One of the more troubling developments in politics over the last few years is the desire of those on the Right to be seen as “progressive” and to argue for “change”. Indeed this appears to be the new virtue: Conservative politicians suggest that they have a progressive agenda and that they are in favour of “change”. Doubtless Cameron’s Conservatives have seen the manner in which the successful Obama campaign used the idea of “change”.
But the problem here, of course, is that neither Obama or Cameron have as yet stated what they are going to change and why it should be done. Change is rather seen as a good thing in itself, as is being able to call oneself “progressive”, even if no attempt is made to explain where we might be progressing to.
But why should we see progress as desirable? Edmund Burke argued that we need to have the means to change things, but this was not because he wanted to see “progress”, but rather the reverse. He argued that “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation”. It is only by being able to change that we can preserve those institutions – the rule of law, free markets, private property, the family – that make our society what it is.
What this suggests is that instead of insisting we are “progressive” we should instead insist on a return to the original and non-pejorative meaning of “reaction”. Burke was, properly speaking, a reactionary. This was not because he refused to countenance any change, but rather that change should only be made in reaction to threats to those institutions we hold dear. The obvious reason for this is that what exists is already known and understood, whereas progressing to something new entails taking a risk on what we know little about.
So the next time that someone refers to you as a reactionary, take it as a compliment!