This series will profile the ten most important figures in the establishment of key institutions.

Edmund Burke is in many respects the founder of modern conservatism. Born in Dublin in 1729 to a family divided between the Anglican and Catholic faiths, he was a sickly child and often had to be sent away to the country for clearer air. Burke’s family was one of ancestral wealth and prominence, and he was given a fine education at Trinity College before being sent away to London to practise law. He soon found however that his true passion was for writing and politics.

Burke entered Parliament as a Whig in 1765 and quickly revealed himself as a fierce advocate of free trade (particularly with Ireland) and a critic of abuses of the royal prerogative. In an age when divisions in the House of Commons owed more to the legacy of the civil war than any coherent ideology, Burke argued that parties differentiated by deeply held principles were necessary for the proper functioning of a democracy. At the same time, he maintained that Parliamentarians should not bow to the whims of the electorate and must make their own independent judgements about the political issues of the day. Practicing that which he preached, Burke took up stances in favour of Catholic emancipation and against capital punishment which did him no electoral favours.

Burke’s enduring relevance comes through his writings, particularly Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke contrasted the bloody French Revolution with those of England in 1688 and America in 1776. Whereas the latter were about asserting liberties that enjoyed deep historical and cultural roots, the former involved an attempt to reshape society from the ground up, which for Burke was both foolhardy and dangerous. He argued that successful political institutions were too complex and unknowable to be constructed from scratch. Politics was not something that science and logic could be applied to, human beings were too diverse and unpredictable for such an approach. History however had accumulated experience, and gradually shaped institutions so that they reflected what had proven to be right over time. Burke asserted that individual rights were not abstract or universal, but something that people inherited from the struggles of their forefathers. Liberty was not something that was inherent to human beings, but something that was provided by longstanding institutions like Parliament and the rule of law. In throwing those institutions away to try to achieve some abstract utopian dream, people risked sacrificing what liberty they had. This self-seeking decision was not theirs to make, for society was a contract ‘not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’ and they therefore had no right to destroy their children’s cultural inheritance.

This idea that freedom is something that we owe to our ancestors is now a central pillar of modern conservatism. Burke was not against change, as a Whig politician he frequently advocated expanding those liberties that Englishmen already enjoyed. Nevertheless, Burke appreciated that there was no point in pursuing change for change’s sake and that the first priority must be to defend the good in what already exists. In this manner he is also an inspiration to classical liberals who appreciate that we must hold dear what freedom we have before we seek to expand it.

Further Reading on Burke:

George Houstoun Reid was the strongest voice for the principles of liberalism and democracy during the federation debates. The son of a Scottish Presbyterian Minister, Reid was a deeply principled but also a pragmatic man. He had a convivial sense of humour and a habit for falling asleep in public that once forced the Speaker of the NSW Legislative Assembly to rule if snoring contravened the standing orders. This combined with a protruding belly and walrus moustache made Reid often come across as a comic figure, he was certainly a cartoonist’s dream, but his joviality concealed a deep intellect and a warm heart equal to any of his contemporaries. He was a great believer in the liberal principles of opportunity and personal liberty.

Reid rose to prominence through his Five Free Trade Essays (1875) which received the personal commendation of British Prime Minister William Gladstone. Reid was a strong supporter of freeing up enterprise so that it could be left to grow to its full potential. At the same time he was a friend of the working man, selling free trade as something that would keep the costs of necessities like tea and sugar down. Reid was Premier of New South Wales from 1894 until 1899 and during that time he abolished all but the most residual tariffs, rationalised expenditure and balanced the budget. In order to establish true free trade Reid had to introduce income & land taxes, but he firmly held to the position that taxation was a necessary evil that must be kept to the minimum possible level by keeping spending under control. He once rejected a tax on beer for being motivated by moralism rather than strict financial necessity.

As Premier Reid resurrected the federation issue which had lain dormant since 1891. Since his State would have to make the largest sacrifices of both money and sovereignty for federation to be achieved, Reid insisted on making the constitution as democratic as possible. He had been personally responsible for the abandonment of the 1891 Federation Bill which failed to prescribe the responsibility of the executive, but as Premier he showed a spirit of compromise accepting a Senate that gave equal representation to each State regardless of population. What he would insist upon was that the House of Representatives, which gave representation based on population and was therefore the more democratic house, would ultimately be in control of the government. Reid is famous for his ‘yes-no’ speech given during the 1898 federation referendum where he listed both the positive and negative aspects of the Federation Bill, the latter being that the Senate had too much power over money bills and that the provisions dealing with a deadlock between the Houses were inadequate. The speech helped to ensure that the referendum did not achieve the minimum number of ‘yes’ votes required for success in NSW, allowing Reid to go back to the negotiating table and win the ‘absolute majority’ joint sitting provision that, after a double dissolution, favours the House of Representatives over the Senate in any dispute.

Since he would not accept federation at any cost, Reid was often given a rough treatment in histories of federation, but it was precisely because of his principled stance and subsequent pragmatism that Australia has a viable constitution which adequately balances the needs of both democracy and the smaller States.

Further Reading on Reid:

Henry Parkes led such a remarkable political career that his role as ‘father of federation’ was in some respects just a footnote. The son of a tenant farmer in Warwickshire, Parkes’ family were forced off their ancestral home when he was just a boy. The ensuing poverty they endured was a formative experience for the young man. It imbued him with both a strong work ethic and a desperate desire to raise his station in life. Largely self-educated, Parkes tried all sorts of menial jobs before being apprenticed as an ivory turner. None of it could produce an adequate living however, and Parkes migrated to Australia in desperation in 1839.

Parkes never truly escaped the incessant threat of poverty, but in Sydney he found his calling as a journalist and political agitator. Parkes had had some exposure to the chartist movement, and he was deeply committed to democracy and the rights of the individual. The two great political issues of the day were preventing a renewal of convict transportation and creating a liberal-democratic constitution for New South Wales, and Parkes founded the Empire newspaper to advocate for these and other liberal causes. The paper gave him great prominence, allowing him to win a seat in the old Legislative Council shortly before the coming of responsible government in 1856.

Debt and the financial collapse of the Empire ensured Parkes was only an intermittent force in the battles which saw old-style conservatism ousted from NSW politics by the early 1860s, but once the liberal era dawned Parkes would come into his element. The master of ‘factional’ politics which saw governments formed based on personal allegiance rather than ideology, Parkes would serve as Premier no less than five times. He helped to oversee a period of great economic growth, spurred on by low taxation, economic freedom and the opening up of the railways. Parkes was involved in all of the great political reforms of his day, but his name was most associated with the creation of the free, compulsory and ‘non-sectarian’ NSW education system. This was very important for a man whose personal experience had shown that the opportunity to climb the ladder should be made available to all who had the talent and drive.

In his later years Parkes stood up as an advocate of his Colony’s existing and successful free trade policy against the sectional protectionist interest. Driven by patriotism and his own ego, he dreamed of capping off his long career by overseeing the federation of the Australian Colonies. His 1889 Tenterfield speech helped to prompt the 1891 National Australasian Convention and the writing of a draft constitution, but George Reid’s liberal objections to that document ensured Parkes’ dream would not be fulfilled in his lifetime. His last years were sadly spent trying to get back at Reid, though there was apparently a deathbed reconciliation between the two men.

It is well that Parkes is remembered as the founder of a united Australia, however accurate that may be, for the story of this self-made man is the epitome of the Australian story of hope, determination, and hard-earned success.

Further Reading on Reid:

Though he was Prime Minister for less than four years, Earl Grey was responsible for perhaps the two greatest pieces of legislation to pass the British Parliament throughout the whole of the nineteenth century. The son of a decorated Northumbrian general, Grey attended Eton and Cambridge and emerged in his early twenties as the archetypical enlightened Whig aristocrat. Elected to Parliament at the tender age of twenty-two, he quickly caused a stir by having an affair with the wife of the Duke of Devonshire.

Extra-marital liaisons aside, Grey emerged as a man of principle. He was an early advocate of Catholic emancipation and was willing to risk his career over the issue. In 1806 he was promoted to Foreign Secretary, but the next year the Government fell apart when George III blocked an attempt to give rights to Catholics and tried to force the Ministry to sign a pledge that they would permanently drop the issue. There followed a full twenty-three years in opposition, much of it spent trying to direct the heavily-divided Whigs.

In 1830, after the death of George IV who had become as much an antagonist as his father, Grey was finally able to take the reins of government. With decades of pent-up energy behind him, Grey wasted no time introducing a thorough reform program. Its signature component was the Great Reform Act of 1832. This overhauled the borough system of electing MPs, where franchises and constituencies varied greatly. Some ‘rotten boroughs’ were able to elect a Member of Parliament despite having only a handful of electors, while using bribery to win a seat was also quite common. The bill essentially acted as a great redistribution, getting rid of the smallest boroughs, taking MPs from some multi-member constituencies and giving them to the rapidly growing cities. It faced considerable opposition in the House of Lords and required a sweeping electoral victory and organised political agitation to see it finally passed after two failed attempts. Combined with the separate Scottish Reform Act, it greatly increased the number of people eligible to vote by streamlining the franchise and, by evening out constituencies, made Parliament far more of a representative institution.

Hot on the heels of the Great Reform Act, the Government abolished slavery throughout the Empire in 1833. This was a monumental victory for human freedom. Slavery had previously been the back-bone of virtually all empires and many human societies, but Grey was able to persuade the British people to make real their long-espoused rhetoric of liberty. Grey had to fight against significant vested interests and financially compensate slave-owners, but these costs were far outweighed by the victory of justice. It is difficult to imagine how Lincoln would have delivered the emancipation proclamation without Grey, particularly as slavery was arguably the only issue which prevented Britain from intervening on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

In 1834 Grey’s Ministry fell apart over a dispute on Irish policy. His main task complete, Grey happily retired from the spotlight, further entrenching his reputation as a man who cared about policies over power. It is a shame that he is now most remembered for the tea blend named after him; too few modern politicians emulate his tremendous example.

Further Reading on Grey: