Why Abbott should Lord it over the electorate

Perhaps Tony Abbott’s path to victory at the federal election lies in embracing his conservatism and his old-fashioned sense of morality.

Conventional wisdom holds the only thing now preventing Tony Abbott winning an historic victory on September 14 is Tony Abbott.

The commentariat is almost as one in arguing the only issue that could potentially cause Abbott to lose the unlosable election is his social conservatism and, just as his old boss Dr Hewson should have dialled back the economic radicalism two decades ago, he needs to refashion himself as a man at ease with the sweeping societal changes of the modern era.

But what if the path to victory for Abbott lies not in convincing the Australian people he’s a crypto-feminist, gay-friendly multiculturalist relaxed and comfortable about the state of the world in 2013, but in presenting himself as a High Tory who pines for 1913?

What if swinging voters, instead of wanting evidence Abbott has now dutifully embraced the economic and social libertarianism advocated by business and cultural elites, hunger for a sign he’s actually the economic illiterate and old-fashioned moralist his critics on both the left and right accuse him of being?

In short, what if we’re all secretly hankering for Tony Abbott to play Lord Grantham to our John Bates?

More on that momentarily but first a little background.

Divisions between meritocratic modernisers who embrace the creative destruction wrought by free markets and communitarian traditionalists less enamoured of the disruptive consequences of unrestrained capitalism are evident in centre-right parties around the world. It’s an ideological conflict that for the last three decades the pro-market meritocrats – in Australia as in the rest of the Anglosphere – have been comprehensively winning.

Probably not coincidentally, the post-war Keynesian political settlement was unsentimentally dismantled by politicians – Thatcher, Reagan, Keating – from lower middle-class backgrounds. Many of their successors – Major, Brown, Clinton, Obama, Howard, Rudd, Gillard – were also strivers from humble origins contemptuous of undeserving elites and unearned privilege.

Yet even before the global financial crisis hit, influential conservatives in the UK and US, confronted with societies in which wealth, power and opportunity were undeniably cascading upwards rather than trickling down, had begun to wonder if the noblesse oblige grandees they’d long dismissed had a point after all.

The downside of meritocracy is, well, its treatment of those judged to be insufficiently meritorious. It’s a form of social organisation liable to leave a large proportion of the citizenry fearing they’re being left on the scrapheap in a winner-takes-all rat race.

It’s thus unsurprising there’s a huge appetite for bonnet drama porn featuring a quasi-feudal idyll where, say, a valet with a gammy leg or cook with failing eyesight might hope to be accommodated by their benevolent employer rather than summarily dismissed for performance issues and left to rot on a disability pension. (Abbott has more than once gushed about his “love” for Downton Abbey, describing it as “a great program about the things that are best in our nature”.)

David Cameron campaigned during the 2010 British election as a 21st century Lord Grantham, a post-Thatcherite compassionate conservative determined to replenish exhausted stocks of social capital. Downton Abbey was six months away from airing but Cameron had been influenced by Red Toryism, a High Toryism 2.0 that holds the new right’s faith in unfettered markets is as misguided as the old left’s belief in big government and that civil society needs urgent, large-scale reinvigoration.

Abbott, a politician who opposes both legalising gay marriage and further deregulating the labour market and one who demonstrates a near maniacal commitment to volunteerism, would seem to be a natural Red Tory, even if he hasn’t so far sought to identify himself as one.

More importantly, a Red Tory politician (potentially Bob Katter if Tony Abbott passes on the opportunity) would appeal to those sections of the electorate nostalgic for the Australia they grew up in, not least marginal seat-dwelling, blue-collar voters yet to be convinced the right’s economic rationalism or the left’s identity politics have done anything to improve their lives.

While his truck-driving, hardhat-wearing, fish-filleting campaigning style diverts attention from it, Abbott’s born-to-rule background is not dissimilar to Cameron’s. The son of a moneyed dentist who grew up on what Gillard has described as Sydney’s “cosseted” North Shore, Abbott attended exclusive Jesuit-run schools, completed economics and law degrees at Australia’s oldest and most prestigious university then won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.

But perhaps it’s not Cameron who Abbott should be modelling himself on so much as another Oxford-educated patrician closer to home. That man, like Abbott, seemed out of step with the Zeitgeist and even his own party. After becoming leader of the Coalition he too struggled to win over voters and was mocked for his haughty Lord of the Manor demeanour. The Australian people never really did warm to that politician but they came to believe he would govern the nation wisely.

On December 13, 1975 they elected him Prime Minister in the largest landslide in Australian history.