Books Australia

Smith not Mill

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

Liberal Shock - The Conservative Comeback Edited by William Dawes & Catherine Priestley

Connor Court, 2020,, pp.370, A$39.95

For a long time in this country, conservatism was the political creed that dare not speak its name. The term ‘conservative’ almost never passed Sir Robert Menzies’ lips, and he certainly avoided ever describing himself as such, even though he remains Australia’s most successful conservative leader. For the first century of our national life, ‘conservatism’ was associated with the supposedly class-bound politics of Britain so the term was used, invariably as abuse, to denote someone who wanted to ‘turn back the clock’ rather than simply respect and cherish the best that’s been thought and said.

At heart, conservatism is a cast of mind, rather than a political philosophy. It’s a set of instincts rather than a political programme. It’s almost the epitome of conservatism, not to regard oneself as having the last word in wisdom or knowledge; so most conservatives would prefer to read history and to delve into literature than try to articulate and justify political positions. Yet to survive and flourish, even things that are hard to put into words must have their advocates so it’s good that openly conservative people are starting to find their voices.

The editors of this volume of essays, William Dawes with Catherine Priestley, are recent graduates of Sydney University and were prominent in the campus Liberal Club. They have assembled some impressive contributors, including former High Court judge Dyson Heydon, academics Salvatore Babones and Damien Freeman, centre-right ex-politicians John Anderson and Nick Minchin and a host of writers from here and overseas such as Peter Hitchens, Adam Creighton and Roger Kimball.  As Priestley says in her afterword, the book had its genesis in a conversation in September 2015, when, she says, it seemed ‘apparent that the Abbott-Turnbull spill signalled the coming apart of the conservative and liberal alliance in Australian politics’.

The book’s theme is the fundamental incompatibility between John Stuart Mill’s ‘do no harm’ principle and Edmund Burke’s ‘organic society’ attachments and it argues that the attempt to keep the two traditions together inside the Liberal party is creating a civil war that makes Liberal governments ineffective. Not all the contributors support this thesis and not all the contributions are of the same quality; but it’s an important book, nevertheless, because it should force Liberals to re-consider what they believe and why, and how ideological a successful political party can afford to be.

The heart of the book is Dawes’ long opening essay that’s a splendid plea on behalf of Burke, the Christian humanist, against Mill, the doctrinaire sceptic, and advocate of the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’, with his signature declaration that the ‘only purpose for which power can be rightly be exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good…is not sufficient warrant’. In essence, Dawes’ response to Mill is that there ‘are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of… in your philosophy’.

Dawes thinks that Mill’s intellectual progeny can’t readily resist same-sex marriage, assisted suicide and gender fluidity because they’ve been indoctrinated into the view that ‘people should just be able to do what they want’; and that Mill-devoted rampant individualists won’t ever check unconscionable bankers’ salaries, workers’ wage stagnation and Australian industry relocating to where labour is cheap because ‘you can’t buck the market’. No, says Dawes, the job of government is not to ‘hold the ring’ between a mass of competing individuals but to realise that ‘all are diminished if one is diminished’ and to foster human flourishing where people ‘say what’s true, do what’s good and make what’s beautiful’.

Dawes draws an important distinction between ‘liberality’, the largeness of mind and generosity of spirit, that was the hallmark of Whig-ism at its best, and ‘liberalism’ – or really progressivism, in Dawes’ conception – a doctrine that has this in common with Marxism: that it tries to create a universal system based on one pre-eminent principle, only in this case ‘liberty’ rather than ‘class’. He fiercely rejects John Howard’s depiction of the Liberal party as the political custodian of the ‘liberalism of Mill’ and the ‘conservatism of Burke’; preferring, instead, a Liberal party that’s an amalgam of Burke with the even more iconic Adam Smith because Smith, a moral philosopher at heart, understood how unrestrained capitalism would become the tyranny of the rich. Indeed, a change in the ‘shorthand’ description of the Liberals from the party of Burke and Mill to the party of Burke and Smith – should it be accomplished – would be this book’s great legacy. Such a shift from a ‘transactional’ to a ‘relational’ view of society would certainly help to counter the public’s instinct that while the Liberals have a good ‘head’, Labor often has a better ‘heart’.

There are two problems, though, with the book’s thesis: the first, and most obvious, is that political parties are not normally in the business of making new enemies and purging the progressive Liberals would sure make some. Burke’s definition of a political party as a ‘body of men united for promoting the national interest upon some particular principle upon which they are all agreed’ does not work in a modern democracy where successful parties need 50 per cent of the vote so are inevitably a ‘broad church’. Even in Burke’s time, the Whigs disastrously split between Pitt-supporting patriots like him and ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ sympathising globalists like Fox.

The other problem is that it’s often hard to tell whether a particular policy is the product of Mill’s detached conception of individual liberty or Burke’s engaged love of country. Indeed, if the otherwise-at-odds ‘progressives’ and ‘patriots’ can unite around it, so much the better. Right now, without a dissenting voice, a Liberal government is enforcing the most draconian restrictions on personal freedom ever seen in this country and spending on a scale that would make J. M. Keynes blush: to protect us from disease; and to ameliorate the consequences of a policy-induced economic shutdown. Is this being done to ‘save the country’ or to ‘protect us from harm’? ‘Both’, government ministers would reply and let’s hope they’re right.

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Tony Abbott is the 28th Prime Minister of Australia and contributed an essay to this book

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