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Tampa-ring with conservatism

By Tim Wallace - posted Friday, 25 October 2002

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 disposition. Russell 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 discourse.


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.

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About the Author

Tim Wallace is a Sydney-based freelance journalist. He has worked for The Canberra Times, The Age and The Australian Financial Review and the Sydney Morning Herald. He has one book, True Green @ Work: Making the Environment Your Business, to his name and edits a website,, focused on social and environmental sustainability issues and media.

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