There is a growing consensus that the terms ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ no longer have any useful meaning. It may be time to say the same for the word ‘conservative’. To conserve something is to preserve it in its existing state from destruction or change. For ‘conservative,’ the OED has ‘characterised by a tendency to preserve or keep intact and unchanged; preservative’ and ‘designation of the English political party, the characteristic principle of which is the maintenance of existing institutions, political and ecclesiastical.’
I would have thought that in ordinary parlance a ‘conservative’ is someone who wants to keep existing institutions as they are unless there is a compelling need for change, and someone who wants government to have as little to do with them as is decently possible. In that sense, I would, in common with a lot of people, happily describe myself as a conservative – but it does leave a hell of a lot of work to be done by the modifying terms ‘compelling need’ and ‘decently possible.’
For example, whether you think it is ‘decently possible’ for a government to stay out of healthcare might depend on whether you live in Australia or in the United States. We think that the Republican view on affordable health care verges on madness, and that if that position derives from their ‘conservatism’, then conservatism is evil. If the last election showed anything, any suggested tinkering with Medicare is a form of political suicide here – and as someone who has been treated for cancer for nine months by the best doctors in the world, with not a bill in sight, it is a subject on which I have strong views.
The problem with using the term ‘conservative’ is brilliantly highlighted by Simon Blackburn in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.
conservatism Originally in Burke an ideology of caution in departing from the historical roots of a society, or changing its inherited traditions and institutions. In this ‘organic’ form, it includes allegiance to tradition, community, hierarchies of rank, benevolent paternalism, and a properly subservient underclasses. By contrast, conservatism can be taken to imply a laissez-faire ideology of untrammelled individualism that puts the emphasis on personal responsibility, free markets, law and order, and a minimal role for government, with neither community, nor tradition, nor benevolence entering more than marginally. The two strands are not easy to reconcile, either in theory or in practice.
Disraeli may be taken as standing for the first strand. Margaret Thatcher may be taken as standing for the second. As it happens, I admire both of them, but in that I am in a minority (and one that I don’t own up to in Cambridge or Oxford). Professor Blackburn is plainly right in saying that the two strands are not easy to reconcile. But even in his formulation, there is plenty of what we call wriggle room in either strand.
Jennifer Oriel is a keen student of ideological terms. In a piece in today’s Australian she says that the emergence of what she calls ‘the new Right’ means that we have to define conservatism. ‘The task of definition is urgent. Unless a well-defined, muscular conservatism emerges, the best of Western civilisation will not survive the 21st century.’ Goodness, gracious me – well, we won’t be here for the grand exit or Armageddon.
My view is that we may just as well drop the word, but why mention Farage or Trump in this context? Each is rigorously anti-conservative. Farage quit the Conservative Party because he wanted to tear down a central pillar of the governance of Great Britain. Trump is not a Republican – he wants to blow up the Washington establishment. Apart from wanting to shed the past, these two have five things in common that few conservatives would want to have imputed to them – an entire indifference to truth; an insular nationalism; a willingness to discriminate against at least one other creed (even though they have no creed of their own); a readiness to get into the gutter to get votes (this is called ‘populism’); and an unimaginably huge ego. With the possible exception of the last, it is impossible to imagine either Disraeli or Margaret Thatcher having anything to do with any of these traits – or looking upon either Farage or Trump with anything but disgust. The failure of ‘conservative’ Australians to call out either of these obnoxious clowns is a symptom of a serious intellectual malaise.
Ms Oriel says the following.
The Conservative Mind sparked the post-war conservative intellectual movement in America. In it, Kirk provides a definition of conservatism that comprises four substantive doctrines. The first conservative doctrine, “an affirmation of the moral nature of society”, rests on the belief that virtue is the essence of true happiness. The matter of virtue is family piety and public honour. Their consequence is a life of dignity and order.
Kirk’s second doctrine of conservatism is the defence of property. He defines it as “property in the form of homes and pensions and corporate rights and private enterprises; strict surveillance of the leviathan business and the leviathan union”.
The third conservative doctrine is the preservation of liberty, traditional private rights and the division of power. The absence of this doctrine facilitates the rise of Rousseau’s “general will”, made manifest in the totalitarian state.
The final doctrine of Kirk’s conservatism is “national humility”. Here, Kirk defines the nation state as vital to the preservation of Western civilisation. Politicians are urged to humble themselves in the light of the Western tradition instead of indulging in cheap egoism by promoting policies that buy them votes, but weaken the West.
English philosopher Roger Scruton identifies the political, pre-political and civil components of Western civilisation that sustain the free world. They are rooted in the uniquely Western idea of citizenship, which is influenced by Christianity. The core components of Western citizenship are: the secular democratic state, secular and universal law, and a single culture cohered by territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty. Like Huntington, Scruton analyses the core foundations and animating principles of Western civilisation in contrast to Islamic civilisation.
Conservatism stands in contrast to both small “l” liberal and socialist ideas of culture, society and state. Its central tenets are: moral virtue as the path to happiness, supporting the natural family, promoting public order and honour, private enterprise, political liberty, the secular state and universal law. The central tenets of conservatism are sustained by a single culture of citizenship that enables the flourishing of Western civilisational values.
Conservatism remains the only mainstream political tendency whose core objective is the defence and flourishing of Western civilisation. In its federal platform, the Liberal Party defines its liberal philosophy as: “A set of democratic values based upon … the rights, freedoms and responsibilities of all people as individuals.” There is no discussion of Western civilisation or Western values. However, it shares with conservatives the principles of limited government, respect for private property, political liberty and the division of power. And conservative prime ministers from Menzies to Howard and Abbott have led the defence of Western civilisation in Australia against its greatest enemies: socialists, communists and Islamists.
It is on the questions of immigration, transnational trade and supranational governance that the primary distinction between conservatives and the new Right is drawn. For example, there is growing tension fuelled by the belief that mass immigration, especially of Muslims, constitutes a demographic revolution that threatens Western values. Mainstream conservatives, including Cory Bernardi, reject the idea of a ban on Muslim immigration. But it is clear that policy resonates with many.
Roger Scruton is a very bright and sensible philosopher, but what Ms Oriel attributes to him here says nothing about conservatism. For that matter no one talks of ‘conserving’. Let’s then look at Mr Kirk. He has contributed nothing to our discussion of conservatism either because, with two possible exceptions, no one could be bothered to assert the contrary of his positions. Are those people who are opposed to conservatives opposed to the defence of property or the preservation of liberty? The first proposition of Mr Kirk on its face is just silly. Who’s going to buy a political platform based on ‘virtue’? The last politician to do that was Robespierre, a defining terrorist who took his doctrine from Rousseau in a movement that inspired Burke to invent a brand of conservatism*. The last proposition of Mr Kirk would of itself disqualify Trump and Farage, and every politician in Australia, but I have no idea what ‘national humility’ might mean, not least because I have a problem with the idea that a nation can have feelings. But I must say that any reference to the ‘state’ makes me nervous.
That leaves opposition to socialism and Islamists or Islamic civilisation. As to socialism, I’m not sure what that means, partly for the reason I have given above, and partly because the word is hardly used now in Australia. Is there anyone left who claims to be a socialist? As to the second enemy of the West, I object to what Ms Oriel says on three grounds – it is wrong to discriminate against people on the ground of faith; it is wrong to brand whole peoples or nations because of the actions of a few; and if Islamists are a threat to us, I don’t think it promotes our security to brand or discriminate against all Muslims. As Macaulay said of the Elizabethan persecution of the Puritans in England:
Persecution produced its natural effects. It found them a sect: it made them a faction. To their hatred of the Church was now added their hatred of the Crown. The two sentiments were intermingled; and each embittered the other.
Whatever else ‘virtue’ might mean, it doesn’t mean looking down on people just because they have a different faith – especially when so many people have no faith at all.
So, I am afraid that it is bullshit as usual for Ms Oriel.
Thank heaven we don’t go in for ideology down here.
*Simon Blackburn calls Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France ‘a masterly attack on the danger of airy political abstractions.’ As you will have seen, that danger has not passed. Some people can’t go past airy political abstractions.
Poet of the month: Dante, Inferno, Canto 1.
She brought upon me so much heaviness,
With the affright that from her aspect came,
That I the hope relinquished of the height.
And as he is who willingly acquires
And the time comes that causes him to lose,
Who weeps in all his thoughts and is despondent,
E’en such made me that beast withouten peace,
Which, coming on against me by degrees
Thrust me back thither where the sun is silent
While I was rushing downward to the lowland,
Before mine eyes did one present himself,
Who seemed from long-continued silence hoarse.