WHO ARE THE CONSERVATIVES?
It is time real conservatives stand up to usurpers on the right of right-wing politics and their echo chamber on Sky News. Freedom of speech is one thing, but affording space to legitimise the illegitimate is costly to genuine debate and policy making, inhibits international understanding, and undermines prospects for advancement in an inclusive, harmonious and genuinely civil society.
The popular and accessible 20th century Scottish theologian William Barclay proposed a behavioural context for the two absolutes, good and evil. He described good as thoughts and actions which enhance life and conversely evil as those thoughts and actions which are life destroying. Put this into a political context and conservatism should mean conserving individual and communal life, its equity and sustainability, through economic and social policy.
Being a theologian, Barclay understood life as relational. All species, plant and animal , inclusive of homo sapiens, are unique, but all are derived from and interdependent upon, the whole biosphere. To be a political conservative therefore should not simply be to support individuals or individual enterprises as if they exist in isolation, but to safeguard the supporting networks which grow exponentially more complex in a global environment. This is a multi-faceted task, inclusive of economic, cultural, social, environmental and political considerations applicable to individuals and nations alike.
Traditionally conservatives have resisted change, for the very good reason that change to what has been the status quo is frequently disruptive and can put at risk, or seem to put at risk, the very pillars upon which stability and desired continuity have been built.
But what if that which is being clung to and protected is the ‘sizzle and not the sausage’, to quote a reference to Boris Johnston, or the wrapping around a reality which has long since moved. If this is the case, as I fear it is, many who claim to be conservatives today are somewhat forlornly dressed for a parade whose star guest, 21st century life, is dancing to a different beat kilometres in the distance. Real conservatives distinguish between core principles that never change and economic and social habits that may well have served one context, but must change in another.
Let me illustrate. The recent CPAC (Conservative political action conference) imported from the US and attended by all the usual suspects, trotted out their tired pressing concerns.
The inviolability of the nation state. As we know, for most of our history humans have been tribal. Indeed tribalism remains very much alive and well in the 21st century. At one level tribalism can be life enhancing. But tribalism is more often destructive and violent. Over centuries, western civilisation was born out of the realisation that human flourishing could be enhanced if tribal rivalry and competition could be bridged – eventually the nation state was born – depending on the rule of law to keep tribal negativity at bay. In the 21st century we now realise human flourishing depends upon cooperation beyond the boundaries of the nation state. Globalisation has occurred and the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. For humanity to flourish in the 21st century there must be willingness to address complex global challenges in a spirit of cooperation. Donald Trump, Nigel Farage et al are entirely wrong and misleading their people by asserting that nationalism should trump global cooperation. The days of the nation state are not over, but the days of blissful isolationism should be, but are they?
The nationalistic forces that drive significant players in world affairs are not understood and dangerously responded to by others. The nationalism of the US administration is disproportionately influenced by a fundamentalist Christian fervour which sees itself somehow superior to others and therefore gives itself the right to interfere in the affairs of other nations. Sri Lankan nationalism is Buddhist and less tolerant of citizens who do not share this identity. Turkey under Erdogan is no longer secular but Islamist. India has become fervently Hindu in its identity. Israeli nationalism excuses its treatment of Palestinians on the basis that it is a Jewish state. China seeks to re-establish a dominant place on the world stage by recovering its culture through Confucianist philosophy and a unique blend of capitalism and socialism. Rather than understanding one another, nationalism is making the world a far more dangerous place.
Global warming is a conspiracy perpetrated by scientists. That such a statement could be cheered by 500 otherwise (presumably) sane and intelligent human beings at their august conference is beyond comprehension and detestably irresponsible. How is this situation possible? Many books have been written that trace the origin and influence of climate sceptics, the similarity between them and their forebears in the tobacco industry, and their funding and patronage from the mining industry. But why do people still fall for this wicked betrayal of sustainable life on planet earth? I have come to realise that undergirding this great mistruth is another cherished principle of the so-called conservatives, namely the inalienable rights of the individual. It is, apparently, the right of the individual to do what they will with their life and for many, with their plot of land, regardless of its effect upon others. It is the right of farmers to clear land in NSW regardless of the accumulative effect clearing is having on the planet. It is the right of the individual in the US to carry a weapon, not just a simple gun, but an assault rifle designed for maximum damage in warfare. “He who confiscates my guns is my enemy” answered one participant at the conference in reply to the question of a journalist.
Those who now love to call themselves conservatives, and to a large extent trace their conservatism to Christian foundations, have totally misread scripture and the teaching of Jesus about the ‘kingdom of God’. The New Testament has no understanding of the individual in isolation. Every individual lives in relationship to God, one another and the earth. Every individual is defined through their relationships and the responsibilities inherent in them. A true conservative is one who understands and upholds these responsibilities. Nigel Farage is reported to have entertained his audience in Sydney by lambasting the younger members of the Royal family, Bill Gates, and others, for their commitment to environmental best practice. They are the true conservatives, not Farage, Credlin, Abbott, Latham, Dean, Kelly, Mundine, Anderson et al who would undo, put at risk, the very foundations upon which life and civilisation on this planet depend.
Private and public ownership. The political terms left wing and right wing originated in the 18th century during the French Revolution. They are based on the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly — those who sat on the left of the chair of the parliamentary president supported the revolution and a secular republic, and opposed the monarchy of the old regime. Those who sat to the right supported the institutions of the monarchist old regime or Ancien Régime.
As a rule of thumb those on the left, the liberals, favour the protection of ‘commons’, believing that human flourishing is best protected and enhanced by holding essential elements of human life in common (health, education, water, energy, clean air, green space, etc); while those on the right seek to privatise as much as possible, believing that self-interest is the best guarantor of flourishing. But who are the conservative here? Surely the conservatives are those who wish to conserve in perpetuity that which is held in common? The protection of ‘commons’ is a high order biblical principle in order that the poor and vulnerable are not inhibited from the enjoyment of life’s fundamentals. The privatisation of everything is a very radical idea that runs against the foundations upon which western civilisation is built. There is ample evidence that increased privatisation has led to corruption and higher costs.
In conclusion, there is almost no evidence that putting as much wealth as possible in the hands of individuals leads to a cohesive society or healthy and contented individuals. Mental illness and loneliness have reached almost epidemic proportions in many western countries, and particularly in Australia. Humans are social beings, the most urgent consideration for conservatives should ‘be how do we conserve the foundational elements of our belonging, in a fragile and threatened global environment?