Conservatives are fortunate to have enemies who are always trying to help them out. The foes of the conservative – liberals, socialists, bleeding hearts, leftists, do-gooders, and everybody else who falls under the general umbrella of “progressives” – are always trying to tell us who we are and what our role is. Or rather, they are always trying to tell us who we are not and what our role is not. The “true conservative”, they tell us, is never a reactionary. There are those within the conservative camp who would echo this sentiment, particularly those on the left wing of conservatism, but I think this is a mistake, not only because by doing so we are allowing our opponents to define us and thus giving them an advantage over us, but because what they are telling us simply does not hold up to scrutiny.
Indeed, the only way the claim that the true conservative is never a reactionary would make sense would be if we accepted the definitions of conservative and reactionary which state that the former is the person trying to preserve the present status quo and the latter is the person trying to restore the status quo ante. If we accept these definitions, then, of course, a conservative and reactionary could never be the same person for their purposes are at odds with each other. These definitions, however, are notoriously woefully inadequate.
It is not that difficult to see what the Left gains by insisting upon this claim. Progressives see themselves as being the advocates of socially beneficial change. They grudgingly acknowledge a legitimate role for the conservative as the voice of caution, to argue the con-side against their changes as they propose them, but who, once they change has been made, is supposed to accept it as being written in stone and never attempt to reverse it. If the conservative accepts this limitation on his role then all the progressive has to do is obtain enough support at any given time to make a particular change and then he need never worry about defending that change from conservative attack ever again but can indeed, rally the conservatives to defend his changes against the reactionaries who would seek to undo them. It also boosts confidence in the progressive vision of history in which every change introduced by a progressive is seen as a positive step, moving history along in a linear fashion, towards a future, better, and more just society.
For the conservative to accept the role assigned to him by the progressives, however, would be to reject some of the most basic principles of conservatism. This is one of the reasons why I prefer the older term Tory. The newer label, conservative, has connotations of caution, risk-avoidance, and resistance to change, all of which are good enough in themselves but none of which, singularly or taken together, make much of an argument against the progressive definition of the role of the conservative. The same can hardly be said of the term Tory which from the seventeenth century has been the party of church and state, standing for apostolic authority in the former and the rights and prerogatives of the monarch in the latter. There is no way that this can be reduced to a mere defence of whatever the status quo happens to be at the present movement.
Indeed, the history of the Tories in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries very much gives the lie to the claim that a conservative – or a Tory at any rate – can never be a reactionary.
The antecedents of the Tories in the late seventeenth century were the Royalists or Cavaliers who fought for King Charles I in the English Civil War in the 1640s. They lost, the king was arrested, charged with treason in a mock trial conducted in a Parliament from which all of his supporters had been removed by the force of arms by the triumphant New Model Army of the Puritans, then murdered and martyred. After a mercifully short interregnum in which, under the evil dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, the Puritans cancelled Christmas and Easter, stripped the churches of everything that was visually or audibly aesthetically pleasing, closed the theatres, forbade harmless amusements on the Lord’s Day, and basically went out of their way to make everybody gloomy and miserable, Charles II was restored to his father’s throne and the Church of England with its bishops, King James Bible, and a new edition of the Book of Common Prayer that would become the standard edition was brought back, in what was the most spectacular and successful act of reaction in the history of the world – the English Restoration.
Then, when the Tories lost the battle against the Whigs in 1688, and James II was ousted from the throne by Parliament and replaced by his son-in-law and daughter, those Tories who remained loyal to the House of Stuart, including the non-juror bishops of the Church of England, became the reactionary Jacobites who tried unsuccessfully to restore James and later his son Charles to the throne. While the case can certainly be made that the Jacobites acted unwisely it can also be argued that they were the most true to the principles of the Tory Party. Such later High Tories as Dr. Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century and Sir Walter Scott in the nineteenth, while loyal to the kings of the Hanoverian succession, nevertheless looked back on the Jacobites with sympathy and romanticism.
At any rate, within the space of a single century (the last Jacobite rising was in 1745, less than one hundred years after the death of King Charles I) the Tories had sought to restore two different status quo ante’s, and whatever we may think of the Jacobite cause and movement, the first of these, the Restoration, is certainly an argument in favour of reaction.
The folly of the idea that the Tory or conservative is allowed to oppose progressive changes as they are put forward but must accept and defend them once they are made is quite easily demonstrated. If followed to the letter this would mean that we could never attempt to correct a change that has proven to be a mistake. It is no good saying “you cannot turn the clock back”. Not only is this a bad metaphor – the statement is not even literally true – it is a deadly one. To use another metaphor – a more apt one – when you have swerved off a road and are heading towards a cliff it is suicidal to shrug your shoulders, say “what’s done its done” and keeping heading in the same direction.
Perhaps the most bizarre argument I have ever encountered against the idea that a conservative could take the reactionary position was based upon the fact that conservatives are not traditionally opposed to all change but accept change that is in accordance with the rule of law and which is done “little and little”. This, however, is actually an argument against the declaration that conservative and reactionary are mutually exclusive because that declaration is based entirely upon the idea that the conservative must support the present status quo against all changes.
Yes, the conservative accepts certain kinds of change. His position is not that all change is bad – just that the onus of proof lies upon the person who proposes an innovation. The changes he accepts are lawful, accomplished slowly, and on a small-scale. More importantly, however, for a conservative to accept change it must be change that is consistent with and better yet a means of continuity. Furthermore, a conservative can accept changes of a sort that no progressive ever accepts – changes that acknowledge that a progressive innovation has been a mistake and go back to a way that was time-honoured, tested, and true. It is precisely because a conservative can accept this kind of change that he can be a reactionary.
Indeed, Tory principles demand that the conservative be a reactionary in certain situations. The Tory regards society as an organic whole that includes past and future generations as well. He does not accept simple, unmixed, democracy, whether as a constitutional form, or the idea that the majority at any present moment should rule. The voices of past and future generations must be heard as well and since the future generations cannot yet speak the past generations must be their voice against the present generation whose primary concern is always its own interest in the here and now. Therefore if some demagogue or some persistent group of activists is able at a given moment to obtain enough support in the legislative body or even the general public to make a change that goes against the wisdom of the ages embodied in the voices of the past generations passed down to us in tradition, the Tory has the duty to work to undo this change – to take on the role of the reactionary.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca