Guest Blog: The different flavours of conservatives

A guest blog by Josh Monteiro, Pastor of Emmanuel Church, Northstowe, and written in a personal capacity. The views expressed are the author‘s alone.

In biblical studies over the last 50 years, there has been a growing recognition that there was not a single simple thing called “Judaism” in the 1st century AD but a variety of different Judaisms, with some commonalties, but some important differences as well. Historical study requires an understanding of the different movements within Judaism just as much as it requires understanding the commonalities which distinguished Judaism from other groups.

As a regular lurker, and occasional commenter, on political and religious blogs and websites, I thought it might be helpful to highlight some of the different flavours of conservatism I observe. While there is enough commonalty that these may all be considered conservative, the differences are marked and significant. This identifying of flavours of conserative may be helpful for conservatives seeking to make coalitions to push forward policies, and wondering why other conservatives don’t share their values or enthusiasm for a particular policy. It may also help explain frustrating conversations across the left-right political divide where the debaters don’t seem to connect: possibly the conservatism some progressives are attacking is not the conservatism held by person they are speaking to. (And vice versa, though I am not attempting to discern the flavours of progressivism in this post.)

So here are my five flavours of conservative.

1) The loss-averse conservative. This is what might be called the conservative personality: “What we have is good, and if we change anything we might lose it.” People who have done well under the current system, and therefore have a lot to lose, are often loss-averse conservatives. But so are many people who are not particularly well off. They know that compared to almost any other time in history, and the majority of places in the world, we live in immense security and luxury. The status quo is really pretty good. And that suggests, to the loss averse conservative, that changes are more likely to make things worse rather than better. Slightly ironically, after 2 decades of centrist rule, the Blairites (and their close cousins the Cameroons) are conservatives in this sense.

2) The economic conservative. These are people who see the power of the free market to direct resources and labour usefully and create wealth. They want to avoid monopolies, high taxes (which stifle wealth creating free trade), and government bureaucracy. They are generally pro-privatisation. Some economic conservatives also care about limiting government debt and in general good management of government resources. Economic conservatism in this sense is as compatible with social liberalism as social conservatism.

3) The nostalgic conservative. These are people who think that taken as a whole, it would be better to live in a past era than the current time. Whether that is the 1950s, the 1890s or the 1100s, they see the past as having virtues and strengths which we lack, and that on balance living in those societies was better. If they could turn the clock back, they would.  To some extent, nostalgic conservatism is natural for the elderly, but it does seem blind to the many ways life was terrible in the past, and better now. On the other hand, in an age often foolishly deluded that the new is always better, the nostalgic conservative may help us to see virtues and insights from the past that we have lost or overlooked.  

4) The social conservative. These are people who are happy with technological progress but concerned with the social structures of society and what is sometimes called “social capital”. They care about families, bringing up children, churches and other voluntary groups, and the nation including the armed forces. They think we will be happier and more prosperous in general if we can strengthen families, and have strong local and voluntary groups. They may be very happy with modern technology, and may also be happy for some key public services to be well funded and strong, especially the NHS, schools and the police, even if it means higher taxes. They tend to want a shared national culture, and to be patriotic in a quiet way, rather than “anywheres”.   

5) The civilization conservative. These are people who are concerned that civilisations rise and fall, and who think that our civilisation is in danger of falling, whether down the world rankings or into total collapse. One version of this sees the danger as being a change of civilisation. The UK’s trajectory means that in 50 or 100 years it is a different civilisation which has lost the unique character and special strengths it had. These civilisation conservatives will be worried about immigration, and the abandonment of “Western Civilization” or Judaeo-Christian values. Another version sees the danger as being an undermining of what made the UK great and cohesive as a society, such that at some point in the future the entire society falls apart under stress in some way. Our current prosperity does not give the civilisation conservative any pleasure, since it masks the cracks and faults in the foundation, which they believe need urgent attention before a whole culture or society collapses.

What do you think? Do you recognise these distinct flavours of conservatives? Have I missed some? And if you were to do the same for progressives, what flavours would you identify?

5 thoughts on “Guest Blog: The different flavours of conservatives

  1. Interesting to read, although there is an irony of this coming out the day that Dominic Cummings decides that only one opinion is acceptable amongst Conservative MPs…

    Pedantic criticism first – I’m not sure how much I agree with the overall premise that these are five separate groups of individuals. I’d say these are “five flavours of conservatism”, rather than “five flavours of conservative”. Many conservatives will have viewpoints that draw on several of these strands.

    Two questions: first, are you using “conservative” as a synonym for “right-wing”? As if so, then there are right-wing positions that you have omitted. If not, then there’s a bit of a logical circle here, but it’d be instructive to know what you understand by the word “conservative”.

    Second, I’d be interested to know where the “religious right” fits into your paradigm. I’m thinking particularly of the religious right in the US, although this group exists in many countries. A correlated omission is any mention of “small state” other than relating to economics. I would call this is libertarian conservatism, but libertarian in a broad sense, not just economic one – not wanting the state to interfere in the life of the individual. I wonder if the reason that you didn’t include this group is that you don’t think it fully aligns with conservative values (do you view this as a cross-political spectrum viewpoint? or a right-wing viewpoint but not a conservative one?).

    For me, the religious right is the group that most confusion over conservatism occurs with – when this movement advocates policies that arise from religious belief, but impinge on individual freedom (which is generally a touchstone of conservatism). Would be interested to know how you disentangle this.

    Oh and lastly, the final group puzzled me. Do you know many people who fall into this category? Also, I don’t see how this is a conservative position – are there not more progressives who believe that civilization is in danger? (due to climate change, water shortage, rise of nationalism/nativism)

    1. To be more succinct (and to cut down conservatism down to two categories?), sometimes conservatism is wanting the government to interfere less in your personal life, and sometimes conservatism is wanting the government to protect the things that you think about important (and sometimes it is both of these things at once).

    2. Thanks Steve. Lots of good comments. I agree with your point that these are flavours of conservatism, and that many people will draw on several strands.

      I’m using “conservative” in a British sense, which means it covers people who would tend to vote for the conservative party or who think the conservative party ought to be more like x in order to represent them properly. I’m not trying to categorise all the possible right wing views. That makes it slightly idiosyncratic 😉

      I hesitated about the libertarian conservatism, partly because historically liberalism was opposed to conservatism. I think it could be a distinct flavour and driver for conservatism provided one understands liberal in a classical or negative sense. Freedom from government interference (and hence small state), freedom of speech etc. I think it is a sad indictment of the left (including the liberal democrats) if valuing these things makes you a conservative today.

      I don’t think the American religious right is confusing at all. It is simply socially conservative, economically right wing, and a bit nostalgic (50s/ American Independence- hence the weird thing with guns). The key thing to explain the religious right in America is a) there are a lot of religious people in America who find social conservative values including the sanctity of life taught in their religion (maybe 35% compared to 5% here) so they form a weighty political force and b) there is a party divide on the issue of abortion in the States, which there is not in the UK. If the UK Labour party makes it a part of its policy that women’s rights means 39 week old babies can be partially born before being killed- it would make it very hard for any Christian taking the Bible seriously to vote for them.

      I think you are right to say that a smaller state is a common feature of conservatism vs progressivism, but I don’t think that means the religious right or other social conservatives are being inconsistent. It means that the smaller state/ individual liberty in some areas is an outworking of a more foundational principle than “small state is good”. And that’s kind of why I thought these flavours were helpful. The commonality- generally smaller state- flows from different values for different conservatives, and has its exceptions in different areas depending on which flavours people are drawing from.

      Take a common left-wing trope, that conservatives want to turn the NHS into the American health system. Some economic conservatives, or nostalgic for the Victorian era conservatives, might want that. But your typical British social conservative finds that accusation both absurd and offensive. They join the British liturgy after a medical crisis as much as the left: “Thank goodness for the NHS”.

      On civilization conservatives: Douglas Murray and Peter Hitchens would be some examples. I agree that some on the left are driven by civilization concerns, but they generally seem to think that environmental collapse is the risk more than a societal collapse. And their solution to the problems often looks like implementing more government and changing society in progressive directions.

      1. Just to clarify, I’m not claiming that the position of the religious right is truly contradictory or inconsistent. I’m saying that many of the confusions about apparent inconsistencies (which was the motivation of the piece) arise when outsiders try to understand this group.

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