Previous issues
Contact Us

Winter 2002 cover

National Observer Home > No. 53 - Winter 2002 > Articles

Identifying the Enemy

Professor Geoffrey Partington

We are fortunate to live in a society that has existed for only three hundred years or so, a very short time in the annals of the human race. In such a society there is opportunity to change rulers and laws by peaceful means and for people with diverging views about important matters to live side by side under the rule of law.

For most of human history our ancestors lived in tribes. There was no permanent surplus of food to make possible any division of labour, other than those of age and sex. The domestication of animals and mastery of horticulture and agriculture made possible a multitude of different arts and crafts, literacy, in short civilisation. It also brought about class divisions, various forms of bondage, and struggles for power and wealth. The subsequent political history of civilisations until perhaps three hundred years ago is largely one of oscillations between autocracy and despotism on the one hand, and civil war and anarchy on the other. In many countries, such as Afghanistan and the Islamic world in general, that pattern has prevailed until today.

England was nothing out of the ordinary in these respects before the late seventeenth century. As in other parts of Central and Western Europe, medieval England had representative institutions through which the great feudal lords sought to limit the power of sovereigns, and through which those sovereigns sought to increase revenue and gain the co-operation of their leading warriors. In most European countries those representative institutions, parliaments, estates-general, cortes, diets and the like, collapsed during late medieval civil wars, made worse after 1520 by religious discord, and in their place monarchical rule became increasingly absolute. The English Parliament might easily have gone the same way during the 1630s.

Historically in Christendom there was no religious toleration: to be French, German, Spanish or English was also to be a Roman Catholic. Jews and any other minorities were permitted within Christendom only upon sufferance, not by right. The same could be said for Byzantium and Russia, where secular and religious authority were concentrated in a way unknown in the west, where Pope and Emperor and other secular authorities co-existed. When the Protestant Reformation began, its aim was not religious toleration but the reform of a Church that would continue to embrace all Christians. However, during the Wars of Religion of the sixteenth century and the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century, neither Catholics nor Protestants succeeded in bringing each other to their knees. The outcome of this stalemate was the doctrine of cuius regio eius religio — he who is the ruler, his the religion, so that there were different kinds of Christianity on opposite sides of frontiers, but within states there was still uniformity.

The British civil wars of the 1640s finally led to compromise in 1660, when Charles II was restored to the throne, between the Parliamentarians, earlier victorious on the field of battle, and the Royalists. The Parliamentarians, transmuted into Whigs, and the Royalists, changed into Tories, fought severe political battles and there were still executions for treason. But these were increasingly rare and after the joint effort of Whigs and Tories to dethrone James II in 1688, the idea was slowly accepted that Parliament might include an official Opposition, an alternative government. As part of that process, although Anglicanism remained the Established Church of England, Toleration Acts legalised the holding of other Christian beliefs and Judaism. The Roman Catholic Church was also tolerated, but its members were excluded from the throne and other key positions in the state. Why was this? Here we face the ongoing question of how far a would-be tolerant regime can tolerate the intolerant. In France in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes which had given Huguenots limited legal rights in France. The Huguenots were mercilessly persecuted, many undergoing torture, the removal of their children and death. Thousands fled, many to England, where they joined other religious refugees from Catholic persecution by the King of Spain and the Emperor. This was to be one of the last flurries of the cruelties of the Inquisition, but none could know that at the time.

The British political system, imitated in some ways first by the Netherlands and then the United States after their successful rebellion against British rule, has since the late seventeenth century been a contest within limits between forces of conservatism, tradition and order on one side and those of liberalism, wider freedoms and experiment on the other. This system, which created the rule of law and civil society as we know them, could only operate on the basis that each side was willing to accept political defeat and that no party would seek after victory to establish one-party rule or religious uniformity. Civil society became possible because its participants became aware of the implications of the paradox of freedom: we all wish for ourselves the fullest freedom of action, yet each of us fears the effects if others had complete freedom of action.

At most times each major party within the parliamentary system has been conservative on some matters and radical on others. This is the case in Australia today, since the Australian Labor Party is conservative in matters such as trade union power, but radical on constitutional change, and the Liberal Party radical on union and industrial policy but conservative in defence of the existing constitution. Many people are economically libertarian and for free trade and private enterprise, but morally conservative; many who are for economic restriction and control are for reduced restraints on personal conduct.

Even the most serious and honest persons often find it difficult to know where to draw the line between legal restriction and personal freedom. We find this daily in disputes about drugs, abortion, euthanasia, speed limits, advertising, trade and commerce, age of compulsory schooling and many other important issues. This is inevitable, since thoughtful people seek both order and liberty, but know that the perfect balance is hard to achieve. What we should denounce is not honest indecision about just where to draw lines but double standards and deceit. We should distrust those who swallow camels but strain at gnats. A frequent example is provided by people who claim that graphic and explicit display of sexual acts on television and other media will have little or no effect on behaviour, including sexual relations with children, but that showing smoking will have very damaging effects on viewers.

The key point here, however, is that there are many important issues on which reasonable people disagree, often very deeply, in civil societies such as the one we have inherited from Britain, but that we can contain most of those disagreements provided that the rule of law is accepted by all the disputants We may abhor abortion and regard it as legal murder, but if it is legal as a result of constitutional procedures, we must use solely legal means to try to change the law. And we should expect no less observance of the rule of law from those who support abortion on demand.

Difficult issues often arise when peoples with very different cultural traditions live side by side with each other. As their Empire extended, the British constantly faced problems in deciding what to tolerate and what to suppress. Two 19th century examples arose in India: suttee and thuggee. For several decades the East India Company declined to interfere with these traditions, but by the 1840s British opinion forced action. It was no longer thought tolerable that live Hindu widows should be burnt with their dead husbands, especially when it was realised that many widows had been forced as girls into marriage with old men and thus faced burning alive in their teens or twenties. General Napier had perhaps the right attitude on multiculturalism. When a Hindu deputation urged him to accept suttee because it was an old Indian custom that widows should burn with their deceased husbands, Napier replied that he acknowledged the custom, but that it was the British custom to hang people who burned women and that if they carried out their custom, he would carry out his. There was a rapid decline in suttee over the next few years. Similarly Lord Dalhousie acted decisively against thuggee, the ritual strangulation of travellers as sacrifices to the Goddess Kali.

In many other countries the British found that ancient customs of revenge still flourished which their own ancestors had abandoned very long ago. Thus in many parts of the Scottish Highlands kinship vengeance prevailed until the years following the defeat of the Young Pretender in 1746. Such customs are still alive among some Aboriginal groups today, so that it was entirely relevant of the Duke of Edinburgh to inquire recently of an Aboriginal informant about the current use of spears. Many Australians would hold that female circumcision should be banned in the way suttee once was, rather than that it should be regarded as a legitimate issue of dispute. Forced marriage of girls is another ancient custom of several immigrant groups that many Australian find intolerable and believe cannot be allowed in our society. Of course, the basic concept of human rights, which is used to justify some forms of multiculturalism, is at odds with the practices of numerous cultures now found in this country. That concept of human rights arose in Western Europe, and owes most to British philosophers like John Locke.

Until the First World War, optimists had good grounds for believing that civil societies of the type originating in Britain in the late seventeenth century were spreading rapidly throughout the world. By the nineteenth century Roman Catholicism had ceased to be a persecuting religion, so that earlier restrictions on the political rights of Roman Catholics could no longer be justified. In terms of public policy, as distinct from doctrinal belief, Catholics adopted what had earlier been the Protestant position towards civil society and the rule of law. In like manner immigration into Britain was a success, largely because immigrant groups accepted the rule of law and the conventions of civil society. They had wide freedom to exercise their own cultural beliefs and practices, provided these did not conflict with the rule of law and the civil liberties of others. Within civil societies, too, such as the British, the “political class” with the right to vote and to participate directly in government expanded over the generations, bringing in lower income groups and women. Civil society and the rule of law did not, of course, solve all problems. War and poverty were not eradicated, and folly and unhappiness coexist with good sense and happiness. Yet, as Winston Churchill noted, although our system of government is highly unsatisfactory, it is much better than any other form of political association the human race has known.

The success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and of Leninist methods in other countries raised once more the dilemma that had been faced when Roman Catholicism was a persecuting religion. Communists demanded constitutional rights in liberal societies, but once they gained power they eliminated liberal democracy and many of its advocates. Mussolini and Hitler soon copied Leninist modes of organisation. In many western countries totalitarians of both extremes took advantage of liberalism to seek to destroy liberalism, and each extreme claimed to be the only saviour from the opposite extreme. There were always fifth columnists or fellow travellers to help in the undermining of liberal democracy. These groups were often of critical importance, as in the German invasion of Norway in 1940 or the communist coup in Prague in 1948.

Freedom proved far most resilient than pessimists had feared, perhaps even more than optimists had dared to hope, so that in 2002 we have no immediate need to fear that our most cherished institutions will be overthrown by communist or fascist totalitarians. Those dangers may, of course, arise again from either wing in the future. Today, thanks largely to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, European communism as we knew it a short time ago has disintegrated, and even China and Vietnam have lost some of their Marxist characteristics and have become humdrum military dictatorships which do not currently seek to subvert western societies.

One important art in politics, especially in conservative politics, is to differentiate between greater and lesser evils. In general, it should not be the degree of evil in a regime that determines the policies of liberal societies towards it, but the amount of danger it presents to them. Winston Churchill had a keen understanding of the dangers Leninism presented to liberal societies, and was well aware of the wickedness of Stalin’s rule during the late 1930s, but Churchill recognised that Hitler posed a far greater danger. During the late 1970s, when the former Soviet Union was still expanding its military might, there was at least a case for supporting anti-Soviet forces, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. Within a few short years the Soviet Union is no more and important elements within Islamic fundamentalism have become far more militant and aggressive than for some generations. Urbanisation and mass literacy have tended to reduce religious intolerance in Christendom, but have sharpened it in many Islamic states. Few people anticipated there would be this marked and currently widening divergence between the two religions. At the present time terrorism emanating from within Islam is the greatest single threat to the safety and prosperity of western nations. It is absurd to try to persuade people who constantly proclaim that they hate the West that they ought to love us instead. I prefer the old Latin motto: odeant ut timeant — Let them hate me so long as they fear me. Out of fear may come respect and then some admiration.

In combating menaces it is sensible for us to make allies where we can. I have little sympathy with Zionism and consider the Balfour Declaration of 1917 a cardinal error in British foreign policy. I still find it well nigh incredible that in the last years of World War II the Stern Gang and other Jewish terrorist groups were killing British soldiers and officials in Palestine and thus aiding Hitler to exterminate even more Jews. School friends of mine were in Palestine after World War II when the King David Hotel was bombed and British soldiers hanged by Jewish terrorists. But those facts are as irrelevant to our situation today as are the vile deeds of Hitler and Stalin. What is relevant is that a large number of Islamic terrorists, backed by several Islamic governments, are determined to inflict as much damage as they possibly can on our way of life, whereas no Jewish groups have this objective today. Important secondary considerations are that Israeli governments of every sort are willing to find ways of co-existing with Palestinians and their other Arab neighbours, whereas many powerful forces within the Arab world oppose such co-existence. Furthermore, the disappearance of Israel from the Middle East would seriously weaken western interests and would encourage Intifadas and Jehads in other parts of the Islamic world. It is important to Australia’s strategic interests that Islamic extremists in Indonesia should be discouraged from delusions of grandeur.

The most important political issues in Australia today are the protection of national sovereignty against illegal entrants and support for the western alliance against terrorism. Our duty is not to eliminate nasty regimes and vicious governments, but to defend our own way of life. Sometimes, in defending ourselves, we will also eliminate a nasty regime, as Margaret Thatcher did in Argentina, and as the Allies have done in recent months in Afghanistan. But we should not make it our business to provide the Afghans with liberal democracy. The Afghan region has never had a form of government any of us would find acceptable and, although hope springs eternal in our breasts, it would be foolish to expect too much today. It will be enough if Afghanistan does not harbour terrorists who threaten our way of life. The danger in George Bush’s depiction of Iraq, Iran and North Korea is not that they do not form an axis of evil, but that some may imagine that it because of the wickedness of their governance that we oppose them militarily, not because they are potential threats to our safety and security.

However, it is not intended here to criticise President Bush. On the contrary, there should be the utmost abhorrence for those, whether they suppose themselves Left and radical or Right and conservative, who bang the anti-American drum and consequently support the dangerous forces that threaten our way of life. There should be nothing but contempt for the Politically Correct who attack Bush for naming Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an axis of evil, but who also claim that so-called asylum-seekers from those states should be admitted into Australia because otherwise they would be forced to go back to an axis of evil. In fact, of course, not a single illegal would-be entrant into Australia came here directly from any of those three countries.

Although there are many serious defects in the way we live today, the mass of the Australian people remain fundamentally sound and can be relied upon to defend the way of life developed in this country since 1788. They were not found wanting in 1914 or 1945 and will not be found wanting in the twenty-first century when external aggression and internal subversion threaten. A similar majority among Labor and Coalition voters supports exclusion of illegal would-be entrants into Australia and also supports the western alliance. However, the Australian Left contains individuals and groups whose ideological hatred of their political opponents is so intense that they welcome any enemy of John Howard as a friend. Led by their “think-tanks”, the main ones being the A.B.C. and S.B.S., the left-wing Politically Correct go through the motions of condemning terrorism and violations of Australian immigration policy, but their real anger is directed against each and every attempt to oppose terrorism and to protect our borders against illegal entry.

Such mistaken sentiments are not unknown on the conservative fringes of Australian politics. Those who claim to be conservative and yet snipe at the immigration and international positions of the Howard government have helped to ensure that the A.L.P. is in office in all our states and territories and that the Howard Government lacks a Senate majority and cannot rule effectively. Foolishness can arise within any system of belief. There are apparently millions of Muslims, perhaps some non-Muslims as well, who believe that the 11 September attack on the World Trade Centre was carried out by Jews and that messages were sent to Jews who worked in the building to stay away that day. Many communists were persuaded by the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s that leading Old Bolsheviks had been counter-revolutionary agents during the 1917 Revolution and subsequent civil wars. Many Americans believe that Elvis Presley is still amongst them, just as for many decades many of the Welsh believed that King Arthur was waiting for the right moment to return and restore them to greatness. Many Germans had a similar belief about Frederick Barbarossa and many Portuguese about King Sebastian. There are some Australians who believe that the Port Arthur massacre was organised by agents of John Howard or by the C.I.A. or some other group in order to ensure that new gun laws could be enacted. Yet there is no need for conspiracy theories. The people who threaten our way of life do not conceal their aims. They shout them at the television cameras and are heard across the world. In like manner Karl Marx, Adolph Hitler and Chairman Mao were highly explicit in their aims and objectives.

Whatever faults may be attributed to John Howard, he cannot be praised too highly for his determination to ensure that immigration into Australia is decided by elected Australian governments and that illegal would-be entrants are kept out; and for his support to our allies in the eradication of terrorist groups. Let us identify the real enemy of the day, as we did during World War II and the Cold War, and ensure that that enemy is defeated.


National Observer No. 53 - Winter 2002