Conservative isn’t a political philosophy. It’s a political position which is more about change (or the desire for none) which picks and chooses ideologies to suit its cause.
– commenter John Humphreys today.
If conservatism was just about change, then it could be found, and is found, in a range of ideologies. In 2006, for example, leftist intellectual David McKnight tried to make a case for parallels between the green political movement and conservatism.
While I argued at the time that a green-conservative political alliance was a fanciful idea, this wasn’t because the greens lack ‘conservative’ attitudes to environmental change. On that subject, there is no group in Australia more conservative than the greens. Indeed, many of them could be classified as reactionaries as well as conservatives, wanting to roll back industrial society as well as preventing it from expanding any further. But on other issues, the greens tend to adopt conventional left-wing goals of greater equality that are not ‘conservative’ in their implications.
Many others on the left take a ‘conservative’ position on some actual or proposed changes. The biggest ‘conservative’ campaign ever in Australia was the anti-WorkChoices campaign led by the unions. A key assumption in the arguments made by opponents of WorkChoices was that existing arrangements were the benchmark of ‘fairness’, even though often these benchmarks were quite anachronistic things like Saturday penalty rates designed for the era of the traditional family of mum at home and dad at work. It was a classic ‘conservative’ argument – we can’t explain why these rates make sense for 21st century teenagers, but they must not change anyway.
When the ACTU asked for comments on why people went to a rally against WorkChoices conservative themes came out, often to do with war and historical legacy:
To protect the rights which our fore fathers fought and rallied to achieve for the average worker. Which John Howard in a couple of sittings at parliament took away and is still taking away making the average worker a slave to the boss. Raux2006
My ancestors fought and some lost their lives fighting for the right of every man woman and child to have the right to be treated with decency, respect and an honest fair go.Larry Foley QLD
This Government has the potential to ruin Australia and the way of life our forefathers fought wars for. Garry O’Day
My fathers, father fought in wars to give us a fair go, good working conditions and fair pay.John WA
In my debate with Andrew Leigh last year, on whether public schools should be privatised, I noted that he ended up taking a quite ‘conservative’ line, arguing that there was no historical precedent for an entirely private school system, and expressing confidence that existing institutions could adapt. Andrew wasn’t very happy with that comment, but almost anyone, regardless of ideology, can end up making ‘conservative’ arguments like these when faced with a radical challenge to the status quo.
So John has a point. But I don’t think it is a point that is necessarily useful to classifying contemporary political movements. The people we call conservatives may be chameleons who change their political colours with the times, but they are part of a conservative political tradition, with each generation of conservatives clearly descended from the one before in overlapping themes, arguments and issues, even if – like in a human family – it may be hard to spot resemblances between the current generation and four or five generations ago.
The not-classified-as-conservative ‘conservative’ forces have other attributes that are more useful in understanding what they are about. The most important thing about the greens is the substantive concern with the environment. The most important thing about the unions is their substantive concern with the interest of workers. Social democrats like Andrew Leigh want greater equality (of opportunity, at least). That in some political contexts they resist change doesn’t make ‘conservative’ a useful way to describe their overall political position, even if it is a reasonable characterisation of some of their arguments.