As I’ve argued before, there are at least three different layers to the right liberal parties. The primary layer, shared by all, is a belief in liberal individualism. Liberal individualism is based on the idea of an atomised, autonomous individual who is free to create himself in any direction. Right liberals who stay at this stage are usually called small l liberals.
Above this core philosophical layer you commonly find a belief in free trade. Free market right liberals usually prefer the idea of a small state, and sometimes stress the idea of the individual as an economic unit.
Finally there are right liberals who try to add an element of conservatism to the previous core layers of liberalism. The question to be answered, though, is how such conservative liberals manage to combine two seemingly contradictory philosophies.
Tony Abbott is currently Minister for Employment in Australia’s Liberal Party Government. He is at the most conservative end of the Government, being one of the few politicians who opposed the move to a republic. He has outlined some of his political ideas on his website, which give an insight into the mind of an influential conservative liberal.
What you commonly find in Tony Abbott’s speeches and articles is an assertion of liberal individualism but then a concern about how social cohesion is to be maintained. In Tony Abbott’s view liberalism and conservatism fit together, because conservatism provides the “order and continuity” needed to allow liberal individualism to successfully advance.
For instance he asserts in one speech that,
The Liberal Party’s animating principle is freedom: not absolute freedom because freedom can only exist in a context of order, stability and fairness – still, as far as is reasonably possible, individual, social and commercial freedom.
In another speech he argues that “The dream of greater personal freedom is probably the Liberal Party’s nearest equivalent to a “light on the hill” and he quotes approvingly the party’s founder, Sir Robert Menzies, who once explained that “We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise.”
Most revealingly, he goes on to quote the former Liberal Party Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, who declared in 1980 that,
Ours is a liberal Government, holding liberal principles. It believes … that to the maximum extent compatible with a cohesive and stable society people should be free to make their own decisions concerning their lives … once liberal institutions are installed in a society, a government which wishes to preserve them must be in some sense conservative … [conservatism] stresses the need for a framework of stability, continuity and order, not only as something desirable in itself but as a necessary condition of a free society … [conservatism is not] a reactionary … radical right phenomenon, but a concern to preserve continuity, to ensure that hard-won gains are not carelessly lost, [and] to integrate elements of the old and the new.
It is in this context that Abbott concludes “The generally happy marriage between liberal and conservative thinking inside the Liberal Party has been a source of intellectual vitality and political strength.”
Some marriage! If you read the above carefully you find that the overall aim is to advance liberalism; conservatism is left in a no-win situation where its only function is to ensure that liberalism isn’t threatened by excessive disorder.
Is it really any wonder that the Liberal Party has so often disappointed rank and file conservatives? Or that it has failed to rewind any Labor Party measures once these have been securely implemented?
It’s important that conservatives don’t have a naïve faith in the right liberal parties. Even the most conservative members of the Liberal Party only conceive of conservatism as a way to consolidate the advance of liberalism.
A genuine challenge to liberalism requires something different. It requires that conservatism be carefully distinguished from liberalism, so that it can assert its own aims and values in society.
(First published at Conservative Central 28/05/2003)