conflict.

Emmeline Pankhurst ... new realities
By the early 20th century, the shift had become unstoppable. Already, women were granted the right to vote in New Zealand (1893), South Australia (1894), and the new Australian federal parliament (1902) and Finland (1906).

In Britain, the right to vote was gained, arguably, less by the furious pre-war Suffragette campaign but by the new realities of the First World War. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women over 30, subject to a property qualification. It was an unstable and unacceptable compromise and so, in 1928, the Equal Franchise Act gave the vote to all women and men over the age of 21.



Question: When was the first documented Australian execution for sodomy?

Answer: 1727. A Dutch ship, the Zeewijk, foundered on an island off the West Australian coast. While the survivors were building a new vessel from the old timbers, two young sailors, Adriaan Spoor and Pieter Engelse were tried and found guilty of sodomy. They were sentenced to death and exiled to separate islands without food or water.

Australia’s last sodomy execution was that of Denis Collins, hanged in Launceston in 1868.

The time in which homosexuality was punishable by death in Australia lasted for 61 years before the First Fleet and for 90 years after. From then on, the punishment was life imprisonment, finally reduced to 14 years but not fully abolished in all Australian states until Tasmania changed its laws in 1997.

But just 20 years later, in 2017, 63.6% of Australian voters answered ‘yes’ to a plebiscite asking whether same-sex marriage should become legal.

What on earth had happened?

At the beginning of the 19th century, 200 offences carried a mandatory death sentence under British law. The number had increased fourfold over the previous 200 years with little apparent impact on the crime rates. People could be hanged for stealing goods worth a shilling, rioting, damaging a bridge, burglary, forgery, smuggling as well as rape, forcible abduction and sodomy.

It was an unworkable system. Judges routinely underestimated the value of stolen goods, some cases were not pursued, and the work-around of transportation was initiated. In 1823, the Judgment of Death Act reduced the number of offences carrying a mandatory sentence of death from 200 to five and allowed judges to commute sentences in other cases.

The process of making the law more workable less inhumane applied to laws on homosexuality between males as well; the death penalty for sodomy was replaced in Britain in 1861 by life imprisonment and from 1885 by two years’ imprisonment. (Curiously, sex between women has never been illegal, apparently because male legislators thought it impossible or because they didn’t want to have to talk about it to Queen Victoria.)

And so the British law was exported to Australia. But if the aim of the law was to reduce the incidence of homosexuality, it failed badly. A debate in the Westminster parliament was reported in the Dublin Monitor of 7 May 1840:

The 'model prison' at Port Arthur, Tasmania
“The extremes of misery and immorality met in Norfolk Island, and rendered it without a parallel in the world, except in Port Arthur, in the penal settlement of Van Diemen's Land, of which [Lieutenant-Governor] Sir George Arthur stated that he had known convicts commit murder in order that they might be removed to Hobart Town for trial, though they knew that death would follow in a fortnight: and in Norfolk Island it had been stated, on the best authority, that three-fourths of the convicts were guilty of unnatural offences”.

Hangings for sodomy persisted in New South Wales and Tasmania for a few years and were replaced, as in Britain, by imprisonment. In England, that was for two years; in Australia, 14 years. The fear of homosexuality in colonial Australia was inextricably linked with the shame of the “convict stain” to produce a paranoia which exceeded even that in the empire’s headquarters.

It was not until memories of the convict era receded that real change became possible. But still Australia remained a male-dominated culture with a self-image of the “typical Australian” as tough, bronzed, rural, male, sporting, anti-intellectual and firmly heterosexual. In Britain, homosexual acts between men in private were decriminalised in 1967; Australia’s unreal and restricting self-perception, and the social and political conservatism of the time, meant that progress was slower and patchier. The progressive Labor administration of Don Dunstan in South Australia reformed the law there in 1975 but it took longer elsewhere: the ACT (1976), Victoria (1980), Northern Territory (1983), NSW (1984), Western Australia (1989) and Queensland (1991). It was not until 1997 that the final hold-out state, Tasmania, finally relented and enacted reform, avoiding a High Court action it would almost certainly have lost.

The move to reform would not have happened without community activism, but it could not have happened unless the culture had changed enough first. The most powerful element in the push for reform was the visibility of ordinary, non-scary gay men and lesbians. But until the 1970s, visibility – “coming out” – was simply not possible. The social and legal risks were too great.

Australia had to leave behind its fixations on its largely imaginary colonial past before the society could achieve its potential as an open, tolerant, cosmopolitan, educated and decent country. When that happened, all sorts of things finally became possible.



Most of the world’s people live in countries in which progressive politics, as we know it in the west, does not exist. According to one estimate, only about 13% of the world’s 8 billion people live in liberal democracies.

The characteristics of liberal democracy are well-known. The first requirement is that religion must be de-fused. It must be clearly and permanently separate from government: without that, a country becomes a kind of theocracy, bound to a set of ancient rules elevated, ossified and worshipped as universal truths.

Freedom of religious belief is also central, but it must not override other rights. Michael Kirby put it this way:

“A very great philosopher once said that “the right to swing my arm finishes when I hit someone else’s chin”.  That is true of the protection of religious freedoms. The right to have religious freedoms finishes when a person asserting those rights does harm or serious harm to other people.”

There must be a strong system of secular and universal education: a modern democracy cannot function if too many people have no idea what they’re voting for.

And there must be a reasonable level of prosperity, with inequality kept within bounds. Serious poverty disempowers people; too much individual wealth leads the rich to dominate society and politics to their own advantage and to the disadvantage of the majority.

Until these characteristics are met to at least a workable degree, a liberal democracy cannot exist and, consequently, a progressive reform agenda cannot happen.

It is common for western governments to pressure illiberal nations on human rights. These exhortations almost invariably fail. Perhaps a more productive approach would be to encourage the fundamental conditions of humane and rational reform, particularly secular education and relief from poverty.

In the west, progressive change must and will continue. It will never be easy, quick or simple. But we, at least, have the capacity to engage in reform. Most people don’t.

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