Conservative – what’s in a name?

Written by our teenage guest writer, Olivia Boyd

What is a conservative? It’s a word that’s used a lot across the political spectrum and on social media. Sometimes it’s used in a neutral or positive way to describe certain values, but sometimes it’s used to malign or label people in a negative way. 

To understand what a conservative is, I think it’s helpful to first look at where the term originates. The concept of conservatism has been attributed to Edmund Burke, who wrote on the French Revolution, although the term (‘conservateur’) was used later.

The French Revolution of 1789, saw the ‘third estate’ (which consisted of 98% of the population) rise up in opposition against the first estate (clergy) and the second estate (nobility) in response to being outvoted 2-1 by the other estates. It was a time of significant social, economic, and political unrest and upheaval.

The people of the third estate, who renamed themselves the National Assembly and who stood in opposition to the king, divided into two distinct groups.

The conservatives wanted to conserve the good things from the past that were good, and model France’s government after England’s with a king working alongside a parliament (ie. a constitutional monarchy). They believed that only educated men should vote because the uneducated could be easily swayed and manipulated. These conservatives had members of the industrial bourgeoisie such as bankers and businessmen, and some of the moderate nobility who recognised a need for change.

The opposing side to the conservatives pushed for unbridled change and wanted no king. They saw the opportunity to give persuasive speeches to the poorer people and gain political support from the less educated. They told the people that the conservatives didn’t want to hear the voices of the poor. In this way, they were able to gain substantial political support. They were members of the intellectual bourgeoisie—teachers, doctors, and lawyers. Among this group were radical sub-groups such as the Jacobins led by Robespierre. 

This opposing side were eventually successful in their agenda, and this period in history has been named the “reign of terror” as they pushed further and further until they were executing early leaders of their cause such as Robespierre because they ended up opposing the ideas the more extreme groups were pushing.

Thus the concepts of “left” and “right” was born, named according to which side of the room each group sat. 

The right, or conservatives, wanted to conserve traditional values and the things they believed had historically led to the best outcomes for the people and maintain social harmony. The left, now often referred to as liberals or progressives, wanted to push for radical change and social reform. They opposed conserving tradition and stood in direct opposition to the right. These philosophical differences still exist in politics today.

So in simple terms, conservative simply means ‘to conserve’, and within conservatism there are different views that individuals can hold – religiously, morally, economically, politically and socially. There is more than one way to be a conservative and it’s a broad term where individuals can hold different stances on a range of different issues. These different issues usually involve views about limited government, personal responsibility, free market and individual rights and freedoms.

A good question to ask is, what values and views should we seek to conserve?

As I’ve studied history, it’s clear to me that the most important thing that we should seek to conserve is the traditional family as an important foundation of our society. Strong families produce healthy children that go on to contribute to building a better society. Family is the place where children receive stability, love, nurture, and preparedness for life. Protecting the right of parents to choose how they bring up their own children is worth conserving. It’s also important to have strong support systems for families that don’t have all they need to raise their children well. Government policy should seek to support parents, not replace them.

While conservatives have different ideas about what they should and shouldn’t conserve, or to what degree, I think one thing they agree on is that some things are definitely worth conserving, and continuity of certain established values help with achieving social harmony.

To uphold a just, free, and compassionate society, we should conserve the things that have historically been proven to do so. I believe this gets to the heart of what the conservative movement is about, even though sometimes it’s not clear to see this amidst all the politics and personalities. 

Next time you read a news article or social media post that attempts to paint conservatives in a negative light, think about the principles that conservatives are seeking to conserve, and why. 

History tells us we should listen.

Olivia Boyd is an enthusiastic, talented and motivated teenage student who is very passionate about supporting the pro-life movement, family values and ending human trafficking. Upon completion of her High School education, she intends to study law and psychology. She has an interest in human rights and social psychology, and is an active member of the PragerForce group for students and young professionals. Olivia will be contributing articles to Family First this year as part of her Duke of Edinburgh award.

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