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
" 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
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
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.