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Liberal and Conservative

These two terms recur throughout the political history of the 19th century in all parts of the world influenced by European thought. In a time of profound change they draw a contrast between those who agitate for reform (particularly for democracy and a reduction in the privileges of church, royalty and landed aristocracy) and those who are inclined to protect existing values of society against what they see as a destructive and corrosive influence.

Both words derive from the great formative events at the start of the century, arising from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era.

The Liberales first exist as a political party in Spain in 1810, when the French occupation prompts the gathering of an independent Cortes in Cadiz. The delegates split into two groups which become known as the Liberales (in favour of reform) and the Serviles (who wish to continue the Spanish tradition of absolute monarchy).

The Liberales win the day and write the constitution of 1812, providing for a monarch responsible to an elected parliament, together with freedom of the press and other such radical measures. These delegates include members from Latin America, where the independence movements are already under way. So there enters also an implied link with 'liberation'.

The word 'conservative' soon follows, being used after the restoration of the monarchy in France for those in favour of the reactionary backlash which now aims to mend all the damage perceived to have been done by French revolutionary principles.

Both sides are within traditions much older than the immediate circumstances which bring the words into being. The liberal emphasis on reason, education, secular values and personal liberty is in the 18th-century spirit of the Enlightenment. The conservative love of tradition, established order and ritual has its roots far further back in the Christian culture of the Middle Ages.

Underlying the intellectual differences of opinion, there is also a more immediate and divisive political agenda. The liberals, wanting change, are on the side of those who will benefit from a redistribution of wealth. The conservatives, however high their ancient ideals, frequently have something of their own to conserve.

The words win their most lasting connection with two British political parties, where the distinction between them is somewhat blurred. They are used in a much clearer sense in Catholic countries in the 19th century, particularly in Latin America, where anti-clerical liberals struggle, usually without much success, against conservatives allied with the powerful church of Rome.

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