Reactionary Conservatism: a Retreat to the Past

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6245.htm)

Some people, who are discontented with the status quo and who feel that the past was somehow better, want to turn the clock back.  Changes in society can make people fearful and resentful:

  • They might feel that they have been ignored by a political establishment that has favoured other people.
  • Terrorism might make them fearful for their security.
  • They might see immigrants as competing for resources.
  • They might not welcome recent cultural changes, some of which might be associated with immigrants.
  • They might resent the loss of their jobs, or feel that their jobs are threatened; they might blame immigrants for this, although automation and globalisation are probably more significant.
  • They might be experiencing financial hardship, or loss of status, due to low pay; immigrants might be seen as a contributing factor.
  • They might resent perceived unfairness, if others are prospering while they aren’t.
  • They might feel uncomfortable with emerging liberal attitudes in matters of gender and human rights – seeing them as unfamiliar and as threats to their own values.
  • They might see international governance as a threat to their own country’s autonomy – feeling a loss of control.

Reactionary conservatism is a desire to reverse recent changes and to retreat to an imaginary, idealised, notion of what the past was perceived to have been like.

Britain’s vote to leave the EU has partly been attributed to older voters who remember the country’s importance in the world prior to joining.[1]  There was a strong element of nostalgia in many of those who voted ‘Leave’ – for example, over half of them wanted to bring back capital punishment and regarded a return of Britain’s distinctive pre-EU blue passport as a benefit of ‘Brexit’.[2]

In practice, people have a tendency to remember a few good things about a past time whilst forgetting its drawbacks.[3]  Another problem is that the past is irrecoverable.  The world has changed and it isn’t possible to wind everything and everybody else back to a favoured point in time but, as discussed later, that doesn’t stop unscrupulous politicians in democracies from promising to do so – by promoting a form of nationalism known as ‘authoritarian populism’ (

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014



[1] Jeffrey Kluger’s Article in  June 2016, entitled How Psychology Made the Brexit Vote Inevitable, included this quotation:

“Britain once ruled the waves and has been diminished for a long time,” says psychologist Frank Farley of Temple University, who studies risk-taking, history and political psychology.  “It remains a power in Europe for sure, but it’s diminished to the island geography.  We shouldn’t be surprised that at a deep level, Britons chafed at just being one cog in the wheel as opposed to the wheel.”

The article was available in April 2018 at  http://fortune.com/2016/06/26/brexit-psychology/.

Older people were more likely to have voted for Brexit, according to the BBC’s EU Referendum results analysis that was available in April 2018 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36574526.

[2] The Independent published a summary of a YouGov poll on 30 March 2017, in an article entitled Half of Leave voters want to bring back the death penalty after Brexit, which was available in April 2018 at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-poll-leave-voters-death-penalty-yougov-results-light-bulbs-a7656791.html.

[3] @SKZCartoons amusingly cartooned the tendency towards selective memory on 10 April 2017, and it was available in April 2018, at https://t.co/xpa7KPM9ur.