by Giovanni Chiacchio

Our current society is perpetually devoted to the pursuit of a supposed progress consisting of the destruction of all forms of tradition, the erasure of historical memory, and the adoption of a modus vivendi centred on allowing the individual to be what he wants without any limits. It tends to view Conservatism as an ideology centred on uncritically rejecting all forms of change in order to anchor society to values belonging to a seemingly horrible past that is worthy of oblivion and rejection. However, this assumption is deeply flawed, the goal of Conservatism is indeed to ensure a gradual and organic change, which takes into account tradition and prevents the emergence of negative consequences from the adoption of such changes, this goal is perfectly summarised by the British Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil in his famous phrase: "Conservatism is to prevent things from happening until they are free from danger". The concept of 'change' understood in the Conservative sense of the term is treated superbly by the great American writer Peter Viereck.

The Nation as a barrier to autocracy

Born in 1916, Peter Viereck was the son of George Sylvester Viereck, a strongly German-American poet expelled from the Poetry Society of America in 1919 and later imprisoned during the Second World War for violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The young Peter walked in his father's footsteps on the professional side and became a poet himself, but did not follow his father's ideology. On the contrary, it was his father's political extremism that contributed decisively to shaping him as a Conservative. In his marvellous article 'But I'm a Conservative!' he asserted that Conservatism included the preservation of a society's cultural and spiritual heritage, the latter being the barrier that any mass movement must take into account so that all may be free. The cultural and spiritual heritage of a Nation thus constituted in Viereck's view an effective limit to the most extreme political tendencies, as well as a useful deterrent against the political self-streetisation so common in the period. In this article, his opposition to Nazism and all forms of extremism is summarised, Viereck contested the utopian nature of totalitarian ideologies whose goal was the elimination of all obstacles to a perfect society, since he argued that Liberalism was characterised by a similar (albeit milder) worldview, it was inadequate to counter extreme and totalitarian political ideologies, a role to which Conservatism was naturally suited.

The concept of Conservatism as an organic and prudent gradual change aimed at preventing potential destabilisation resulting from the aforementioned changes is expressed by Viereck in his masterpiece Conservatism Revisited, particularly in the chapter Conservative way to Freedom. One of the central elements of the work is the comparison between the reform process implemented by the United Kingdom during the 19th century, which largely preserved the stability of the Kingdom and its overseas empire, and the failure to implement institutional reforms in the Austrian Empire, which contributed decisively to dragging Europe into the abyss of the revolutions of 1848 and set in motion the events that would lead to the outbreak of the First World War. The central element of the analysis is the figure of the Austrian Chancellor Klemes Von Metternich, according to Viereck, Metternich perfectly represented the Conservative attitude towards change, seeking stability and not immobility, this attitude is summarised by his attempt to pursue an institutional reform aimed at stabilising the huge Austrian Empire, made up of numerous different nationalities, which played a fundamental role in maintaining the balance of power on the European continent. Already in 1817, when he was still Foreign Minister, Metternich, foreseeing possible destabilisation resulting from revolts by the various nationalities that were part of the Empire, presented a proposal for institutional reform aimed at decentralising administrative competences by creating a parliament with consultative functions partly elected by the various provinces of the Empire and partly appointed by the Emperor and the creation of four autonomous chancelleries, one for Italy, one for the German areas, one for the Slavs of Bohemia and Poland and one for the South Slavs. Metternich's reform, however, remained largely unimplemented, he was appointed Chancellor in 1821 and by virtue of his undisputed diplomatic skills became the central man for maintaining the balance of power in Europe, however, the Emperor while following his advice on foreign policy, ignored all advice on domestic affairs, something Metternich would later complain about greatly. In the face of the French Revolution of 1830, which went down in history as the 'July Revolution', Metternich's fears of a possible revolt in the Empire resurfaced, leading the Chancellor to present a proposal in 1832 to transform the Austrian Empire into a constitutional monarchy.

No stabilization without rapresentation

In Metternich's view, the Habsburg monarchy was to be the symbol of national unity capable of coalescing the allegiance of the various nationalities under the jurisdiction of the Empire, but it was to be balanced by a constitutional system that limited its powers, favoured decentralisation and took into account the social changes that had taken place in the preceding years. Emperor Franz I, however, decided not to endorse Metternich's plan, which once again remained a dead letter. In contrast, in the same year the reform process in the United Kingdom had a very different outcome. At the time, the British House of Commons was very unrepresentative of the national electorate, as a large proportion of the seats were held by very small communities often prey to local businessmen who could bribe the local electorate (the so-called 'rotten boroughs'), while the large cities that had sprung up in the wake of the Industrial Revolution were under-represented. The proposal to adopt an electoral reform was brought forward by the Whig party led by Charles Grey, then in opposition, the presentation of the proposal caused the fall of the Tory government led by the Duke of Wellington who was divided over the approval of the proposal. Charles Grey was then appointed prime minister and officially presented the proposal to the House of Commons, which rejected it. Showing far greater foresight than Emperor Francis, the British monarch William IV, in the face of strong public pressure, agreed to call new elections that saw a strong Whig affirmation. The second attempt to approve the proposal was successful in the House of Commons, but was rejected by the House of Lords, which generated widespread unrest throughout the country and led to fears of a full-blown revolution. Faced with the prospect of a popular uprising, the Duke of Wellington sent a letter to the members of the Tory party in the House of Lords asking them to support the bill because of the dire consequences that would result from its failure to pass.

L'internazionale conservatrice si è riunita a Budapest

The Representation of the People Act 1832 (also known as the Reform Act) was then passed by Parliament and received royal assent on June 7, 1832, this measure enlarged the electorate from about 400,000 individuals to 650,000 making about one in five male individuals eligible to vote and eliminated many of the rotten boroughs. The Reform Act still represents one of the greatest examples of the "gradual and organic change" brought about by Conservatism, for it took into account the social changes resulting from the Industrial Revolution by ensuring adequate representation for the large cities that arose as a result of that phenomenon without, however, altering the existing institutional system and preserving the role of the monarchy as a symbol of national unity.The terms of the Act were also extended to minorities who were part of the United Kingdom through two special measures for Ireland and Scotland. The Reform Act helped stabilize the country's political situation by preventing the country from sinking into the abyss of the Revolutions of 1848.

Later Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer (and later prime minister) Benjamin Disraeli would continue along that path by passing a new Reform Act in 1867, this measure gave most of the country's adult men the right to vote. Similar to 1832, Disraeli preserved the role of the British monarchy as a symbol of national unity and left the pre-existing institutional system intact while simultaneously transforming the British Parliament into a representative body of the nation and not of the wealthier classes, marking a decisive step toward democracy while taking into account the nation's institutions and traditions. Conversely, the failure to reform the Austrian institutional system led to a gradual destabilization of the Empire, which in 1848 was shaken by a violent uprising spread both among minorities within it and among the Austrian population itself. The ruthless repression (which once again was not followed by a necessary change in the system) and the ouster of Chancellor Metternich, which brought about the end of his prudent foreign policy, marked the final estrangement of the minorities from the government in Vienna and the gradual breakdown of the international balance of which the Austrian Empire was at the center.

These processes found fulfillment in the Austrian defeat in the Second Italian War of Independence, which resulted in the progressive formation of an Italian national state that continued to exercise territorial claims over Austrian possessions in the northeastern part of the peninsula. These claims were combined with German nationalist sentiment aimed at ousting Austria from the German Confederation and building a new German state under the leadership of Prussia. Forced into a war on two fronts, Austria met with a disastrous defeat at Sadowa that marked the final end of the balance that had arisen in the Congress of Vienna. Having beaten Austria, German nationalism turned toward France, whose defeat was essential to the achievement of German national unity. The immediate consequence of the Franco-Prussian War was the emergence of a strong sentiment of hostility on the part of France toward the new German Empire, whose gradual rise would later prompt Britain to rapprochement with France as part of the so-called Entente Cordiale that laid the foundation for the formation of the Triple Entente. At the same time, ethnic tensions within the Austrian Empire, particularly in the southern Slavic regions, continued following its profound institutional metamorphosis in 1867, leading to the emergence of tensions between the government in Vienna and Serbia, tensions that constituted the trigger that would set off the most devastating conflict Europe had seen up to that point.

Conservatism? A judicious reformism

Viereck's intention in comparing English institutional reforms with Austrian immobility is precisely to show the difference between Conservatism understood as organic and gradual change and Reactionarism. While blinkered reactionarianism progressively generates instability due to the failure of the system to adapt to new social demands, change understood in the Conservative sense of the term entails the preservation of stability and the marginalisation of political extremism through the preservation of national culture, traditions and the institutional system, which is not significantly altered but progressively adapted to the new demands resulting from the inevitable social changes. A form of change that our society, dominated by the quest for a perfect tomorrow resulting from the elimination of every element that obstructs this objective, should perhaps rediscover.

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A political science undergraduate at the University of Naples Federico II, he completed the post-graduate course "Leadership for International Relations and Made in Italy" at the Fondazione Italia USA as a fellow and attended the Heritage Foundation's summer academy. He writes for various blogs. His fields are international relations, strategic studies and English-speaking conservatism.