Where are the conservative historians?

Benjamin Wilkie
Nov 7, 2016 · 5 min read

Few historians in Australia are professionally interested in the Liberal Party or, more broadly, the Australian Right. Labour history in Australia is alive with internal debate, but, when it comes to the other side, there is scarcely a historiographical tradition with which to disagree. Furthermore, it seems even fewer historians write about Australian history from a conservative or (Australian) liberal perspective; the conservative academic is an elusive creature.

John Hirst was one of these rare historians in Australia who could be said to write and argue from a conservative position. ‘When authority is attacked,’ he wrote, ‘my instinct is to come to its defence.’

And this is what Hirst had to say about the historiographical unevenness:

In the United States to be a Republican and a historian is not to occupy an unorthodox position. You can be a Tory in Britain and be an unremarkable historian. Historians come from both sides of politics. In Australia overwhelmingly the historians have come from the Left. A colleague of mine, a scholar of American history, said that he could not fathom the imbalance of Australian historiography. There are shelves of books on the Labor party, he said, quite a few on the Communist Party, but very few on the Liberal Party. Yet, he continued, haven’t the Liberals governed Australia for most of its history? Fortunately we now have in Judy Brett a historian who is doing good work on the Liberals. Yet she herself is sympathetic to the Left — and more credit to her for writing with great insight about the other side. The Liberals themselves have been sadly uninterested in their own history.

Coming from the Left or Right — and I have to stress here that I know these terms are complicated at best — is different from writing about the Left or Right. Hirst pointed to an imbalance on both counts.

It’s easy enough to establish that, in terms of content or themes, comparatively little has been produced by academic historians on Australian conservatism, the Liberal Party, and so on. There are exceptions, of course, and always have been. Recent notable work includes Judith Brett’s work on Australian liberalism, as well as an ARC Discovery Project, lead by Greg Melleuish, to explore the history of Australian conservatism. There is also a good deal of recent work on the period of John Howard’s years as Prime Minister, but whether this era (1996–2007) has been truly historicised is unclear. Howard himself has embarked on a post-political career as an historian.

That academic historians in Australia have tended to come from the Left is more contentious, although research on voting intentions and occupations in Australia seems to hint that there’s a good basis for the claim. Furthermore, around 70 per cent of academics in the United States and the United Kingdom identify themselves as being ‘on the left’; the situation in Australia is likely to be similar. Some more recent research suggests that as few as 5 per cent of academics in humanities departments in the United States identify as conservative.

In any case, intuitively, the observation that Australian historians have mostly come from the Left seems accurate.

It’s telling that historians such as Geoffrey Blainey are applauded for originality, independence, and ability to throw new light on old problems. Hirst was similarly acknowledged as the ‘gadfly’ of Australian history. Perhaps, then, the mere act of writing and arguing from a conservative perspective is enough to set such work apart. If you want to be a remarkable historian in Australia, do you need only adopt a conservative outlook? Maybe.

But doing so with intellectual and scholarly rigour is an important ingredient. We have plenty of conservative bloggers, journalists, and others who claim to write history — and who often engage in historical debate in their varied outlets — but produce something closer to polemic. At least one notable exception to this is the Liberal MP Margaret Fitzherbert, whose Liberal Women: Federation to 1949 was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s History Awards in 2004.

Complicating all of this is the problem of ideology in history and whether historians, consciously or not, allow their political tendencies to bleed into their arguments and writing. Keith Windschuttle has not been mentioned here yet, and he is perhaps a good example of how a clear ability to use the archives — as all historians should be able to do — can be muddied by polemical and political aims. I think we all let our politics slip through and, whether or not this is done with purpose, there has to be something in the milieu of Australian academia that allows the Left to get away with it more than the Right.

So, it’s not just a question of whether there is an ideological imbalance, but also how it came about, how it’s sustained, and whether it’s something to worry about. If historians are political regardless of any claims otherwise, what is the best way to acknowledge and manage this?

The fact that Australia is unique in its historiographical imbalance — or at least the magnitude of this imbalance — is enough to make such questions worth pursuing.

And, if unpicking the relationships between the political sympathies of historians and their work can lead us in new historical directions, all the better. Certainly, Hirst took this approach, and on the influence of the Left on Australian political history he once wrote:

Historians sympathetic to the Left have determined the terms in which political history is discussed in this country. No party since the 1850s has called itself the Conservative Party. John Howard has been the only prime minister to call himself a conservative. But all the parties opposed to Labor are labelled ‘conservative’. On the Labor view of the world, that’s what you must be if you are opposed to Labor.

These non-Labor parties and their leaders have been more diverse than this view allows. As Hirst noted, Australia’s political history ‘becomes much more interesting once you throw off the Labor view of it.’

If the dominance of the Left has shaped how we conceive Australian political history, there is good reason to seek a more lively, comprehensive, and rigorous history of the Right — or of ‘not Labor’ — in Australia. This may be one approach to invigorating political history in Australia, which has been in decline for many years. Indeed, without a nuanced view of political tendencies in Australia, it is quite difficult to make proper sense of colonial and early-20th century political movements and debates.

The question remains, however: if history-writing is unavoidably political, what does history from the Right look like? Perhaps the works of John Hirst and Geoffrey Blainey — or from non-academics such as Margaret Fitzherbert — are good places to start. In whatever form it appears, Australian history can only benefit from a diversity of viewpoints.

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