Thursday, March 02, 2017
We must defend the legacy of the West
The new movement to save the West from its enemies is so young it doesn’t have a name. Its democratic core has been maligned by the Left in a torrent of PC propaganda. The political Right, too, is wary of the movement that has produced Brexit, Donald Trump and a raft of democratic nationalist parties across the Western world. Republicans have declared they are the true conservatives and excluded Trump from the category. The Liberal Party has distanced itself from new Right leaders such as Senator Pauline Hanson and Senator Cory Bernardi’s new Australian Conservatives. So who are the true conservatives of the 21st century and why does it matter?
The starting point of Western civilisation gives conservatism a 2000-year legacy. Such a legacy enriches the life of the mind and spirit while fortifying the free world order. But it complicates politics when citizens are not educated in the continuous Western tradition. In an age dominated by sound bites, social media and a public keen to learn but time poor, a central conservative challenge is to define clearly the meaning of conservatism and why it matters.
There is an abundance of literature on conservatism, but few clear definitions. Among the works I have read on the meaning of modern conservatism, three stand out for their philosophical breadth and clarity. They are Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations, and Roger Scruton’s The West and the Rest. Daniel Mahoney’s The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order is instructive also.
The Conservative Mind sparked the post-war conservative intellectual movement in America. In it, Kirk provides a definition of conservatism that comprises four substantive doctrines. The first conservative doctrine, “an affirmation of the moral nature of society”, rests on the belief that virtue is the essence of true happiness. The matter of virtue is family piety and public honour. Their consequence is a life of dignity and order.
Kirk’s second doctrine of conservatism is the defence of property. He defines it as “property in the form of homes and pensions and corporate rights and private enterprises; strict surveillance of the leviathan business and the leviathan union”.
The third conservative doctrine is the preservation of liberty, traditional private rights and the division of power. The absence of this doctrine facilitates the rise of Rousseau’s “general will”, made manifest in the totalitarian state.
The final doctrine of Kirk’s conservatism is “national humility”. Here, Kirk defines the nation state as vital to the preservation of Western civilisation. Politicians are urged to humble themselves in the light of the Western tradition instead of indulging in cheap egoism by promoting policies that buy them votes, but weaken the West.
English philosopher Roger Scruton identifies the political, pre-political and civil components of Western civilisation that sustain the free world. They are rooted in the uniquely Western idea of citizenship, which is influenced by Christianity. The core components of Western citizenship are: the secular democratic state, secular and universal law, and a single culture cohered by territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty. Like Huntington, Scruton analyses the core foundations and animating principles of Western civilisation in contrast to Islamic civilisation.
Conservatism stands in contrast to both small “l” liberal and socialist ideas of culture, society and state. Its central tenets are: moral virtue as the path to happiness, supporting the natural family, promoting public order and honour, private enterprise, political liberty, the secular state and universal law. The central tenets of conservatism are sustained by a single culture of citizenship that enables the flourishing of Western civilisational values.
Conservatism remains the only mainstream political tendency whose core objective is the defence and flourishing of Western civilisation. In its federal platform, the Liberal Party defines its liberal philosophy as: “A set of democratic values based upon … the rights, freedoms and responsibilities of all people as individuals.” There is no discussion of Western civilisation or Western values. However, it shares with conservatives the principles of limited government, respect for private property, political liberty and the division of power. And conservative prime ministers from Menzies to Howard and Abbott have led the defence of Western civilisation in Australia against its greatest enemies: socialists, communists and Islamists.
It is on the questions of immigration, transnational trade and supranational governance that the primary distinction between conservatives and the new Right is drawn. For example, there is growing tension fuelled by the belief that mass immigration, especially of Muslims, constitutes a demographic revolution that threatens Western values. Mainstream conservatives, including Cory Bernardi, reject the idea of a ban on Muslim immigration. But it is clear that policy resonates with many.
Last year, an Essential Poll showed 49 per cent of Australians thought Muslims should be blocked from the country. Chatham House has published survey results that confirm a wide gap between the political class, the media and the people on the question of Muslim immigration. Among 10,000 people polled across 10 European states, 55 per cent want migration from Muslim countries stopped.
In various polls, people cite the refusal to adopt Western values as a core reason to cease immigration from Muslim states. The defence of Western values is a core conservative position, but only the new Right parties, including Hanson’s One Nation, propose a ban on Muslim immigration.I have tried to define conservatism by standing on the shoulders of giants and offering some clarity for people tired of hollow words from hollow men. The task of definition is urgent. Unless a well-defined, muscular conservatism emerges, the best of Western civilisation will not survive the 21st century.