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Conservatism 101

I have been trying harder with writing a post here than I have done for any post at my own blog  for a long time, in fact this is my third attempt to write something meaningful  and thought provoking. To be honest I feel some pressure to produce  a sound argument by way of introduction here given the amount of animus that my putting a hand up has evoked. So instead of focusing on the Abbott /  Gillard bout scheduled for Sept 14 perhaps I should take as my starting point this comment from Silkworm:


February 13, 2013

Will someone please explain to me what a conservative is, and how this differs from being right-wing?

What are the three top conservative values?

How does being conservative differ from being progressive?

Is conservatism the opposite of progressivism?

Does conservatism necessarily involve being religious?

Can one be a secular conservative or atheist conservative?

Of course I can’t speak for everyone  who calls themselves a conservative so all I can do is try to explain why I consider myself one and what that means for the way that I see the world and the politics of our country.

Will someone please explain to me what a conservative is, and how this differs from being right-wing?

  I was not always a conservative, like a lot  of us I began with a great deal of piss and vinegar about changing the world and I was rather attracted to the notion of  social revolution during the late sixties I was just young enough to avoid the draft, Gough happened and I was proud to say ” its time ” along with so many others. Like so many others I was distressed and devastated over the dismissal that was a real shock to my system and I was a good little lefty so of course I hated Fraser with a real passion in the approved manner.  There was lots of attempts to change things under Gough , things like universal health insurance has largely endured and noble aspirations like making tertiary education  more open to the working class was something I took advantage of  and it was may time at Queensland University that kick-started my cynicism about Left wing politics.  to get back to the question, Conservatives like me don’t totally disavow social change but we do want any changes to be slow considered and incremental. Personally I take a “do no harm” approach to most social issues and think that it is folly to constantly change things in the pious hope that radical change will bring about improvement. I am horrified that Labor and Coalition governments have both been so keen to radically reshape big parts of our society oblivious  to the very real possibility of nasty unforeseen consequences.  As I see it extreme right wing views are pretty similar to extreme left-wing views insofar as they both have a very hefty amount of totalitarian compulsion involved and a large  amount of utopian desire to radically remodel society. Conservatives look at our society and see the glass half full and think that the need to put our beverages in another unproven cup is not worth the risk.

What are the three top conservative values?

Of course that varies from individual to individual but for me it begins with personal liberty and autonomy  and respect for the same for all people  as long as they are willing to do likewise which frees us from having to respect any totalitarian ideology that would curtail our personal liberty.

Secondly it is social civility and good manners that make a workable society.  I know that amongst many progressives the idea of manners have all kinds of forelock tugging connotations but good manners does not have to entail undue deference its really about respect for others as one would want respect for yourself .

Thirdly there is the importance of family and the biological imperative to make  and nurture our children because without making children we have no future and the sort of society have becomes nihilistic and   irrelevant.

How does being conservative differ from being progressive?

Let me answer this by first pointing out where they are the same. Both Conservatives  and Progressives want to have a better society where they differ is how they want to achieve that. We conservatives want to build upon the foundations in our society that are sound and work with human nature in fact we are rather like a renovator who looks at the fabric of an old house and asks how can I make this place better and do I really need to make big changes to get big improvements. The Progressive, on the other hand, tends to think that the most important tool at his disposal is the wrecking ball and the demolition hammer and they think nothing of living in an eternal social  building site. Mainly though we conservatives think that making the most of how things are now trumps the empty promises of a “better future” that never seem to arrive.

Is conservatism the opposite of progressivism?

In some respects it is because the former is all about building upon what is socially virtuous and proven where as the later is about the promise of constant change , often just for the sake of change . I am a very strong advocate for the “if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it” school of thought and to my mind progressives are the ultimate example of “built in obsolescence” that so blights our industrial society.

Does conservatism necessarily involve being religious?

Well that depends very much on how you define religious doesn’t it? I tend to think that most people have some sort of belief in a greater power and a vain hope that there is some afterlife for the deserving. That said it seems to me that many progressives get tied up in arguing about the improbabilities of the supernatural aspects of religion instead of seeing that at the core of most of the great faiths is  a template for a “just” society. Personally I find any notion of the ” supernatural”  to be totally laughable  but I have also found that some very religious individuals  are exemplars of social compassion and   virtue.

Can one be a secular conservative or atheist conservative?

I say that is absolutely the case and I stand before you as an example of that particular combination of ideals. In fact I have never believed in any god or deity because it has just never made any sense to me and I have never felt any need for it either. I do however believe in and value civility and a civil society which is something that must be grown rather than made. In fact when it comes down to it that is the real difference  between a conservative and a progressive , the former wants to help society to grow into something that is better where as the latter wants to make society from scratch time and time again.

Cheers Comrades


This post was written as a contribution to the The Australian Independent Media Network after an request for conservative opinion for that blog made  by Michael Taylor.


  1. Peter Dippl says:

    Wow. You have written here word for word what I have had bouncing around in my head for years but have not been able to verbalise or write. I often get into stoushes with the so called “progressives” and I fail to state the obvious reality ( like this statement) in such a clear fashion so many times things get heated. The collateral damage caused by lefty wrecking balls as you so eloquently said is their biggest single failure and will always be and points to the cold hearted sociopathy that lies at the heart of that kind of extremism. So now that I have stuck my head up again cue the vitriol !!!!

  2. Iain Hall says:

    Thanks for the endorsement Peter.
    The constant change mantra so beloved by “progressives” often results in administrative confusion and waste of resources to “learn” the new system. I was talking to one federal public servant not so long ago who was bemoaning the fact that they had changed things yet again and now they were right back to where they were about five years ago after about three sets of radical changes in their department’s operations.

  3. Peter Dippl says:

    Thanks Iain.
    BTW I forgot to mention I am also an “atheist conservative” and a “practical greenie” I owned a 20 acre small farm where we ran our stud for 23 years until recently and for a good part of that time we renovated and fenced off a 300 x 100 metre section of creek by hand that was over run with African box thorn and re established many hundreds of the native trees and understory that had been destroyed by 150 years of neglect. I think in those twenty odd years we did many times more environmental work than any average chapter of any inner city group of mainstream latte sipping greenies.

  4. Iain Hall says:

    Two more ticks from me Peter!
    We have a modest five acres and do mostly nothing with it except try to control the weeds, like you we have planted trees and my wife finds it very therapeutic to slash the weeds with a machete the rainforest trees I planted a decade ago are now turning into lovely monsters alongside the path that I had cut down our hillside .

  5. Ray Dixon says:

    Good piece, Iain and well thought through. My only criticism is you seem to be saying it’s either black or white – i.e. you’re either a “conservative” or a (nasty) “progressive”. This good people/bad people view of society is divisive and, in reality, society is not like that at all. It is quite possible, you know, to be progressive on some matters and conservative on others. It’s also possible that there are degrees of progessiveness and not all “progressives” act like “wrecking balls” and can in fact be what I’d call “conservative progressives”. I’d put myself in that category (if I had to).

    Thank Christ we have people with progressive views though, otherwise we’d all be like Tony Abbott – a retrograde extreme right winger.

  6. Iain Hall says:

    You make a fair comment about the spectrum between conservative and progressive

  7. Peter Dippl says:

    You are of course correct Ray and the extremes of both political views are both bad. Where we differ as individuals is in our personal opinions of where we sit and where we think others sit along that line and we are all human are we not ? The rarest political animal is the “average” one genuinely sitting square in the middle and our life experiences as well as our individual hardwired personality no doubt influence our thinking in this.

  8. Brian says:

    All of that I accept, with two exceptions.

    First, there is no simple ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ position, as others here have already said. You can have elements of both ideologies in your own personal position. You can have conservative views on economics but different views on things like social policy. And of course there are different factions and extremes in both sides of politics.

    Second, you arrogate “good manners and civility” to conservatives. That is a load of tosh. Some of the conservatives I have met have been coarse and nasty people, with language that would make a sailor blush. On the flip side, some left-wingers are calm, gentle and patient people. The point is that there is no monopoly on good or bad behaviour on either side. Claiming that conservatives are more interested in civil behaviour is just an attempt to demonise those who aren’t conservatives.

  9. Iain Hall says:


    Second, you arrogate “good manners and civility” to conservatives. That is a load of tosh. Some of the conservatives I have met have been coarse and nasty people, with language that would make a sailor blush. On the flip side, some left-wingers are calm, gentle and patient people. The point is that there is no monopoly on good or bad behaviour on either side. Claiming that conservatives are more interested in civil behaviour is just an attempt to demonise those who aren’t conservatives.

    Fair point Brian but I have found that many more progressives are more dismissive of manners and civility than conservatives

  10. Craig says:

    Are you really a conservative if you believe in incremental progression? Sounds like a progressive trait to me.

    Probably more a hand brake to the wrecking ball then stiff conservatism, particularly when it comes to the last ten years of Australian political economics.

    Conversely though the Progressives pretty much run the education department, university/academics, the ABC, with all the hate speech laws, possible changes to the constitution that may impede free speech, is this not a conservative maneuver by progressives in power to conserve the monopoly?

    So are Progressives really now the conservatives?

    And Vice versa…for Conservatives are now Progressives?

    Confusing is it not?

    Ultimately all modern Liberalism is progressive.

  11. Ray Dixon says:

    You are one screwed up cookie, Craig.

  12. Iain Hall says:

    To be a conservative does not mean that you want society to be eternally unchanging, because we do appreciate its imperfections, but it odes mean that we want to keep the good and the viable, essentially we are not keen on throwing babies out with their bath water.

  13. Simon says:

    I’m reminded of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart book “America: A citizen’s guide to Democracy Inaction” where they outline the problems with having political parties and labeling positions: Pro-guns – then you must also be for capital punishment. Public welfare – then you also like abortion.

    The term Conservative and how its applied is interesting and I think misused. The opposite of conservative is Radical, and establishing things like a welfare system and opening the political system up to be more inclusive were probably radical at the time, but given time they become the norm and any move to take back to the previous position would itself be seen as radical and not conservative.

    Conservatism then for me is the status quo, Its what the population accepts is the base position. Of course “its how we’ve always done business” is in itself a poor strategy because the World is a dynamically changing place, but we seek the comfort of the known. Current “conservatism” in Australia is a position of paying the bills with modest growth. The big question – and objection a lot of conservative thinkers have about the current Labor government is that coming freshly in to power how they dealt with the GFC, in a radical way, and could the potential risk have been handled more “responsibly” (throwing wads of cash at a problem NEVER solves it, only delays).

    I think you can be a Progressive conservative. Malcolm Turnbull springs to mind. Pro-gay marriage, pro-Republic. He has conservative views which follow the natural progression that has been put in place. If it were 1912 he would have radical views, but Australia is a different country then it was then.

    The top three Conservative virtues are: fiscally responsible, evidence based opinions, and long term goal strategies.
    The top three Radical virtues are: rapid change, dynamic policies, short term measures.

  14. Iain Hall says:

    You have a very good point about the way that terms change over time in those that they refer to and how they are used I particularly like the term “progressive conservative” and if you don’t mind I may well steal that for future use when describing myself, 🙂 Although I would suggest that being Pro Homosexual love for those who swing that way is more important than endorsing gay marriage.

  15. mildaykerr says:

    “Fair point Brian but I have found that many more progressives are more dismissive of manners and civility than conservatives”

    You need to get out more! Try hanging out with climate deniers – they are rabidly conservative and noxiously quick to abandon civility and go for the personal jugular.

  16. Iain Hall says:

    Firstly let me give you a warm welcome to my Sandpit.
    With regard to those passionate about the Climate change issue I will offer you a counter suggestion and that is that you should check out the more rabid Warministas sites like Desmog blog or Tanimo’s threads for examples of rabid behaviour.

  17. mildaykerr says:

    In discussing Conservative / Progressive you need to be careful NOT to put all the positives into one basket and all the negatives into the other. That would give only a very biased perspective.

    It’s more useful to look at Conservative/Progressive as a continuum rather than two separate categories.

    People here might enjoy a politicial orientation quiz that plots your position on two dimensions – http://www.politicalcompass.org/index. The dimensions are: Left/Right and Authoritaria/Libertarian.

  18. mildaykerr says:

    Sorry Iain, you lost me with ‘warminista’… bye.

  19. Iain Hall says:

    sorry to discover that you are such an unskilled persuader for your beliefs because the only way to improve your rhetorical skills is Practice , practice and more practice 😉
    Go in peace 😉

  20. Peter Dippl says:

    Did the little test with the expectation it would show me in my hard fought for and rightful place ( ie sitting at the right hand of Genghis Khan ) You can imagine my utter distress and shock when I found myself one division to the right of Gandhi . I now have to face the reality I am nothing more than a soft old lefty that just gets mad when he sees wrong being done WaHHHHH!!!

  21. Iain Hall says:

    Well how do you think I feel Peter, because my result puts me to the left of the Greens!

  22. Peter Dippl says:

    LOL but I still have my coffee strong and black so all is not lost!

  23. Iain Hall says:

    Go forth and sin no more Peter!

  24. Simon says:

    According to the test I’m ever so slightly in to the Authoritarian Left, Must have been all those times my Parents told me I’ve “got two choices: That or Nothing”.

  25. Iain Hall says:

    Of course the thing about that little piece of nonsense is that it is very USA-centric and that tends to mean that even those of us who would be considered “right wing” here are all considered to be more to the left by the test.

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