When conservatives argue that capitalism, small government and a liberal democratic culture are the greatest forces for fairness and poverty-alleviation in human history, the Left can be expected to produce a Toff-Tory strawman to very effectively undermine the case. Practical conservatives have to overcome the median voter prejudice that the centre-right is made up of people who sleep in Union Jack pyjamas, turn out orphans, and toast the Queen at every meal.
Sadly, whenever Toff-Tories — those who do their best to channel the forms and norms of the Edwardian or Victorian wealthy – win a policy victory from a Coalition government, every one of those strawman arguments looks closer to the truth. And so to the current nonsense of reinstating the barrister rank of Queen’s Counsel (QC). NSW removed the title of QC in 1993, followed by Queensland (1994), Victoria (2000), Western Australia (2001), South Australia (2008) and The Commonwealth (2010). Admittedly, this was driven by Labor governments fuelled largely by a republican sentiment running well ahead of the broader population. Now Coalition governments in Queensland (2013), Victoria (2014) and Canberra (on the table) are reimplementing the QC title.
Set aside the economic, competitive and regulatory issues associated with the Bar. Just look at what this says politically, and what it means for down-to-earth conservatives. What we see are Coalition governments driving a symbolic re-labelling with Royalist titles. A name change that comes at time when governments are desperately trying to move away from the symbolic “politics of seeming”, to make arguments for deep reform, and to struggle against the smearing tactics of a Left under threat.
Yes, there are arguments about barristers competing in Asia, which can be addressed by other means. And there is a conga line of status-seeking, precedent-bound stuffed shirts rubbing their hands at the chance of a little more social and professional cachet. Toff-Tories, who do make up a subset of Liberal Party members, are all a-twitter at the return of the QC title. All this amounts to a big problem for practical conservatives.
Conservatives who operate with views forged by Hume, Burke, Oakeshott and even Scruton recognise that legitimacy, authority and power can only function in a society if tempered by custom and convention structured into the accepted forms of civil life and conduct that come unthinkingly to most people. These can be anything from the rule of law to the acceptance of non-violent dispute resolution and democratic regime-change, not to mention the need to be married before having children, independence of character, and good manners.
But those customs and conventions must be living and imbued with vitality; they must speak to the ideas of current legitimacy, authority and power if they are to be functional. Clinging to dead conventions that do not speak to a society, that no longer serve as unifying or justifying a social form, represents either tokenism or an idealism completely contrary to the realist character of practical conservatism. Realist conservatives – sometimes labelled reform conservatives – seek to retain what unifies and legitimises. In other words, that which works.
The truth is that Royalist forms no longer unify and legitimise, not even amongst conservatives, let alone for libertarians, leftists, nationalists, independents and fence-sitters. It has been very easy for Toff-Tories to mistake apathy about a Republic as enthusiasm for their own royalist fetishism. Idealist conservatives – Toff-Tories – seek to cloak themselves in the trappings of a political system whose unifying norms no longer exist. It is a kind of dress-up game that seeks to participate in the status of a world long gone.
These Toff-Tories simply get in the way. They provide ammunition to conservatives’ political opponents. They allow the easy misrepresentation of practical conservatism to independent voters. They devalue the practical arguments Hume, Burke and Oakeshott make against the infinite malleability of people and polities. They drag governments towards issues of seeming, not doing.
Practical conservatives operate in the real world, one that is harsh with political rhetoric and enemies who identify Toff-Tories with glee. Practical conservatives seek to do what matters but, like the outward forms of a fallen empire, the titles senior barristers use to define themselves simply do not.
James Falk stood as the Liberal candidate for Balmain