Reactionary Conservatism: a Retreat to the Past

Some people, who are discontented with the status quo and who feel that the past was somehow better, want to turn the clock back.  These feelings take several forms:

  • People might not welcome recent cultural changes, some of which might be associated with immigrants.
  • Older voters might be personally nostalgic, remembering when they were young, vigorous and felt empowered.
  • They might feel nostalgia for a past time when their country had more status and influence.
  • 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 feel that they have been ignored by a political establishment that has favoured other people.
  • Terrorism might make them fearful for their security, remembering the past as being safer.

Reactionary conservatives might oppose changes which would foster economic growth.  An Economist article, Boris Johnson needs to focus on boosting Britain’s economy, described how older voters “have less of a stake in the future than young people and are more averse to the changes—spoiled views, building work, more immigrants—that go with growth”.  Economic growth though, whilst desirable, should be regulated to avoid harming people’s lives – it is a question of economic legitimacy, as discussed earlier in this book (3.5.9).

In practice, people have a tendency to remember a few good things about a past time whilst forgetting its drawbacks – as mocked in the SKZ cartoon Good Old Days.  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 adopting a populist stance (

The pace of social and economic change has been rapidly increasing in recent years, so more people now want to turn back the clock.  People of working age whose livelihoods have been affected by recent changes in society, who are experiencing status anxiety (, can become fearful and resentful:

  • They might see recent immigrants as competing for resources.
  • 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; recent immigrants might be seen as a contributing factor.
  • They might resent perceived unfairness, if others are prospering while they aren’t.

There is a great need for a coherent political and economic response, to prevent pain and hardship for this group of people – a populist attempt to reverse the changes is not a viable solution.  It is one of the major issues of the 21st century and is discussed later in this chapter (6.7.8).



This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6245c.htm