Flat White

Who’s a true conservative?

12 July 2017

7:27 PM

12 July 2017

7:27 PM

The Prime Minister’s potty, semantic quibbling in London has taken up with characteristic zeal by Peter Van Onselen. His column for The Australian, ‘Reactionaries are destroying Liberals’ philosophical foundations’, makes for an (also typically) uninspiring read.

To his credit, Van Onselen says what the PM didn’t have the guts to: ‘This is my party, and if you don’t play by my rules, I’m telling my daddy!’ By the by, Daddy here is – not Turnbull – but the necronomically reanimated corpse of Sir Robert Menzies.

Devoutly chanting the factional talking point that Menzies founded a progressive party, not a conservative one, he concludes:

Of course Menzies looks conservative these days – he was Prime Minister of Australia in the 1950s and 60s, when society was very different to what it is today. We weren’t seen as a multicultural nation back then, the White Australia policy was in full flight. The world has changed, and with it so must the yardstick used to label politicians according to their philosophical leanings.


Were Menzies alive today his world view would reflect the times we now live in, and his approach to capturing the centre ground in politics clearly highlights that he would have been progressive rather than a reactionary conservative like those on the fringes of the Liberal Party, and disproportionately dominant in some media forums.

What he’s saying is that Sir Robert had no fixed principles – that his platform was an assortment of the most fashionable (if non-socialistic) opinions of the day.

I’m grateful for PVO’s missive, though, and others like it. It shows that ‘progressive Liberals’ and ‘sensible centrists’ like Turnbull, Christopher Pyne, and Niki Savva are morally and intellectually bankrupt. They have nothing to stand on: no principles, no philosophy, no deeply felt ideas of right and wrong. All they can do is ride the wave of public opinion and try to alienate as few people as possible. They have no goal in politics except to win elections and sell newspapers.

Liberals, and particularly conservative Liberals: pay close attention. I want you to read both the PVO columns I’ve linked and understand that this is your party now. This is a party of mercenary politicians; its ideologues proudly claim mercenaryism as their founding philosophy. It regards Menzies as nothing but the cleverest weathervane who ever lived.

So-called ‘moderate’ Liberals should pay attention, too. There’s a world of difference between ‘sensible centrists’ and ‘classical liberals’. You might support Turnbull & Co. because they stand for individual liberty, both fiscal and social. You might believe the government has no right to invade your bedroom or rummage through your purse. Understand that the ‘centrists’ do not. They’re only committed to individualism so long as it’s in vogue.

Let me give one last example, in case the point isn’t clear enough yet. Take PVO’s closing number:

Here is something Burke said which all conservatives should ascribe to if they want to wear that label: public policy makers should look to history for guidance, thereby increasing their chances of not repeating the mistakes of past generations. It’s a pretty simple concept.

Yet at the moment it’s the self-stylised conservatives who are destabilising the Liberal Party, thus repeating the errors of 2010 and 2016. 

PVO’s characterisation of Burke is basically useless (do non-conservative thinkers suggest we take pains not to learn from history?), but so much the better for that. Van Onselen can think of no better lesson to draw from history than Public Relations 101. And he can’t think of Burke – the most consequential Western philosopher since Thomas Aquinas – as anything but an ace electoral strategist.

Meanwhile, all the things Burke truly cared about – the vital importance of Christianity in maintaining civil order; the tendency of liberty to inhere itself in sensible objects, like constitutions and monarchies; the traditional family as the foundation of civilized society; the spiritual and intellectual corruption of the urban elite, etc. – he dismisses as “reactionary” in conservative Liberals.

Worst of all, though, he evidently failed to learn Burke’s most elementary lesson – the one that underlies his instruction about learning from history: beware those who prefer novelty to tradition, and abstract ‘progress’ to stability and continuity.

In my opinion, there’s one statesman in Australia – maybe in the world – who’s obviously read Burke and taken him to heart. Cory Bernardi explains in The Conservative Revolution:

In Burke’s writings, we see that conservatism is a state of mind that reflects and honours the importance of stability and structure. This attitude… recognises that the historic continuity of human experience offers a better guide to policy than the abstract, utopian propositions of those who seek to reinvent the human condition in their own image (or that of Rousseau, J.S. Mill, Marx, Freud and their acolytes).

The Conservative Revolution is the best book written by a politician since Burke’s own Reflections, if not Lord Hailsham’s The Case for Conservatism. And while I don’t agree with everything Senator Bernardi says, I know he does. I know he believes every word that comes out of his own mouth is God’s own truth, from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch. He’ll speak his mind, whether it’s fashionable or not… as it generally isn’t.

And he’ll stand by his principles, even if ‘sensible centrists’ brand him a reactionary for doing so. That’s the very definition of integrity. The Australian Conservatives have it by the truckload; the Liberals scorn it as a matter of principle.

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