That Knighthood and Tony Abbott’s ideas on cultural links

Media commentators in Australia who describe themselves as conservative or are described by others as conservative joined the media frenzy in response to Tony Abbott’s awarding a knighthood to Prince Philip. In the main, the reasons for their outrage and ferocious criticism of Abbott were the same as those of the leftist media whom they generally execrate. How could this be?

Their reasons were a sufficient explanation, they appeared to imply. Abbott was returning to the colonial past; the awards were anachronistic; Abbot was fatally enamoured of the Royal Family and the monarchy; the award was totally inappropriate on Australia Day; it was an insult to Australia and Australians; and so it went on in that vein.

They constantly repeated these charges in the face of the fact that the award made absolutely no difference to the processes of government or to present policy. It made as much difference as any other award on that day. At worst, surely, the award was somewhat eccentric – and even that is stretching it. A sober judgement could not avoid the conclusion that the award has flushed out some dissonance in their views about conservatism as a political philosophy. I am talking about a conservatism derived from the thought of Edmund Burke, the main form of conservatism. Indeed, there is a serious question of reasoning and an issue of content in their accusations.

The scoffing at things British and the republican tone of the accusations would align them with Thomas Paine’s radical democratic theory rather than with Burke’s thought. Paine was a passionate supporter of the French revolutionaries and Burke’s great antagonist. His Rights of Men defending the French Revolution was the major response to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke and Paine had strictly opposing views on the origin of government and the grounds for legitimate political authority. A recent book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left by Yuval Levin, suggests the origin of the modern Left-Right divide was in the clash of these two influential books. The study of them, Levin says, would elucidate how the left and right essentially differ in their thinking. I agree.

I wonder that it did not occur to these self-described conservatives that if Tony Abbott, a Rhodes Scholar, is classed as the most conservative politician ever in Australian political life, they should not have paused a moment. Perhaps they should have asked themselves if there was not more to Abbott’s award than they thought. For a start, they could have referred to Abbott’s book Battlelines, readily available, to see if there was not something there that offered an explanation for his regrettable aberration. Indeed, there is.

In the first two chapters Abbott speaks about his formation and the people who influenced him. In chapter 3 with the punning title ‘What’s Right?’ he embarks on a discussion of the tension between liberal and conservative views in the Liberal Party. It is a philosophical discussion. He refers with easy familiarity to the philosophical thought of Edmund Burke, J.S. Mill, Michael Oakeshott, and F.A. Hayek. He is at home with his material, but it is Edmund Burke’s thought that really engages him. For my purposes, I need not dwell too much on Abbott’s analysis of the liberal/conservative tension in the Liberal Party. It will be sufficient to focus on his account of the educational influences that contributed to make him what he is.

It was the Ladybird books about historical figures his mother gave him that ‘first stirred’ his interest in public life, he says. In the Ladybird stories about great figures like Julius Caesar, Francis Drake and Henry V there were ‘ideals’ underlying the action and adventure. The lessons were that duty and honour would ‘carry the day.’ The simple stories of primary school level were followed with more substantial history. And here we come to these crucial explanatory passages:

In those days, the mid-1960s, “history” started with the Greeks and the Romans before focusing on the story of England and Britain’s influence on the world. Not surprisingly, I became an admirer of par­liamentary democracy, freedom under the law, and liberal institutions. As these were largely made in England (although often improved else­where), I also became an incorrigible Anglophile.

I was born in London while my father was studying for a spe­cialist qualification, then not available in Australia. When I eventually went back to England as a student, I didn’t feel that I was visiting a foreign country, despite the passport queues at Heathrow airport. As I flew over the city of London, it felt like more than a homecom­ing. The metropolis was not just the inspiration for a Monopoly board but the chief source of the language I spoke, the centre of the system of law I lived under and the fountain of the democracy I cherished. It belonged to me as much as to any Briton. “Beating the Poms” is as important to me as to any other Australian, but it’s like wanting New South Wales to beat Queensland in the rugby league state of origin series. Only on the sports field are the British an alien tribe. Indeed, it would be a very rare Australian, I suspect, who feels like a stranger in any English-speaking country regardless of disagreements that might exist between governments or about policy.

Abbott is among a majority of Australians who recognise and admire the British origins of Australia’s system of government and the extensive social mores that surround it. More than this, many leading educational voices in Australia warn that Australians will lose consciousness of who they are if the educational system downplays or ignores Australia’s early development.

The issue is about culture and cultural continuity. It’s about how Australian society with its system of government and liberal institutions has formed over time. Although Australia has undergone an ontological modification since its early colonial days, particularly under the enlightened governorship of Lachlan Macquarie, Britishness, the result of centuries of cultural development, remains a core vein in Australia’s social and political body. As Abbott says, British culture is as much the inheritance of Australians as it is of those living on British soil. To ignore this out of some petty prejudice is to commit one’s mind and country to a regressive ignorance. It would be like the girl who thinks she can become an independent adult only by denying the existence of her parents.

Abbott says these feelings about Britain make him an ‘incorrigible anglophile’. But Australia’s connection with Britain is about far more than a love of things English. The connection is familial. And the parallel histories of Britain and its former colony make it closely familial. Abbott’s feelings about coming home when he arrived at Heathrow would be shared by thousands of Australians whose first trip overseas is to the British Isles. I once stood on the platform of Sevenoaks station waiting for the train to London when that feeling of cultural ownership came on me with an irresistible sharpness.

It operates the other way round. When British comedian Grif Rhys Jones produced a highly entertaining program on Sydney some years back, he said that Sydney was like Britain ‘through the looking glass.’ During British Prime Minister David Cameron’s address to the Australian Parliament several years ago he said, mirroring Abbott’s feelings:

‘Coming here is like visiting family, and I don’t just say that because my own Australian auntie is watching from the gallery.

‘We have enormous affection for each other. It is hard to think of another country to which the British people feel so instinctively close.’

The growing number of people researching their family ancestry is enhancing that feeling of familial closeness. They find their family lines going back to all over the British Isles, as I have done. The ancestral past and the people in it come to life. On a recent trip to England, I visited the places some of my ancestors lived in. It was an image-changing experience. I can no longer think of myself without thinking of those people who toiled in the English countryside or trod the streets of London.

Of course, Australia’s cultural inheritance is not at all restricted to Australians whose ancestry goes back to the British Isles. It is equally the inheritance of all those who are immersed in Australia’s culture, no matter what their ancestry is. By definition that is so. Any Australian who cherishes our system of government, the rule of law, the language we speak, and the many customs that have flowed from colonial days and the hardships the settlers had to endure, will experience that same cultural ownership on a visit to the British Isles. It is especially the shared language and its treasures that the visitor from twelve thousand miles away feels.

Edmund Burke adduced compelling arguments about the prescriptive nature of tradition, convention, and custom – all those settled arrangements that make and benefit a society. Cultural continuity is of the utmost importance in political reasoning. It is of the utmost importance in understanding who we are as a people. But Burke claimed that reasoning about politics is not restricted to an abstract mathematical progression. Reasoning also draws in ‘natural feeling’. Our affections for customs and institutions, and the groups we belong to, rise in our social and political judgements. Those affections cannot be excluded from talk about social policy. For a Burkean conservative like Tony Abbott, all this is a background to his political discourse and action.

You cannot be a conservative in the philosophical sense unless your political discourse presupposes the critical importance of culture, cultural links and cultural continuity.

Is it so outlandish, then, that Tony Abbott’s conservatism – his ideas about culture and cultural links –  led him to give an award to Prince Philip? Prince Philip is not only a foremost member of a close familial group, but a person of character with a high sense of duty and responsibility. Prince Philip is not an Australian, but his connections with Australia, particularly during the Second World War, make him as close to Australian as could be without being Australian.

The truth is that the furore around Tony Abbott’s award to Prince Philip had a stark ideological cause driven by vulgar prejudice. The Left in the media saw their chance to whip up the hysteria and keep it going. They booked an almost unsurpassed success, drawing out the self-interested disaffected in the Liberal Party and harnessing conservative journalists through a weakness and inconsistency in their philosophical understanding.