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November 28th 2015 print

James Allan

Cavaliers, Roundheads and Hobbes

Mere party labels don't adequately capture how political leaders view and react to the world, its challenges, pressures and perils. Nasty, brutish and Shorten the Labor leader might well be, but how to classify Turnbull? Perhaps he's just a lawyer

cav and rheadsI want to revisit a theme I’ve touched on more than once over the past decade, namely classifying politicians using criteria other than the familiar ‘left-right’ party political spectrum.  Sometimes it’s worth looking for qualities other than their views on the size of government or thoughts on the optimal GST rate or commitment to free speech or labour relations reform in order to try to understand the people we elect to our legislatures.

So let me suggest a couple of different ways to look at politicians and then tell you where I’d put some of the current crop on these new scales.  Here’s the first alternative, and it’s one I’ve written about before because I think in some ways it’s a much more satisfactory classification system than Left or Right.  I refer to Roundheads and Cavaliers, terms taken from the two sides in the English Civil War.  The former were in Cromwell’s camp and we can think of them as comparatively humourless, somewhat puritanical, dour, much more focused on winning and, in that sense, a more professional crowd.

Then there were those in King Charles’s camp, the Cavaliers. Think of them as the foppish, big living, irreverent, non-sanctimonious, prone to having a huge ego. This crowd has few politically correct tendencies.

Now my pick as the greatest person of the twentieth century is Winston Churchill, a view shared by the American columnist Charles Krauthammer, I am pleased to say.  If ever there were a politician in the last 70 years who counted as a Cavalier it is surely Winston Churchill.  The man had a liking for rogues; he was big on drinking; he was bitingly funny at others’ expense; in no sense at all did he have a politically correct bone in his body.  It is doubtful he could have long survived in today’s nit-picking, poll-driven world, where every slip or joke or, indeed, blunt truth is magnified out of both proportion and context by  social media.

If we confine ourselves for the moment to non-Australian examples then other, pretty obvious Cavaliers since then include Pierre Trudeau in Canada, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan in the US, David Lange in New Zealand and present leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party Nigel Farage.

What about overseas Roundheads?  I’d nominate former US President Jimmy Carter, though he was an unsuccessful exemplar of the category.  Maggie Thatcher, by contrast, was an incredibly successful Roundhead.  Canada’s just defeated Prime Minister Stephen Harper was a Roundhead who was moderately successful.  President Obama seems to me to be a clear Roundhead.  For my money he’s one of the more unsuccessful politicians in this camp, but others may disagree.  Yet notice that this way of classifying politicians crosses party lines.  Nor is it in any way the case that winners fall into one camp and losers into the other.   There are specimens from both camps who succeed and others from both who fail.

Okay, so let’s play the Cavalier/Roundhead game with Australian politicians.  Bob Hawke is a sure-thing Cavalier.  That’s a no-brainer.  Harder to categorise is Paul Keating, but I make him out as a Roundhead.  John Howard?  Cavalier, I’d say.

What about recently defenestrated Tony Abbott?  That’s tough.  In Opposition he was a Roundhead, no doubt about that.  Once in office I think he tried to be a Cavalier, at least in part, and it just wasn’t in him.  He’d have been much, much better advised to stay the vigorous Cromwellian Roundhead, Thatcher-style.  Don’t give an inch on anything, rather than half-heartedly cater to the ABC and Team Australia and a few idiot independents in the Senate, not to mention to the traitorous rabble in his own caucus.

And what of Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten?  Mr. Turnbull is certainly big living; he likewise checks the ‘huge ego’ criterion without any doubt; but it would be a stretch to call him non-sanctimonious.   And is he irreverent?  Not that I can see.  He strikes me as someone who genuflects at the altar of every platitudinous piety that motivates the ABC and your typical inner-city bien pensants.  Still, on balance, I put our present PM in the Cavalier camp.

And Mr. Shorten?  I figure in his personal life he’s a Cavalier.  But professionally, what with the Greens over to his left and some of his own MPs who are as puritanically self-righteous as they come, he is forced to play the Roundhead.  It does not suit him well.  There’s something lacking.  What’s the word?  Ah, authenticity!

Now if that’s one non-standard way to classify our politicians here’s another, and it also crosses party lines.  Here we lump them either into the Hobbesian camp or, for lack of a better name, into what I will call the Multilateralist Lawyers’ camp.  Thomas Hobbes was the famous British philosopher who saw that the world was a very, very dangerous place.  Human nature was such that in any imagined state of nature life would be ‘solitary, nasty, brutish and short’ for us all.  And the world would always be a dangerous place.  One tangential corollary of this is that any nation must be prepared to spend on defence and to fight – and fight to win.

Then there are those (excuse the sarcasm, I can’t help myself) who think that virtually all of life’s problems can be sorted out over a good, long heartfelt talk. It’s all about understanding the other chap, and putting in place some multilateral structures – a United Nations and some rights-related committees, as it were – to dispense with the need for war and turn warfare into lawfare, or international lawfare.  Talking and compromising, not fighting and killing.

Okay, I indulged in caricature there but you have the idea of this sort of split.  Again, Churchill was a Hobbesian through and through, and thank God for that.  Mr. Putin is too.  Ah, and so is our very own Mr. Abbott.  Mrs. Thatcher as well.  And of course Ronald ‘that is the evil empire’ Reagan was a Hobbesian too.

Canada’s Pierre Trudeau?  Not a chance.  He contrived to avoid fighting in World War II.  He was buddy-buddy with Fidel Castro.  Sure, he was tough with the Quebecois terrorists when he had to be, but a Hobbesian he was not.

Nor could anyone accuse President Obama of Hobbesian inclinations.  Ditto for Angela Merkel and, indeed, the whole European Union seems to me premised on the worst sort of supranational naivety about how dangerous the world is, to say nothing of its astoundingly enervated democratic credentials.  So in that sense the EU as a club for democracies – democracies that overwhelmingly no longer spend anything more than about a trifling one percent of their GDP on defence and so in truth are entrusting their defence to the Americans – is non-Hobbesian in its assumptions about the world.

And what of our current Prime Minister?  I don’t see him as a Hobbesian.  I put him in the multilateralist lawyers’ camp.  You?

Comments [13]

  1. Ted Brandli says:

    Have a look at Thomas Sowell’s use of the concept of Constrained/Unconstrained world views. I find it very useful!

    Ted B

  2. Jody says:

    There’s an article in “The Weekend Australia” about Turnbull’s Catholicism. Pictured with him at the funeral for a Jesuit is the Abbott family and Tom Hughes – Lucy’s father – with Lucy taking the picture. I read the article and Turnbull’s very intelligent ideas about Catholicism.

    It was something of an epiphany for me; I believe conservatism and conservative values are at the heart of Malcolm Turnbull and the best fit. It’s his natural home these days. If he has pandered to progressives it is primarily because of the nature of the seat he holds and his desire for their acceptance. Far from being an active ‘progressive’ himself, I believe Turnbull has been able to seduce progressives and bring them on the journey and into the tent. This is contrary to some of the views held by contributors of “Quadrant”, who think he’s a faux conservative. But if interpreted through the prism of conservatism and Catholicism we can see why it has been such a seamless transition from frontbench Minister to Prime Minister – largely adopting the policies of his predecessor without equivocation. I’ll go further; he’ll be in power for quite a while.

  3. Bill Martin says:

    Jody’s assessment of Malcolm Turnbull is way too rosy, and in my humble opinion, quite naive. Turnbull stands for nothing other than Turnbull. Any latent tendencies he might have for endeavouring to do what he considers to be the right and proper option is most often overwhelmed by his all consuming tendency of self promotion.

    • bullockornis says:

      Yep. I find Turnbull still a bit of a mystery but my first impression of him after he gained the leadership was one of a totally self-satisfied sort of overprivileged clown bathing in the glory of his success – if you see what I mean. No?

      Well he was sort of waving his hands around and smiling and sort of standing there like a vacuous beauty queen who’s just won the crown. And really thinks she deserves it. And really thinks it means something.

      So smug and self satisfied it was unreal. Truly. It gave me an unreal feeling to look at him. Like he wasn’t/isn’t really connected with the real world.

      He’s got his own world in which he’s been lucky and very successful and that perhaps causes him to think he knows it all. Where he really knows nothing. Of the grim realities. Of life as most of us live it.

      Tony Abbott knew more. I agree with the idea that Tony was acting a role as PM instead of being himself. He would have done better to have been true to himself.

      • Jody says:

        I don’t think that would have been a good look for Abbott. He was often gauche and I felt embarrassed when he went overseas and grabbed people’s hands and forearms, pulling them into himself (a bit like Latham). He meant well, but being well-meaning isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for being PM. And the knights and dames fiasco was so humiliating for him and us!!! It told us a lot about where his head really was, sad to say. Above all, he let a woman get far too close (!!!) and run his office – and she alienated just about everybody in the Cabinet – much like Rudd did.

  4. Jody says:

    What politician is altruistic and not self-promoting. That is always the frame of reference for discussions about politicians of any political hue. I don’t think I’m in the least naive; in fact, my comment about Turnbull expediently courting progressives is surely a cynical one.

    Time will prove whether I am right or wrong. If wrong, I’ll cop it on the chin. No worries.

  5. Bran Dee says:

    Turnbull the self confident extrovert was an only child raised by a doting father who had charm and dedication enough to be successful as a business salesman. That, as you would expect, has made the son like he is!

  6. DRW says:

    Most politicians are over confident narcissists and shallow opportunists.

  7. Ken Harris says:

    Jody won’t have to wait long to find out if she experienced an epiphany or a bad dream. Paris will be his big test. If he grudgingly goes along with the lunacy currently infecting the world then I could agree that he’s pandering to the opinionated know-alls in his eastern suburbs electorate. If, however, he embraces the lunacy with religious fervour then we will know he’s gone over to the dark side or, more precisely, that he’s been there for most of political life. I think Jody should prepare her chin for a rude shock. I do agree, though, that he’ll be there for a long time but the cost of keeping him there will be enormous.

  8. jeremy says:

    I’m dubious about the value of words that come from politicians.
    It is an interesting exercise to look at other categories than left and right, but I am not convince by what you have chosen so far.
    The difference I see is in the instinctive responses from Abbott and Turnbull when surprised.
    Left to consider, Abbott will often talk himself into the wrong answer from my point of view. Many of his longer term decisions were poor – child care increases, tax surcharges etc. When surprised by a plane being shot down his immediate response is usually nuanced but correct. He has good instincts.
    Turnbull is poor in considered policies; locked into dishonest climate warming fantasies and giving away our money and sovereignty , and when there is an emergency like the Paris attacks his first instinct is to roll on his back and ask people to be nice. As he likes big words, let’s call him pusillanimous, indecisive and confused.