Generally speaking modern conservatives are very good at three things: framing issues (with the help of media and business elites) to make their views appear common sense; denying modernity and its implications; and, hypocrisy.
The framing issue the blog has dealt with many times before in many different forums, including the recent post on What Orwell Didn’t Know and in the e-book on the blog’s website, but the other two have been highlighted by the events of the first couple of weeks of the Abbott Government. Many conservatives had, of course, been at the forefront of social and scientific change. The British Royal Society founders were generally rich and royalist although their scientific researches were no doubt helped by the leisure their riches brought. Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House tried to suggest that they were actually preceded by hard-working artisans and feminists and, although the argument is interesting, it is ultimately unconvincing. Roger Bacon is probably a better predecessor.
But in the late 20th century and the early 21st century things have changed. Conservatives, particularly in Australia and the US, are opposed to much of modernity from the implications of science to social change. Some of this opposition is simply a reflection of their agreement with the vested interests which spread misleading information and confusion about topics such as climate change and which has resulted in the Abbott dismantling of the various Rudd and Gillard government initiatives in the area.
The best symbolic representation of this in Australia is Tony Abbott’s constant repetition of the claim that the government will ‘build the roads of the 21st century’. Well ‘any fule knows’, as Private Eye says, that the roads of the 21st century are optic fibre cable, very fast trains and robotic cars on smart highways. But that’s not what Tony is talking about. Instead it’s more gas guzzlers occupied by one person on more roads which ultimately bring more congestion. Throw in attitudes to women, gay marriage (albeit Julia Gillard was guilty on this as well), republicanism, scientific research and assorted other changes and one quickly ends up with a view of a red-faced reactionary trying to turn back the waves. The Tea Party is alive and well in Australia, fighting the same cultural wars and distorting our national history as their US counterparts are.
The attitudes to science are a special case because conservatives, along with Labor parties since Harold Wilson, have argued that science belongs in the industry field and applied science is all important. Recently the blog visited Cern in Geneva and heard the best argument about applied versus pure scientific research from an academic in an explanatory film about what Cern does and how it works. In the film a female scientist from the UK (Larry Summers was as wrong on this as he was on de-regulation of the finance industries) pointed out that no amount of applied research on candlelight would result in the production of large scale electricity generation. Interestingly a partial exception to all the suspicion of science is in the field of medical and health research (except in population health measures of course). From former Health Minister, Michael Wooldridge’s, success in getting the Howard Government to increase health and medical research funding to record levels, conservatives have seemed to realise that this is good politics as well as valuable. Perhaps it is a product of them being more likely to run into medicos, or play golf with them, than with mathematicians, physicists, climate scientists and biologists. The physicists are fine if advocating nuclear energy but the others commit various sins starting with stem cell research.
But the concern with modernity is nothing compared with the capacity for hypocrisy. We have now seen George Brandis, scourge of Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson, caught claiming expenses he ought not have. Naturally he insisted he did nothing wrong but he did repay the money. The first term Howard Government lost a number of staff and Ministers because of an excellent code of conduct. This time the code of conduct is being prepared by Senator Brandis.