STAN GRANT. Which idea of conservatism will Prime Minister Scott Morrison embrace?

Sep 10, 2018

Conservatives in Australia are up for a fight. They are determined to recapture their heartland, reclaim the political right from the progressive interlopers: they are marking out their territory and it is as much about identity as ideology.

The failed Dutton putsch in Canberra has only served to expose the schism in the Liberal Party; the “insurgents” seek to capitalise on the fault lines that have ruptured the politics of much of the rest of the world.

They are attuned to the trends that have helped put Donald Trump in the White House and led Britons to vote to exit the European Union: a blowback against globalisation, a challenge to the hegemony of cosmopolitan city-based elites, resistance to increased immigration, stronger borders, and trade policy that puts citizens first.

The drift to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, the election of more independents, increasing voter volatility and a loss of faith in the major parties, and institutions in Australia, tempt these conservatives, that there may well be fertile ground for a similar right-wing populism here.

Conservatives sense an opportunity: current opinion polls may not be with them; they are judging the times may be.

But these are not your grandparents’ conservatives: these conservatives are a break with their own tradition.

Conservatives are not reactionaries

“The wild gas, the fixed air is plainly broke loose.”

Edmund Burke was describing the tumult of the French Revolution, but his words just as fittingly capture the mood of the Liberal Party leadership coup.

What would the 19th century British politician and writer — the father of conservatism — have made of those acting in his name?

Would he recognise the Peter Dutton supporters as conservatives?

One of Burke’s great intellectual heirs is the philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, who in his new book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, reminds us of Burke’s legacy.

Burke spoke against the French Revolution, he predicted what eventually became the descent into The Terror.

Perhaps these latest Liberal Party leadership plotters — swept up in the frenzy of political bloodlust that has raged in Canberra for years — more resemble the reactionaries of France, those who Scruton says, “wanted to undo the whole project and to restore some part, maybe the greater part, of what had been swept away”.

The Dutton supporters would overthrow Malcolm Turnbull, and risk wrecking the party to restore it.

They may claim to be striking a blow for conservatism, but as Scruton makes clear: “Conservatives are not reactionaries.”

Conservatives in search of a new story

These conservatives may be equally unrecognisable to the founder of the modern Liberal Party, Sir Robert Menzies.

As Australian scholar, Gregory Melleuish, has written recently in The Conversation, Menzies’ vision was a practical liberalism, whose focus was “the individual and the family as the foundations of society”.

By emphasising the family, Melleuish says, “Menzies was not appealing to a ‘conservative’ ideology”.

Conservatism has always been locked in a struggle with liberalism.

Scruton says liberals saw “political order as issuing from individual liberty, conservatives saw individual liberty issuing from political order”.

John Howard married the competing factions of liberalism and conservatism, when as prime minister, he spoke of his “broad church”, that the Liberal Party was “at its best when it balances and blends those two traditions”.

But as Melleuish also points out, Mr Howard “also made the Liberal Party more ideological”.

He says Mr Howard “completed the process through which conservatism and liberalism emerged as distinct — and competing — ideological positions in Australian life”.

So as the present day conservatives do not resemble the Burke tradition, nor the Menzies vision; they are also recasting the Howard template.

They are in fact a reaction to a crisis of conservatism: they are conservatives in search of a new story.

Global shifts expose demographic and geographic divide

Conservatives of the 1970s and ’80s embraced neoliberalism and wagered the future on unending economic growth and constant progress; the individual was paramount; in the words of Margaret Thatcher, “there is no such thing as society”.

The British prime minister captured the essence of neoliberalism, when she said “economics are the method; the object is to change the soul”.

Burke’s “little platoons” — traditional communities, identities, time-honoured customs, crafts and trades that set our moral and social horizons — were swept aside.

British philosopher John Gray says this “permanent revolution” had the “effect of destroying conservatism as a viable political project”.

Gray has argued that neoliberalism imperilled liberal civilisation itself and “the inevitable failure of this utopia spawns illiberal political movements”.

Gray first issued that warning more than 20 years ago in his book Enlightenment’s Wake; his words ring true today.

Scruton says these are tumultuous times, “demographic and strategic changes have redrawn the map of the world … neither liberals nor conservatives were prepared for this”.

Across the globe, the politics of the centre have become increasingly hollowed out: the centre-left and centre-right have lost ground.

Indeed, their raison d’être has been challenged, as globalisation, free movement of goods and people, rapid advances in technology, social media, a constant 24/7 media cycle have shaken up politics as usual.

Political parties formed in the 20th century, and whose ideological foundations date back centuries before, can longer claim their traditional constituency: the need to reinvent themselves.

The big global shifts have exposed a demographic and geographic divide — rural versus urban — that politicians are seeking to exploit.

Those in the cities tend to embrace a cosmopolitan, globalised future and those in the regions and smaller towns look to a more certain and familiar sense of belonging; kith and kin and nation.

Conservatives seeking to reinvigorate themselves

Here is the dilemma for the Liberal Party: the “broad church” of conservatives and liberal progressives is fractured; there is a civil war for the soul of the party: a war for identity.

Scruton says conservatives in recent times “have not always been clear as to the source of their beliefs”.

Now he says, they are seeking to reinvigorate themselves, “emphasising the defence of the homeland, the maintenance of national borders, and the unity and integrity of the nation”.

To that we can add freedom of speech and religion: countering what they see as an attack on western traditions and Christianity.

This is the political message that has resonated in the United States and across Europe, with those who feel left behind, who have seen their factories close and their jobs shifted off shore; who believe they have lost control of their borders, who feel they’ve lost their nation.

Scott Morrison has already shown he is alert to these trends with his Australian flag lapel pin, his careful avoidance of the language of climate change, his have-a-go-to-get-a-go mantra, his championing of small business, his talk of integration.

He voted against same-sex marriage and boasts of stopping the boats and strengthening the border as a former immigration minister.

His personal life — he is a churchgoer and represents simple, suburban values — embellish his conservative appeal.

Mr Morrison is more authentically conservative than Malcolm Turnbull and more electorally appealing than Mr Dutton (even if initial polls have him significantly trailing Labor’s Bill Shorten).

But for all that, if recent history is a guide, there are those in his party who will seek to pull him even further to the right.

Future of leadership and party at stake

There are those who see conservatism as an identity opposed to those who see it as an idea; those who see it as a weapon in a political cultural war and those, like Scruton, who see it as “the great tradition”.

Scruton’s conservatism is an affirmation of faith and belonging but eschews bigotry.

As he writes: “For conservatives our law-governed society came into being because we have known who we are, and defined our identity not by our religion, our tribe or our race but by our country, the sovereign territory in which we have built the free form of life that we share.”

That sounds very different to many politicians in the world today, who call themselves conservatives.

Which idea of conservatism Mr Morrison embraces will determine not just the future of his leadership, but the future of his party.

This article was published by ABC News on the 9th of September 2018. 

Matter of Fact with Stan Grant is on the ABC News Channel at 9pm, Monday to Thursday.

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