How This Woke Mess Happened

With most conservative parties split between populist and establishment wings, and with the West challenged in ways not seen in almost a century, John O’Sullivan’s Sleepwalking into Wokeness: How We Got Here‘s collection of essays is both timely and instructive. Indeed, there are few better placed to reflect on the travails of the Anglosphere than O’Sullivan, who has been a key conservative intellectual for over four decades. He was Margaret Thatcher’s speech writer at the time of her Bruges oration that marked the beginning of a credible Brexit movement. In America, he edited National Review for a decade. In Canada, he helped to found the National Post newspaper. And in Australia he edited Quadrant for two years. He now runs the Danube Institute in Budapest (where I am a visiting fellow), a think-tank bringing conservative perspectives to economic, social and strategic issues; striving, in particular, to reconcile economic liberalism with social conservatism in ways that “unite the right”. 

This compilation of essays testifies to a depth of insight and consistency of purpose, as well as being a good commentary on many of the big issues since Thatcher’s time. O’Sullivan brings a well-stocked mind and a genial temperament to everything he discusses. As Rod Dreher writes in his foreword, he “has a conservative’s capacity to perceive the severity of the problems about which he writes, with an Englishman’s ability to maintain good humour and sound judgment when everyone else around him wallows in despondency”. As well, he’s great on memorable quotes. A couple of examples: from Disraeli, he gives us the injunction to “read biography, for that is life without theory”; and from Thatcher, this riposte: “Reactionary? Well, there’s a lot to react against.”

His journalist’s sense of the good line and the revealing anecdote helps to make gems of most of these essays. They cover numerous topics—from Cardinal Mindszenty to the MeToo Movement—and are all highly readable; but for me, O’Sullivan is at his best writing on conservatism and the British Conservative party; plus the West and its contemporary ills. If there’s a possible gap in this collection, it’s that he has little to say about the Trump phenomenon, other than to note that it’s a reflection of a Republican Party that has lost touch with its base. In any event, O’Sullivan’s considered eclecticism is the polar opposite of the former president’s angry populism.

In a powerful essay prompted by the Black Lives Matter protests across the Anglosphere (as if poor policing in the US had any real parallels elsewhere) O’Sullivan discerns five broad similarities between the current turmoil and Mao’s Cultural Revolution: first, the deep schism within elites between more conservative and more “progressive” elements; second, the rise of tribal thinking (in our case the identity politics of “oppressors” versus “oppressed”, akin to the “true” communists versus “capitalist roaders” of Mao’s time); third, the existence of modern Red Guards in the Antifa and Extinction Rebellion mobs; fourth, the readiness of establishment entities such as big business and big sport to engage in self-criticism by “taking the knee” and embracing ESG; and fifth, the extent of semi-officially-sanctioned violence, as when the BBC reported that “twenty-seven police officers were injured during largely peaceful anti-racism protests”.

He notes the distinction between the Greek idea of liberty as the right to participate in government and the more modern idea of liberty as the right to one’s own pursuits. This has led to conservative or classical liberals defending the “imperfect, partial and compromised versions of democracy, science and capitalism” that emerged from history; while radical liberals or socialists demand “mint fresh institutions of freedom that would liberate man from historical oppression”.

With much prescience, writing in 1999, he sees the collapse of Soviet communism as a “world historical victory, yet one … that was curiously muted by the West’s own moral self-doubt and in danger of being drowned out by the unabated cries of environmentalists, multiculturalists and 57 varieties of anti-Western criticism”. He speculates on the extent to which the fall of the Berlin Wall signified the West’s embodiment of universal values or was simply the victory of superior technology and market economics, concluding that it was most likely a bit of both and foreseeing the “moral certainty” of future threats to Western interests (that subsequently materialised in Islamism and Russian and Chinese revanchism).

Writing in 2012, O’Sullivan points to the erosion of democracy by global bodies, courts and NGOs. What Francis Fukuyama did not grasp with his “end of history” thesis, he says, was that a “plausible challenge to Western liberal democracy might come from within the West itself”. O’Sullivan cites the increasing constraints on elected and accountable governments from unelected and unaccountable global bodies (such as the UN and its agencies) or supra-national ones (such as the EU). Plus the increasing tendency of judges to disallow government decisions on essentially political grounds. Plus the increasing deference of governments to supposed “expert” bodies. This transfer of power, he says, “has happened in part because progressive elites at the top of mainstream political parties have happily gone along with it”. 

Immigration control, he says, “is one example of policies excluded by silence”. When mainstream parties consistently ignore voter concerns about, say, very high immigration or costly policies to deal with climate change, the result is populism: “an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism”, O’Sullivan calls it. Liberalism without democracy, he says, “is an apt description of the system of government towards which the West has been moving” for several decades “and populism is the resistance to it”. As if to prove his point, the centrist establishment not only routinely denounces “populism” but denies the legitimacy of voters’ choices when they “get it wrong”, as in Brexit or the election of Donald Trump.

In another prescient essay, this time from 2001, he says that “the arrival of ever more migrants … reduces the weight and influence … in politics and culture” of the existing host people, “makes multiculturalism seem less a matter of choice than of inevitable adaptation … and fosters a society that, because it is divided ethnically and culturally, requires a political elite to manage it”. O’Sullivan plainly thinks that the replacement of a bottom-up liberalism (where decisions are made by elected governments representing the people) with a top-down liberalism (with elite-made decisions that the people are expected passively to accept) forms the “democratic deficit” at the heart of so many of our contemporary governmental woes.

While O’Sullivan doesn’t under-rate the importance of freedom (at least in the well-regulated Burkean sense), he puts love of country at the heart of the conservative creed. O’Sullivan quotes Thatcher in an unguarded moment prior to the 1979 election: “I can’t bear Britain in decline. I just can’t bear it.” Above all, conservatism is the product of respect for family, faith and country. Conservatives temper freedom with fairness and with order because that’s necessary to preserve the social fabric that they instinctively revere (unless, of course, it’s been rent by radical innovation, in which case it has to be restored).

The British establishment’s defeatism and declinism have long been a source of bafflement, from its appeasement of Nazi Germany to its ongoing sulk over Brexit, given that no country on earth has had more impact on modernity: gifting us the world’s common language, the mother of parliaments, the Industrial Revolution, and the emancipation of minorities. Naturally, O’Sullivan’s heroes, Thatcher and Churchill, were the two British prime ministers most resistant to any hint of British decline.

Thatcher, he says, was driven by a “fierce patriotism” yet “governed by a highly practical prudence”. Even so, he says, her two signature triumphs, over the Argentine invaders of Britain’s Falkland Islands dependency and over the militant coal miners who thought they could coerce the government, “ran completely counter to the usual post-war British politics of fudge, compromise and splitting the difference”. He points out that Thatcher’s success made the wider world a better place; and that unlike that other mighty exponent of British exceptionalism, Churchill, she left Britain stronger than she’d found it (although in Churchill’s defence it should be pointed out that he spent his country’s strength in defeating the most monstrous tyranny the world has yet seen).

O’Sullivan contrasts Thatcher’s modernisation project “of sound money, ending exchange rate controls, cutting taxes, building up defence, and privatisation” with the modernisation project of the current UK Tory government: “same-sex marriage, ring-fencing foreign aid, sharply cutting defence, [and] allowing the UK financial sector (still) to be regulated by Brussels”.

In one of his most recent essays (from 2022), O’Sullivan summarises our modern ills:

the growth of judicial power that overrides popular majorities and executive authority … de-industrialisation, the plight of the underclass, wage stagnation, trade protectionism, illegal and runaway immigration … multiculturalism as an alternative to a common culture, racist expressions of contempt for “whiteness” … the spread of effectively independent administrative bureaucracies … restrictions on free speech and academic freedom in universities, the expansion of the concept of “hate speech” and, most sinister of all, the selective enforcement of the criminal law.

In this at least, populism is an attempt to “bring our governing elites to their senses”.

His 2017 John Howard Lecture has some useful advice for the conservative side of politics in Australia: what he christens “Loughnane’s law”, after the Liberal Party federal director who first enunciated it, namely that “Liberals tend to win when the leader of the Liberal Party is also the leader of the conservative movement”. My version of this is: “Labor-lite Liberals lose”. The consistent lesson, at least of federal elections (think 1975, 1996 and 2013), is that the Liberal-National Coalition wins when it’s a clear alternative rather than a weak echo of the other side.

As it happens, with his successful opposition to the government’s proposed constitutionally entrenched race-based indigenous Voice, his commitment to nuclear power as the only feasible way to get to net zero emissions, and his robust defence of national symbols such as Australia Day, Peter Dutton is turning out to be a Liberal leader very much in the Menzies–Howard mould.

Sleepwalking into Wokeness: How We Got Here
by John O’Sullivan

Academica Press, 2023, 423 pages, US$45

The Hon. Tony Abbott was Prime Minister of Australia from 2013 to 2015


9 thoughts on “How This Woke Mess Happened

  • Cincinnatus says:

    Well, Australia is on the way out. With a net reproduction rate of 1.6, the Treasury has succeeded in its 50 year tax war on Australian families. The Treasury and ATO exist to tax us out of existence, the Immigration Department exists to replace us and the Social Security Department exists to encourage family breakup and turn us into welfare mendicants.

    “Liberal conservative” did nothing to change these mission statements.

    Wither Australia Fair?

  • Podargus says:

    We can only hope that Dutton and party now make a better government than Abbot and party then.

  • Charles says:

    In my view Tony Abbott was a prime part of the current mess we are in. In 2013 he won in a landslide that was always going to happen via backing from Conservative voters, in order to reverse the decline that occurred under R-G-R.

    However, prior to that election he made a raft of promises, such as keeping the NDIS, no reform of health or education funding, no defunding the ABC, etc. He did not have to make any of these promises, there was no political pressure or voting rationale to do so, the result of the election was not dependent on them.

    However, he was hamstrung from day one, and when he did get to wear the PM title he could do nothing because every reform he attempted always meant breaking one or other of the dumb promises he made before the election. Even worse it allowed the ascension of the LINO’s in the Liberal party who then put Malcolm Turnbull in charge and that has led to the ruin of the Liberal party as the Liberal party. As a consequence they have ended up being little more than a party of Labor Lite with many of the being actually Green/teal types (e.g Matt Kean, Bridget Archer, Andrew Bragg, Simon Birmingham, etc.), who no conservative of any principle could actually vote for (see VIC Liberals as an example).

    Now, TA has an acolyte in David Crisafulli who although he will win the QLD election has already shot himself in the foot and will be unable to achieve anything because of the foolish promises he has already made. This will mean that unfortunate QLD voters will have to endure a single cycle of political impotence before reverting back to the ruinous Labor control that over last 3 decades has a brought this great state to the edge of penury and ongoing immiseration.

    TA should spend some time now apologising for his part in destroying the guiding principles of the Liberal party and making them unable to enact their political mandates following the stupid promises he made in 2013 which started the rot. He should also spend some time counselling/warning prospective Liberal leaders in the future of the folly of following in his footsteps if they show signs of going down that path again.

    • Alistair says:

      My opinion entirely.
      I think it might have been Cory Bernardi (sorry Cory if I’m wrong) who criticised members of the Liberal Party who were all talk before an election and then no action sell-outs once they were elected.

      “With most conservative parties split between populist and establishment wings, ”
      You lost me right there Tony, “populist?” Who uses that term “populist” except as a pejorative to half your voters?

      • Alistair says:

        Maybe I should have read more of the article before commenting …
        ” “Labor-lite Liberals lose”. The consistent lesson, at least of federal elections (think 1975, 1996 and 2013), is that the Liberal-National Coalition wins when it’s a clear alternative rather than a weak echo of the other side.” (see Roads and Detours on a Downhill Slope

        Then you should add … You should only go Laobr-lite – “LINOs” after you’ve won the election … like Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison. And I’ve sort of already penciled Dutton in to follow suit.
        And I never really thought Howard was as a convincing Conservative as he claimed – He caved in on Renewables, Immigration, The Preamble, …

  • ChrisPer says:

    Tony writes good articles. Sadly, out of things needing abolition like 18c, the ABC, the privilege of the universities, the lies underlying the Climate scam, ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’ he chose ‘none of the above’, and by failing in the face of the weasels, abolished us conservatives from the Liberal Party.

  • pmprociv says:

    While in no way disputing the above comments — in fact, largely agreeing with them — I must say that I’ve been most impressed with the way Tony Abbot has matured in his thinking in recent years, since losing the PM job, at least in his writing. He shows clear evidence of having learnt from his past mistakes, which is a positive characteristic, in my view. He might even make a good PM, although that could be politically out of the question — especially now that, at long last, Peter Dutton is growing most impressively as a strong contender, finally coming out with big, positive ideas.

  • Watchman Williams says:

    Tony had his chance as PM and he chose to serve the party rather than the people. All of the social evils raised in Peter Smith’s excellent article in this issue, that had no genuine support amongst citizens, and were even widely opposed by citizens, grew under the Abbott government. And, it needs to be said, under Howard as well.
    Australia’s tragedy, and that of the once democratic West generally, is that the meaning of representative government has been gradually deconstructed from its original meaning of representing the citizens, and reconstructed to mean representing the Party.
    The citizens of Australia have no voice. For that, we can thank our well superannuated political class. I just wish they would shut up.

  • Paul.Harrison says:

    I am a mere nothing in the grand idea of allowing myself to be governed. It has been a privilege to be governed in interesting times, and as my body sputters to a stop, quite soon I suppose, I will remember one thing, and one thing only: The treason of both Whitlam and Cairns in 1973, as Cairns, then the Deputy Prime Minister and also the Minister for Industry, trotted down the airstairs from his aeroplane and swooned into the welcoming arms of the leading lights of the Communists in Hanoi, and ultimately came to the brutal rule of what they had us believe was a reunited Vietnam under the Communist yoke.

    From the very day on which I witnessed that, carried to me by the ABC TV News in late 1973, I have hated the Labor Party with a white hot fire in my belly, of any thing/person/artefact/paper/idea. anything at all to do with anybody left of the centre point of a conservative. As a serving RAN sailor, who had been shot at while at anchor unloading troops in Vietnam and spat on by some mongrel during the welcome home parade, I learnt quickly that if the mongrels Whitlam led could get a foot in the door riding on the back of a mediocre jingle called, “It’s time for a change”, well we were lost. And I have been proven correct. There is no doubt at all that a battle has been fought by the Communists since that day in 1973, a quiet battle but with victory after victory by the enemy, while Australia slept our country away.

    We are not at war, as the war has been fought and lost. Those of us who survive the coming reckoning will have to bear the burden of rebuilding our fair society, for Australia is not its sweeping plains and rugged mountain ranges, it is the people, and only steadfast determination and sacrifice will win it back out of the hands of the worst people I have ever encountered.

    Cry, my beloved country.

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