And many nations will pass by this city, and every man will say to his neighbour, ‘Why has the Lord dealt thus with this great city?’ And they will answer, ‘Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God and worshiped other gods and served them.’ Weep not for him who is dead, nor grieve for him, but weep bitterly for him who goes away, for he shall return no more to see his native land.
Here We Are
For a political movement sustained by traditional values, the past year for Australian conservatives has seen, inter alia, the final blow dealt to traditional marriage, an uncertain commitment by a notionally friendly government to religious freedom, attacks on federal support for church schools, an unwillingness to believe the notoriously obscene conduct of banks and financial institutions deserved a royal commission, a raft of parliamentarians unable to comply with the most basic requirements of our Constitution, a former Prime Minister undermining his successor at every opportunity, and a former Deputy Prime Minister selling the story of his affair with a staffer. A Joseph Lyons or a Robert Menzies would undoubtedly find any of this nauseating, while one can only guess at the reaction of former Liberal Party president, LtCol Ralph Honner MC, Kokoda hero and daily Mass-goer.1 But it is here, amid these charred ruins of Australia’s once sound Right, that the battered band of antipodean Tories now stands.
Yet, even in the worst of times, it is good to keep a sense of perspective. Losing battles is not the same as losing wars. Defeats are not final. We have seen worse times. Yet conservatives need to accept that, for now at least, we survive as exiles. Indeed, when I last wrote in this journal, I suggested, entirely polemically, various reforms and avenues of resistance for adoption by fellow pilgrims. I am disappointed to admit that since then, none of these have advanced. Conservatism’s ruinous offspring, liberalism, is, in every sense, the dominant political idea. Accordingly, I intend here to reinforce failure—contra all sensible military wisdom—and set out conservatism’s reality, its predicament and its future.
The natural question that arises, amid the debris, rubble and fallen standards, is what, really, is political conservatism? My view is, from an Australian—indeed, an Anglophone—perspective, that political conservatism is a trident with three prongs:
(1) the maintenance of traditional values, based on Judeo-Christian principles, underpinned by the rule of law and tempered by a commitment to pluralism;
(2) the maintenance of national solvency, a sound currency and a well-regulated economy that supports a civil society and a private sphere; and
(3) the maintenance of a secure and orderly nation, where the nation is defended, the constitution is maintained and the laws are faithfully and honestly executed.
In each prong of Tridentine Conservatism, ‘maintenance’ is a key word: conservatism is not a passive ideology, found in heavy tomes or asleep in an armchair in its club, but is instead a vigorous and intergenerational activity. The main effort of conservatism is not writing long tomes aimed at creating utopia or receiving a favourable view from the ‘very serious people’ among one’s contemporaries. Rather, vigilance and stewardship of the nation are prized virtues, while noting, also, that reforms and repairs will, if proven necessary, be required. However, even so, change is managed as a needed improvement, not a hobby to be adopted. It was in this sense that Abraham Lincoln replied to the secessionists challenging the American republic, ‘What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?’2
Conservatism has, customarily, promoted virtues such as hard work, prudence, sobriety, courtesy, thrift, delayed gratification and a willingness to observe sound form without standing unnecessarily on ceremony. While some may see these as old-fashioned values, their merit applies in any age, to all manner of people, in all manner of pursuits, as if they were a torch to be passed from one generation to the next to illuminate the way forward. 3 This is why, as Sir Roger Scruton wrote, that ‘unlike liberalism, with its philosophy of abstract human rights, conservatism is based not in a universal doctrine but in a particular tradition’.4 The conservative movement, if not inheritance, was best explained in simple and homely terms by the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, after the Great War:
I am just one of yourselves, who has been called to special work for the country at this time. I never sought the office. I never planned out or schemed my life. I have but one idea, which was an idea that I inherited, and it was the idea of service—service to the people of this country. My father lived in the belief all his life. It is a tradition; it is in our bones; and we have to do it … I believed from my heart the words of Browning, ‘All service ranks the same with God.’5
Conservatism sees society’s endurance and decency as dependent on the cultivation and passing on of these biblical and ancient virtues, such as service, duty, faithfulness and perseverance amid difficulties, and see society harmed when faced with the assertion of new and, usually, dubious rights, particularly those that risk harm to the proven good of the traditional order.6
Conservatism, to borrow from the work of former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, sees the society as a polity that is neither a hotel nor a country house but a ‘home’, to which all may belong and to which all will have obligations to the nation-state and to civil society, of loyalty to a sovereign and of solidarity with one’s fellow citizens.7 As long as one is prepared to be a loyal and solid citizen, and to keep and build the home, one may otherwise be as one wishes to be, and may speak and believe freely. The conservative values his or her private sphere and values, likewise, the domain enjoyed by others. But, at the same time, should ‘home’ be divided by its members’ individual grievances, then home will not, for long, stand. We are all in this together—all of us. And we will all have to make sacrifices and work hard to keep the home in a good state of repair.
Conservatism is thus to be distinguished from its historic enemy, liberalism. Where conservatism emphasises ‘we’, duties and sacrifice within a context of tradition, liberalism emphasises ‘I’, rights and entitlements, as if we live in year zero.
As Patrick Deneen noted, liberalism ‘has drawn down on a pre-liberal inheritance and resources that at once sustained liberalism but which it cannot replenish’.8 Where conservatism conserves and protects the body politic it inhabits, liberalism, which begins by championing the individual, has the tendency only to drain, if not decay, and repudiate tradition for what will become the programmatic unctions of the impersonal and coercive state.9 Those who were of different and conflicting estates before the revolution will find themselves equalised by the revolution. But, regardless, as Virginia Woolf proclaimed of the modern age, ‘Everything was going to be new. Everything was going to be different. Everything was on trial.’10
Liberalism, a dextrous ideology based on rights and historical amnesia, has come to dominate in Anglophone politics, by promising one can create a new Eden while also eating of all manner of trees of knowledge. The result is that biblical and ancient ideas of duty, tradition and solidarity, which uphold any decent society, inevitably are mocked by, if not made to perish before, an ascendant liberalism. As Phillip Blond noted, surveying what was left of British society after the Thatcher and Blair eras had captured its commanding heights:
We were not supposed to reflect on any tradition-informed questions … It is for this reason that liberalism has promoted a radical individualism which, in trashing the supposed despotism of custom and tradition concerning the nature of true human flourishing, has produced a vacated, empty self that believes in no common values or inherited creeds.11
In Australia, in particular, the conservative tradition has been not libertarian but more Scriptural and, especially, constitutional. It was, in particular, an opponent of those who promoted the abstract.12 Conservatism, here, played a large role in the Federation movement13 and, as a result, Australia’s right of centre politics has supported constitutionalism and the need for order. The authority of the state, when protecting the constituted demesne, is always supported by the true conservative, as the alternative to order is not freedom but anarchy. The state is not the enemy of liberty but its enabler. Further, to pretend that the individual has rights as against the state without any concurrent duty to help preserve the realm is dangerous. As Prime Minister Billy Hughes put it bluntly during the Great War, ‘It is the duty of every citizen to defend his country, and it is upon his country that he depends for the protection of what he is pleased to call his rights.’14 Or, as Robert Menzies qualified the same idea during the Second World War, the ‘good democrat is one with a silent acceptance of his duty, while a bad democrat is one with a noisy insistence upon his rights.’15 If the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, then that cost is met by solidarity.
In practical terms, Australian conservatism values the ‘little platoons’ of our civil society. We are a people that joins and supports surf live saving clubs, volunteer fire-fighting brigades and emergency services, the Country Women’s Association and the Returned Services League, municipal orchestras and community arts and theatres, and a host of progress associations and local conservation groups. These are entirely apolitical collaborations but, in their best sense, they are the unconscious troops carrying on a particularly Australian subsidiarity.
Australian conservatism has its own culture, which seems also to have foundered in the rough seas of liberal error. There are many causes for its submergence, not least of which is the deep moral putrefaction of too many churches, businesses, political and public institutions—even veterans organisations—which for so long had provided the people and transmitted ideas that propelled Australian conservatism. In short, the worst behaviours ignited a bushfire that has consumed many of conservatism’s groves. The ruins in which the conservative walks today are strewn with the metaphorical bodies of the clerical, commercial, political and military personages who betrayed sacred trusts to indulge worldly sins. The standards they walked past became the accepted norms of corruption. We stand amid ruins and not by accident.
Conservatism: What is Left of What Was the Right?
Last year Australians voted for or against same-sex marriage. I voted no, but the Yes case won. Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. But for a conservative, words mattered. What was missed in much of the public debate was that, for many traditionally minded people, there was less of an issue with ‘same-sex’ as there was with the use of the word ‘marriage’. Nomenclature matters. Definitions matter.
To be fair, the collapse of the public understanding of what marriage once was—a union between one man and one woman for life, who will love, cherish and sacrifice for each other through good and bad—had been centuries in the making.
Since Henry VIII broke with the Church over ending his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and the papal refusal to annul it, a true ‘marriage revolution’ had gone on, in which no-fault divorce, prostitution, raunch culture and a host of societal debaucheries, as well as war and liberalism, had dealt the idea of marriage successive blows. All of these blows were delivered first by cultural and then by the ordinary parliamentary means. None of the collapse of marriage in the West was done in secret and none of it involved lesbians or gays. Instead, as the good book said, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’16
I mention this debate not to reopen fresh wounds but to show that marriage, like other institutions, rotted from within, to the point where a conservative’s surprise should have been that the word ‘marriage’ had survived an increasingly contractual morality. At root, marriage went from giving to taking, from a lifelong commitment of service to a forum for personal fulfilment. The mantra of ‘love is love’ is a quintessentially liberal and thus meaningless one, and its marriages, too, will last as long as 51 per cent of people believe in 51 per cent of its vacuity. This demonstrated, as Archbishop Charles Chaput pointed out, that:
Democracy tends to unmoor society from the idea of permanent truths. Placing the law, which ideally reflects right and wrong, under the power of elections can seem to put truth itself on the ballot … On the one hand, truth becomes relative and contingent on popular whim. But on the other, it becomes radically privatized by the individual citizen.17
In this respect, the liberalism of transactional relationships—the emphasis on personal freedom to do what one wants as the summit of human achievement—is a bigger cause of the ruins in which the conservative walks now than anything that can be sheeted home to the more usual bêtes noires of the political left. The worst part is that the political conservatives were too often accomplices to the destruction, mouthing the worst liberal platitudes of ‘freedom’, ‘progress’ and ‘modernising’, rather than standing astride the mobs with a bold standard embossed with the word, ‘Stop’.18
A culture that allows for, which indeed often promotes, a morality of killing for convenience, evading the law, following one’s own ‘truth’ and eschewing an inheritance for self-indulgence cannot be shocked by where it finds its host society now. If ‘politics is downstream from culture’, then the highly individualised, selfish and temporal liberal culture in which we live will make almost everything the conservative values impossible. As Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn wrote in the 1960s, ‘Since the French Revolution the West has been obsessed by a neurotic fear of not being up to date. The chains of time are a characteristic worry of a godless, geocentric and materialistic outlook.’19
To the extent that the thinking of an earlier Australian conservatism had political representation, it, too, was lost in the liberal triumph. In 2018 the dominant right-of-centre thinking is economically ‘dry’ and socially ‘wet’—or what is called ‘moist’. This is the ideology that says, ‘the state has no place in your bedroom or your wallet’. It is more Christopher Skase than Christopher Tietjens. The appeal of this position is that it offers aspiring hacks a superficially attractive means of extracting themselves from messy debates on abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, divorce, the sexualisation of pretty much everything, and what is to be done for the poor and the unskilled, for example, while preserving their political capital for debates that apparently matter, such as resisting inquiries into misconduct in the financial services industry or reducing weekend wages for casual workers. That bankers’ conduct and workers’ rights are moral matters, too, is entirely lost. All the modern Right exists to achieve is to give invisible hands freedom to work efficiently, even if there are times when that hand will become a fist or a chokehold.
This dominant ‘moist’ brand of modern Right politics, captured as it is by the morality of the ‘feral abacus’,20 reduces rather than enhances the capacity of the Right to offer a competing vision of a ‘good society’. It is a form of argumentative disarmament to try to explain the virtues of hard work, sobriety, financial prudence and individual liberty without any resort to a moral language. If the market is all that there is, and nothing has a value that cannot be monetised, we are all reduced to consumers and payroll queries. If we really are all homo economicus out to maximise our gain and personal pleasure, then why should anything be done for those who are sick, disabled or have other miseries of life heaped upon them? How do we avoid an agile and disruptive liberalism of the Tarpeian rock?
Moreover, as a matter of realpolitik, the liberal separation of private and public moralities is very difficult to sustain in a polity where poor life choices of an increasing few are paid for by the revenues extracted from the increasingly taxed, sensible and dwindling many. One may be free to indulge a range of harms but is very unlikely the costs of those harms will be borne by that individual alone. Instead, what begins as a private malady or addiction rarely stops its socio-economic effect there. So, if some behaviours are preferable and others unwise and result in all of us paying for their victims, why deny the obvious and refuse to speak in moral terms? Why pretend that moralities are so neatly severable? Liberalism seeks to avoid judging, especially in terms of private behaviour, in the naive hope that private delinquencies will not affect the polis’s health.
The Victorians, whose era contributed so much to conservatism, offered their own practical answers to the problems of their, and now our, time. The Victorians understood that a wealthy and free society could not sustain itself without a public morality that championed duties rather than rights, obligations instead of liberties, and an unapologetically judgemental and sensible moral order, not an ethics of DIY.21 The traditionalism of the Victorians, while seen as rigid now, gave certainty and rules to a society in flux, particularly one in which the rights of capital seemed, all too regularly, to trump the rights of the labourer.
The only hope for a restoration of a true conservatism lies in accepting that the moral, social and economic domains are interconnected. Or, as the Bolshevik tyrant Lenin allegedly said, ‘everything is connected to everything else’. For the true conservative, it is.
The Way Ahead
Accordingly, I revisit and urge upon my fellow conservatives these recommendations for moving Australian politics in honest and sound directions:
(1) Fight Cultural Wars. There is no dignity in quietism. Uncertain trumpets summon no-one to the battle.22 There is no future for a conservatism that is wet and weak on pressing moral issues, especially the hardest ones involving life in the dawn, shadows and twilight of life, or the dignity of work, or the solidity of human relationships.23 An insurgency is vital and attractive. A despondency is not. However, pick the battles that are noble and worth fighting, that foster human flourishing and eternal truths, not those that win mob acclaim and media attention.
(2) Sound Economics. Conservatives must denounce donor-driven policies that seek to excuse or protect bad behaviours. Ask what is good for the whole nation, not merely special—and especially the noisy and donating—interests. In particular, look at always improving the living standards of the working and middle classes who constitute Australia’s national yeomanry. This is not just a matter of ensuring the dogmas of ‘prudent management’ are observed but also of ensuring fairness between labour and capital, and among generations. There will be no conservatism if a sizeable percentage of younger people remain mired in debt and have no assets to conserve. A broadly shared prosperity, in which all Australians have some financial security and assets to conserve and pass on, is the best possible legacy of an Australian conservatism, as well as good politics in the present. Given the pressing demographic challenges facing Australia, the time to start work on this project was yesterday.
(3) The National Family. Given the decades of interreligious and sectarian wars and turmoil abroad, it has never been more important for all of us to support Australia’s unity here at home. That means making the pluralist case for the Australia that is a very successful multi-religious and multiracial country, in which a common loyalty transcending differences is shared by the citizenry. Accordingly, conservatives should oppose any form of identity politics, from any side, that serves only to emphasise differences based on religion, ethnicity, gender or what have you, since they only estrange us from each other. At the same time, if our plural community is to work well, everyone has an interest in defending the rights of anyone, of whatever faith and background. Australia has a precious and intact social fabric and we should do all we can to maintain it. Challengers to pluralism, be it the jealous deity that is secular liberalism or the alt-right/‘alt-reich’ should always and everywhere be anathematised.
(4) Take the Constitution and Politics Seriously. Australia remains an extraordinarily successful nation but our political system verges on the shambolic. The major parties have corrupted entry processes and are too often servants of their donors, while the minor parties are populated by too many cranks and crooks. Our parliament never fails to dispirit. Australia urgently needs a new parliamentary complement that reflects our constitution’s design: genuinely local members for the House of Representatives and Senators for the states and territories, not partisan apparatchiks who have, in the main, done nothing since their school years but engage in political hackery and/or influence peddling. If needs be, more conservatives should choose to run as independents on their own local issues. Reforming the Parliament is far more important to Australia’s future than the cosmetic debate over a republic. Unless the character, drive and trustworthiness of MPs and Senators improve markedly, then there is no prospect of improving the overall quality of the ministry or the executive. Moreover, a conservative politics that espouses traditional values, public service, merit and enterprise cannot support a political class that is antithetical to our Australian constitutional design and our beliefs.
Call this a reform agenda, call it a plan for action, call it a mini-catechism, but conservatives need a consistent and well-founded program, not more temporising pabulum.
The Conservative Coda
Conservatives may remain among the ruins for some time but to despair is a sin. We have seen worse times. When General Anton Denikin, a most able tsarist general of the Great War, who escaped execution by the Bolsheviks and incarceration by the Nazis, arrived in the United States as an indigent refugee, he spent his remaining precious months, not pitying his exile but ensconced in a public library in New York, sustained only by the lunch he had brought from his cramped home, compiling yellowing documents and writing a memoir he would never finish.24 Denikin would not live to see the Soviet collapse but he did what he could to tell the story of his cause, to pass the torch and to keep faith with those who perished in wars and the gulags.
In a similar albeit much less dramatic way, all conservatives are called upon to keep the faith, and not to pity their plight but instead to engage in needed repentance and reform, leading to a new resolve. With a deserved confidence in our ancient cause, and with a principled and sensible agenda for Australia’s good, it is time to cease plodding around the ruins and, instead, hoist our colours, make our case anew, and begin the campaigns to recover what we have lost. Like the remnant of Israelites returning from exile to Jerusalem, let us cease weeping amid the ruins and begin, instead, the task of repair and of restoration.25
Gray Connolly writes on war, religion, politics, history and law. He is a barrister in Sydney.
- Peter Brune, Ralph Honner, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2007, p. 302.
- Abraham Lincoln, speech at Cooper Union, New York, 27 February 1860
- See Gertrude Himmelfarb, ‘Victorian Values’, Summer Address to the Centre for Policy Studies, 1987.
- Sir Roger Scruton, ‘What Trump doesn’t get about conservatism’, New York Times, 5 July 2018, p. A19.
- Stanley Baldwin, speech in Worcester on 7 November 1923, quoted in On England, and Other Addresses (1926), p. 19.
- Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2018, pp. 39–41.
- Jonathan Sacks, The Home We Build Together, Continuum Press, London 2007, pp. 13–23, 86–7.
- Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, pp. 29–30.
- See Juan Donoso Cortès, ‘Solutions of the Liberal School Relative to These Problems’, in Essay on Catholicism, liberalism and socialism considered in their fundamental principles, trans. Madeleine Vinton Goddard, J.B. Lippincott & Co, Philadelphia, PA, 1862, pp. 108–16.
- Woolf, quoted in Gertrude Himmelfarb, ‘Victorian Values’, p. 7.
- Phillip Blond, Red Tory, Faber & Faber, London, 2010, p. 145.
- Gregory Melleuish, ‘Understanding Australian Conservatism’, Policy, vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 42–44.
- See JM Ward, The State and the People, Federation Press, Leichhardt, NSW, 2001.
- Billy Hughes’ speech on 18 September 1916, in Sally Warhaft (ed.), Well may we say: The speeches that made Australia, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2004, p. 233.
- Robert Menzies, speech on ‘The Government and Ourselves’, 5 June 1942.
- Judges 21:25
- Charles J. Chaput, Strangers in a Strange Land, Henry Holt and Co, New York, 2017, p. 109.
- With apologies to William F. Buckley, ‘Our Mission Statement’, National Review, 19 November 1955.
- Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, ‘The Reactionary Vernacular’, Triumph, January 1968.
- Description given by former prime minister Paul Keating of the former Liberal Party leader John Hewson.
- See the excellent F. David Robert, The Social Conscience of the Early Victorians, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2002; and Himmelfarb, ‘Victorian Values’.
- 1 Corinthians 14:8
- Derived from former US vice-president Hubert Humphrey’s observation that ‘The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.’
- Dimitry V. Lehovich, White against Red: The Life of General Anton Denikin, WW Norton, New York, 1974, p. 493.
- See the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah.