Defending Power, Resisting Change

Some governments resist progress or change in any form – unlike Burke’s concept of stewardship, as characterised above (, which was not rigid and allowed pragmatic evolution.  A common reason for resisting change is to retain power.  In 18th-century Britain, conservatism was associated with defending the interests of the landed gentry in a democracy which was very imperfect at that time.  This is the opposite of governing for the benefit of the population.

Burke defended giving hereditary owners of property a role in government, in his letter, Reflections on the French Revolution:

“The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself.  It makes our weakness subservient to our virtue; it grafts benevolence even upon avarice.  The possessors of family wealth, and of the distinction which attends hereditary possession, (as most concerned in it) are the natural securities for this transmission.  With us the House of Peers is formed upon this principle.  It is wholly composed of hereditary property and hereditary distinction; and made therefore the third of the legislature; and, in the last event, the sole judge of all property in all its subdivisions.  The House of Commons too, though not necessarily, yet in fact, is always so composed, in the far greater part.” [para. 83]

Harold Laski criticised this aspect of Burke’s thinking, in his book Political Thought from Locke to Bentham, particularly in pages 204-6.  In the electoral system in 1790, when Burke was writing, few men and no women were allowed to vote; the representation was very distorted.

Traditional religion has usually adopted a conservative position.  Medieval Catholicism, for example, tried to combat what it saw as a threat from science in order to retain its authority – as in its treatment of Galileo for example, as described in a BBC article Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).  The Church and European monarchies lent legitimacy to each other, to buttress their power in what Melvin Rhodes described as The Uneasy Relationship Between Church and State.

Authoritarian governments try to maintain the status quo to preserve their power.  Although it can be argued that keeping order is of prime importance in some countries, to prevent the outbreak of civil strife, the maintenance of power for its own sake is of questionable legitimacy unless various safeguards are in place – as discussed later (

Resistance to change might be thought politically desirable but it is rarely possible in the longer term.  Even if a country tries to prevent change within its borders, the world around it will continue to change and its external relationships will change accordingly.



This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3a book, © PatternsofPower.org, 2020.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6242a.htm