6.2.4 Conservatism

The word ‘conservative’ is derived from the impulse to conserve that which is of value.  Conservatives share a belief that collective experience provides the soundest foundation upon which to proceed, and that if any change is needed it should be made cautiously.  The broad framework of conservatism accommodates several quite different motivations, though, as described in the following sub-sections:

●  Stewardship of the status quo: conserving and enhancing what has been shown to work well (  This is a traditionalist approach to government, sometimes described as Burkean, that aims to provide stability and competence for everyone’s benefit.

●  Conserving privilege: defending the interests of the powerful (  This attitude is adopted by a ruling elite who want to defend their own comfortable lifestyles – and it might be to the disadvantage of the rest of the population.

●  Reducing the role of government: letting institutions and markets evolve naturally with a ‘laissez faire’ policy (  People who resent regulation, or people who want to cut government spending and reduce taxes, might argue for this.

●  ‘Neoconservatism’: taking a system that appears to be successful and imposing it elsewhere (  It is a foreign policy originally aimed at increasing global stability, although its effects have been destabilising in practice.

●  Reactionary conservatism: a rejection of recent change (  Older people, or people who are uneasy about cultural changes, or those who have suffered economically, might want to ‘turn the clock back’.

●  Reaffirmation of cultural identity: a retreat to a familiar tradition that feels safe (  People might try to affirm an imagined racial superiority, or nationalism, or fundamentalist religion – and perhaps try to suppress other cultural groups.

These are not mutually exclusive categories: they are distinct strands of thought that can co-exist in someone’s attitudes.  The first two reflect satisfaction with the status quo, whereas the last two seek to reverse changes that are seen as unsatisfactory.  ‘Laissez faire’ and ‘neoconservatism’ are ideologies that people might want to preach to others.

People holding these views sometimes coexist within the same political party, despite their different interests, although this creates tensions – as is the case in the American Republican Party and in the British Conservative and Unionist Party.



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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/624c.htm