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Conservatism is not evil, stupid nor ignorant - it's just misunderstood

By Stephen Barton - posted Thursday, 30 January 2003

One of Margaret Thatcher's ministers once complained: "The word conservative is now used by the BBC as a portmanteau word of abuse for anyone whose political views differ from the insufferable, smug and sanctimonious, naïve, guilt ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of that third-rate decade, the 1960s." The problem is that it's not just the BBC.

The word 'conservative' is one of the most misused in the English language. If the word 'conservative' were a person, they'd sue. Insert 'conservative' in a description of a person and the chances are that it carries negative connotations. Being 'conservative' is never a compliment; it is a defect and a blemish on someone's character. It means they are quite possibly stupid, if they are clever then they are almost certainly a little evil, at best they are misguided and dim.

Contrast this with the word 'Left' or 'progressive'. Insert this anywhere in a description of a person and, providing it's not in the IPA Review, the chances are it brings with it a positive, warm and fuzzy glow. Clearly the person is an individual of great character and compassion, they have a social conscience and a hearty desire to build Jerusalem in England's pleasant pastures green and that light on the hill. Conservatives, or so it goes, would rather privatise the light on the hill, introduce a user-pays system and build a car park on those pleasant pastures. Pointing out that such a perception is a confused hodgepodge of misconception and misunderstanding is not welcomed.


Being a conservative can be an uncomfortable political persuasion for someone in their mid-20s, indeed for anyone under the age of 73. Maintaining that Gough Whitlam is arguably one of our most overrated and incompetent Prime Ministers, can get one burned at the stake for heresy. Of less danger, but still potentially fatal, is arguing that Paul Keating's 'big picture' was a symptom of his poor knowledge of history and the fact that some believed him is a terrible indictment on the country's education system. There is that terrible feeling of loneliness at a party when mildly pointing out that George Bush is unlikely to be an idiot, provokes looks of patronising dismay. Meekly demurring that possible war with Iraq has more to it than oil is even worse. Arguing that such views are dangerously simplistic is the height of chutzpah for a conservative; after all we're supposed to be the simple ones.

While some conservatives may be simple, conservatism is anything but. Not only are its philosophical roots extensive, subtle and nuanced, but it can vary so much between nations and cultures. British conservatism is different to American conservatism. Given the shallowness of Australia's intellectual pool, Australian conservatives draw heavily on either British or American conservatism or a combination of both. In turn, English Speaking conservatism, with its bedrock of liberalism, is different to European conservatism. Perhaps the best description of the conservative mindset comes from Michael Oakeshott,

" men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting point nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to be kept afloat on an even keel; the sea is both enemy and friend; and seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion."

Conservatism is keeping "your head when all about you are losing theirs", especially when half the crew thinks they have spotted Shangri-La to port. The conservative knows there is no Utopia or temporal heaven, and wishing for it won't make it so. The only solution for a quiet life is to rely on the tried and tested, to promote evolution not revolution. This is not to say conservatives can't be radical or reforming; when the safety of the ship is at risk conservatives can and do implement drastic changes and reforms. Above all, keeping the ship afloat involves sober reflection and a continued rearguard action against some of the crew's more crazy ideas, which left unchecked would sink the ship in shark-infested waters.

Unfortunately for conservatives and conservatism, progressives have occupied the moral high ground. Firmly ensconced on this ideological key terrain, the Left is free to define the debates and their opponents. Desperate to occupy some of that high ground, periodically some conservatives cravenly raise the white flag; witness William Hague and Ian Duncan Smith's navel-gazing about making the Tories more "inclusive", and even George Bush's spin on "compassionate conservatism". In so doing these leaders effectively told the general public that conservatives weren't compassionate or inclusive, but they were doing their best. Told you so, crowed their critics.

The Left has no natural right to the moral high ground, it's just that they managed to convince people, some conservatives included, that they do. Part of the problem is that there are never that many conservatives. Sure people might vote conservative, but its officer class is always small and for every Edmund Burke there is a Charles Fox, a Thomas Paine and a Mary Wollstonecraft. Conservatives are simply out numbered. In fact there are so few intellectual conservatives in Australia that they have to recruit from the Left Usually it's a case of waiting for age to take its course and turn angry young men into grumpy old men a la Paddy McGuniness, Bill Hayden and Keith Windschuttle. However, recruiting from the Left can be risky, as Robert Manne proved.


The singularly worst thing about the Left's ownership of the moral high ground (apart from an insufferable self-righteousness) is that public policy debate is governed by cheap cant and emotion. Opponents of the Government's refugee policy are quick to point out the human tragedy, as if they are the only ones, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, to feel their pain. But it's easy from the cheap seats and they are short on realistic alternatives. On issues such as refugees, the environment, Aboriginal welfare, the war on terror, war on Iraq, George Bush, otherwise intelligent people display the most alarming knee-jerk reactions based on nothing more than sentiment and passion.

Furthermore, when you occupy the moral high ground, the ends start justifying the means. Sure, some environmentalists might stretch the truth a little bit, distort the odd figure, but isn't it in a good cause? Bill Clinton was economical with the truth and a bit of a cad, but he was so progressive and charismatic! Logic and reason also become impaired, for example some will priggishly, and with terrifying seriousness, argue that when it comes to Iraq the United States is hypocritical because its possesses weapons of mass destruction. Keith Windschuttle becomes David Irving, George Bush the moral equal of bin Laden, and Republicans become fascists.

This lack of reason is frustrating to say the least and the cartoon-style slogans add little to any debate. However, personally the most irritating part is that as a conservative some of my peers regard me as both morally suspect and possibly a little stupid. To add insult to injury, they work for banks and city law firms.

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About the Author

Stephen Barton teaches politics at Edith Cowan University and has been a political staffer at both a state and federal level. The views expressed here are his own.

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