If conservatism is to be a positive political force in the 21st
century, it will be because it is at its root far less an ideology than a
Kirk, the prophet of American conservatism, described it, in fact, as
the negation of ideology; a state of mind, a type of character, a way of
looking at the civil social order, a deference to the historic continuity
of experience as a better guide to policy than abstract designs.
There should, of course, be a little of the ideologue in each of us.
Progress rarely comes except that people start with an idea about it. But
in everyone's political wardrobe, alongside the Che t-shirt and the Mao
suit, there also should hang at least one tweed jacket with leather
patches on the elbows. "The mob can never rebel," as G.K.
Chesterton said, "unless it is conservative, at least enough to have
conserved some reasons for rebelling." We should acknowledge and
embrace that inner conservative, the spirit that informs us that even the
most vehement philosophers have the entirely human tendency to sit at the
same table at the same café. Our inner conservative reminds us that we
prepare best for the future by paying respect to the past. It reminds us
to not throw the baby out with the bath water.
The willingness of senior government ministers a year ago to believe
asylum seekers would throw their own babies out was but one of an
increasing number of signs pointing to a crisis in this country in, if not
conservatism, then at least the clichés of conservatism, the ones
propagated through the simplistic language of national parliamentary
What labels Peter Reith and Philip Ruddock would wish to have hung on
them in the history books I do not know; something other than
"recidivist liar" and "heartless trigger boy", I
suppose. But John Howard at one stage laid claim to being the most
conservative leader of the Liberal Party since Robert Menzies. Few have
sought to disagree. Never mind the fact that his mix of social and
political conservation with an economic agenda of radical market reform
represents a fundamental philosophical inconsistency; he has the upward
sweep of his eyebrows and the same holiday spot to support his claim.
Opposition Leader Kim Beazley obligingly called him at the end of the last
Parliament "the most considerable conservative politician of his
generation". But if that is the case, then conservatism is in as bad
a way in Australia as "progressive" politics.
For conservatism is only as good as what it conserves. Friedrich
Hayek observed in his 1960 book The
Constitution of Liberty that conservatism in Europe had
tended toward the perpetuation of the aristocratic order, while
in the United States it had tended to support institutions that
happened to be fundamentally liberal. Hayek therefore chose not
to regard himself a conservative at all; to avoid all confusion,
he described himself as "an Old Whig", along the lines
of Edmund Burke.
Burke's own standing in modern conservative thought is acknowledged by
Kirk in his 10 principles of conservatism, the articles of belief he
regarded as reflecting the emphases of modern conservatives. "Burke
agrees with Plato that in the statesman prudence is chief among
virtues," Kirk wrote. "Any public measure ought to be judged by
its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or
popularity. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they
are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after
sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences."
I do not know if Kirk numbered his principles in order of importance
but he put the principle of prudence fourth, after the principle of
prescription (Modern people are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of
giants, able to see farther than our ancestors only because of the stature
of those who have preceded us in time) and before the principle of variety
(The only true form of equality is before a just court of law; all other
attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation).
The principle of prudence suggests a conservative should, on being told
at the beginning of a khaki election campaign that boat people have
thrown their children into the water, proceed with caution. The
conservative, knowing the family to be the building-block of society,
should be unwilling to believe the worst of people without proof.
The conservative, appreciating the imperfectability of humanity,
should recognise that such desperate actions, even if they occurred,
might be open to interpretation, particularly in the context of
a much longer event. The conservative would want evidence before
taking to the airwaves with hardline denunciations that rendered
asylum seekers as less human than himself.
This, alas, was not the approach the most considerable conservative
politician of his generation took in October and November last year. Then,
Howard seemed a willing enough player with Reith and Ruddock in their act
of the three blithe monkeys, hearing only what they wanted to hear, seeing
only what they wanted to see and saying only what they wanted to say.
A more considered conservative government might have controlled the
moral tail-spin into which they headed in the heat of the
election-campaign moment by expeditiously moving, in light of the evidence
coming to hand, to correct the error and close the story down, probably
coming out no worse for it in the polls; instead, the Howard crew decided
to hide behind the lame defence that there was a bad telephone connection
or a crossed line or something but everyone really did act on good faith.
Kirk's first principle of conservatism is belief in an enduring moral
order. "That order is made for man, and man is made for it; human
nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent," Kirk wrote.
"A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an
enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal
convictions about justice and honour, will be a good society."
There is, unfortunately, little regard for this principle in Howard's
argument that the "key issue" is "whether the original
statements was based on advice properly given and whether at any stage he
was told that original advice was wrong". The basis of his defence
seems to be that it is good enough to accept a lie so long as the truth
isn't banged over your head. Truth is not something to seek. Being right
and honourable is just something that comes with the job title.