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The moral basis of the Right

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 15 August 2016

This is the sister essay to last week’s on the moral basis of the Left, and the subject is more difficult, because the words we use here are both more numerous and more ambiguous. Along with ‘the Right’ we can use ‘Liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘reactionary’, ‘establishment’, ‘Tory’, ‘laissez-faire’, ‘neo-con’, and others. They all come with baggage, both linguistic and historical. ‘Right’ refers to those who sat on the right of the President of the National Assembly in Paris in 1789, who wanted less change than those on the left of the President. ‘Liberal’, again, has to do with freedom, and in this case more often the freedom to be able to do things, than freedom from … (poverty, oppression, feudalism and so on). Sometimes, of course, both.

‘Conservative’ comes  from the Latin, and in ancient times probably related to the business of preserving food — conservatrix meant a woman who preserved fruit. We still speak of ‘conserve’ as a type of jam, and in environmental matters we have the Australian Conservation Foundation, whose goal is the conserving of the natural environment. ‘Establishment’ in politics refers to the position of the Church of England in England (the ‘Established Church’), and by extension, the aristocracy and those who benefit from such a position. Inside the word is the Latin root of our word ‘stable’, meaning fixed or settled. ‘Tory’ is a beauty: it is from the Irish toraidhe, meaning an outlaw, originally referring to peasants dispossessed by English settlers and living as robbers, and then extended to refer to supporters of James, Duke of York, who was denied succession to the throne because he was a Roman Catholic. From those who supported him and his claims came the increasingly dominant party of the late 17th and 18th century in England, the Conservatives, still referred to by some as ‘the Tory party’.

‘Laissez faire’ is French for let be, or more literally, ‘allow to do’. If you like, let things take their natural course, don’t interfere. ‘Neo-con’ is a modern American term for what I would call ‘reactionary’. My Shorter OED defines one sense of ‘reaction’ as ‘a movement towards to the reversal of an existing tendency or state of things… or desire to return to a previous condition of affairs’. The neo-cons in the USA seem to have originated on the Left, as strong opponents of the extreme, Stalinist, Left, but eventually felt that ‘liberalism’ in the USA had run its course, and it was time to return to a much less regulated state.


The history and subtlety of these terms suggests that to use any of them as having real meaning is to run into a great terminological bog. It seems to me that most of the time they are used as epithets by those who dislike anything to the ‘right’ of themselves. The dominant group within the federal ALP is ‘the Right’, or sometimes, ‘the NSW Right’. It is all relative — in the case of the ALP, relative to those on ‘the Left’. But isn’t the ALP generally on the Left? Well yes, but that’s relative to the Liberal party. We learn nothing by discovering that Mr X is thought to be  a Tory, a neocon, or whatever. As with Ms Clinton and Mr Trump, it is more useful to see what stands in their names as written policy. What do they want to do? Why do they want to do it? What is your own view about that? Why is it your view?

In the case of the Left, there is an enduring theme, more important in some quarters than in others, which is the notion of a journey, that of human progress. In the case of the Right there is something else, but still a sort of journey. It is the supposition that what has over time survived or endured in human societies must have some value in it, and we should not get rid of it without good reason. While that is straightforward, it doesn’t generalise well. Those in Australia who wanted state aid to church school in the 1960s were mostly Catholics, and to quite a degree they were socially and economically conservative. Those who resisted the shift to public funding of church schools were politically conservative. They liked things as they were, and did not want change. Indeed they tried for thirty years and more to get things back to where they had been. In terms of the definitions set out above, you could fairly call them ‘reactionaries’, though they would have thought of themselves, I feel sure, as ‘progressive’.

Built into the ‘conservative’ frame of mind is also a preference for, or a kind of belief in, the notion of an organic society, which is not just a set of individuals. Such a society is almost a living thing because it includes not only our buildings, industries and cities but our cultures as well — what makes us ‘Australian’, how we define family and education and marriage and music and leisure. Of course, these things are changing all the time, and a conservative tends to resist such changes where that is possible,especially big ones, and regrets the passing of what had been. Incidentally, Mrs Thatcher is supposed to have said that there was no such thing as ‘society’, there were only individuals and families. If she did say it, where does that put her?

Conservatives value continuity and stability. They don’t like governments that want to reform everything. They don’t much like politicians with expansive visions of the good society. If they feel they have to, they will tweak the current system. As I have written before, if pushed hard conservatives will engage in reconstruction themselves, and Bismarck and the Marquess of Salisbury, both true conservatives, were the real creators of what we now call the welfare state. They saw the dangers of revolutions that might arise from a disgruntled industrial working class, and bringing the workers into mainstream  society through voting reforms and old age pensions were their mechanisms to avoid one. They copped a lot of flack from other conservatives for doing so.

As will be clear, conservatism almost requires some kind of adjectival qualifier. We are all conservative about something. Just pop an obvious adjective in front, and you can have social conservatives (church is a good thing, homosexuality is a worry, etc), religious conservatives (no woman priests), cultural conservatives (modern art is rubbish, rap music is evil), economic conservatives (get rid of regulation about business), fiscal conservatives (balance the budget). Bio-conservatives (a new arrival) fear technological development, and are sceptical or downright hostile to new treatments in medicine. I doubt that more than a handful of people would be conservative in every area. And the terms change their meaning as soon as you move from one country to another, for one country’s liberals are another country’s conservatives.

Those who enjoy or benefit from any state of affairs are likely to see it (the status quo ante) as a good thing, and will be conservative with respect to aspects of it, just as many of those who are ‘have-nots’ will see such a state of affairs being plainly wrong. Perhaps it is true that many of us become more conservative as we get older, if only because we have learned how the system works. I once interviewed a senior politician who reflected on his discovery, when first elected, of the volume and complexity of standing orders in the House of Representatives. He had a reformer’s zeal. ‘When I get into power,’ he thought, ‘I’ll make sure these are sorted out and made much simpler.’ Twenty years afterwards, a master of procedure,  he had become the guardian of standing orders. He knew how they worked, and was able to use them effectively. To newcomers who had the reformer’s eye, he would explain that you simply had to learn the system.


It is nearly always the young who start revolutions, either on the grand scale or inside existing organisations. The young, who  have little experience of life yet, tend to see things clearly, and in binary terms — right/wrong, black/white. For those older, there are many shades of grey. There is good grey, not-so-good grey, and really awful grey.

If I have to use any of these labels at all, I try to speak and write so it is quite clear what I mean. Debate and discussion are much better, I think, if we dispense with the labels altogether, and talk about specific policies. Having said that, I do think asking myself where that perspective comes from helps me to understand my own personal position. As in the case of those on the Left, I doubt that most of those who espouse policies or positions of the Right have a clear sense of the basis of their  views.

And to conclude, I am reminded of a lovely book (The Devil’s Dictionary, 1906) by an American writer, Ambrose Bierce, he who defined ‘corporation’ as ‘an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility’. He also defined  a Conservative as ‘a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.’

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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