The word ‘conservative’ has had its political ups and downs, but of late it has been debauched if not hijacked. Conservatism found its most classical expression in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. The English preferred evolution to revolution. They relished their history and traditions; they revelled in their own mystique. They suspected change. Burke said that their ‘opposed and conflicting interests…interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions; they render deliberation a matter not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments, preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations…’ And the French? ‘You set up your trade without…capital.’
Now, that is very English. Our state of mind comes from our experience of history. ‘Our oldest reformation is that of Magna Charta.’ And the big reformation secured the separation of Church and State in a typically perverse English fashion. All this was in aid of ‘liberty’ – ‘Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself.’
An American legal scholar W D Guthrie expressed Burk’s thought on the 700th anniversary of Magna Carta.
…..everything which has power to win the obedience and respect of men must have its roots deep in the past, and the more slowly institutions have grown, so much the more enduring are they likely to prove.
Guthrie later spoke of ‘the rare and difficult sentiment’ of ‘constitutional morality.’ Its essence is ‘self -imposed restraint’. Its antithesis is ‘the most fallacious and dangerous doctrine that has ever appeared among men, that the people are infallible and can do no wrong.’ A ‘populist’ and a ‘conservative’ are two clean different things.
These views flow naturally from the Anglo-American legal tradition. We are looking at a certain type or cast of legal or political thought. How, then, would a ‘conservative’, so described look at some of our main political issues?
Take our handling of refugees. History is not a good guide. Historically, Australians have not acted well toward people of a different faith or colour, and the present government recently flirted with one of the more obnoxious disguises used in the White Australia policy. But putting to one side plain human decency, our treatment of refugees flouts Magna Carta and legal obligations undertaken to the world community. To that extent, a conservative must condemn our policy.
Take marriage equality. A conservative would argue that allowing same sex marriage expands the notion of liberty that underlies our whole dispensation. There are problems with that contention, but there are more problems with the very idea that the proposal might be opposed on the ground of religion. Our separation of church and state is recognised in our constitution in a way that is the direct opposite of the English version.
Yes, marriage has been between a man and a woman since Biblical times, but while antiquity may appeal to conservatives, it cannot rule them. Slavery has a history as long as that of marriage. As Burke said: ‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.’ That in my view is the real lesson of the French Revolution, but of one thing we may be sure – Burke would have been horrified and Disraeli would have been mortified by the suggestion that the Parliament refer the issue to the plebs. That to them would have been a fatal abdication. Labels have limits – Burke was a conservative Whig and Disraeli was a radical Tory.
Take our reaction to climate change. It’s now common ground that we have made a mess of it, and fools of ourselves. It’s hard to see how the issue could have become political, much less ideological. It would be tart, but not ridiculous, to suggest that the first job of a conservative is to conserve the planet, but you struggle to find any principle to the opposition to the findings of science. All you get are populist diversions about the price or reliability of power. It’s what we used to call the ‘hip-pocket nerve.’
Now, you will know that some in parliament and in the Murdoch press who call themselves ‘conservatives’ hold views opposite to those set out above. Some do it out of malice; others do it for money. Either way, it’s hard to see any underlying political principle. But it’s easy to see a surrender to the mob. What you don’t see is anything like the compromise, moderation or temperaments described by Burke or the self-restraint described by Guthrie. None of these parliamentarians is temperamentally given to compromise, moderation or self-restraint.
What you have is a repudiation of conservatism. It’s time these people were called out. They are not of the right sort of mind.