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National Observer Home > No. 62 - Spring 2004 > Article

The Brother Countries

Tony Abbott

In his book, Leaders, the former U.S. president Richard Nixon said: "If I were to rate one postwar leader . . . it would not be one of the legendary European or American figures. It would be Robert Menzies". "Had he been Prime Minister of Britain rather than Australia", said Nixon, Menzies "would have ranked with Gladstone and Disraeli".

It is right to commemorate Australia's greatest Liberal and Australia's greatest statesman. It is also necessary because Menzies is in danger of becoming a historical curiosity rather than a continuing influence in our political culture. Nixon said of Menzies and of Lee Kuan Yew: "They shared the distinction of being big men on small stages, leaders who in other times and other places might have attained the world stature of a Churchill." But how many of today's Australians would find our longest serving Prime Minister even as interesting and as relevant as the founder of modern Singapore?

Menzies was Australia's political leader for eighteen years and never lost an election as Prime Minister. It is less than forty years since he left office. Yet in the last quarter century, apart from Judith Brett's critical psycho-study, there has been just one major book about him: Alan Martin's authoritative yet rather wooden life. Partly, this is because the issues which dominated Menzies' political career: the Second World War, the Cold War, Korea, Malaya and Vietnam have passed into history. Partly, this is because government was less ambitious in those days and economic management somewhat easier. Partly, it is the Liberal Party's reluctance to canonise anyone. But mostly it is because Menzies has offended the zeitgeist; he is out-of-step with the spirit of the age.

The father of A.N.Z.U.S., builder of Canberra, expander of universities, sponsor of the Japanese trade partnership and founder of the Liberal Party has one great defect, at least to modern eyes. He was an Anglophile: a monarchist; born in Jeparit but British to his bootstraps. He once said of a young Queen Elizabeth, "I did but see her passing by and yet I love her till I die." This is Menzies' unpardonable fault: that he sounded as passionate about Britain as about Australia. This is not because Menzies was confused about who he was. Rather, he wished to promote those values – freedom under the law, parliamentary institutions and pluralist democracy – which were Britain's gift to Australia and the wider world and to advance Australia as the significant other in what Churchill called the unwritten alliance between Britain and America.

For years, the politically correct establishment has been in two minds about swaggering, libertarian America but has quite decided that Britain is a historical has-been whose hand-me-down symbols have no place in contemporary Australia. Using the term "Brits" in newspaper headlines (when "Japs" would never be acceptable); the reluctance to refer to people as "Sir" or "Dame" (unless it is Dame Elisabeth Murdoch); the scathing coverage given to the "British" royal family (compared with, say, Japanese or Danish royalty who have no personal flaws worth reporting): this is the media version of teenagers blowing raspberries at their parents.

These barbs would be odd if directed at, say, Brazil; counter-productive and possibly dangerous directed at, say, Indonesia; but they are perverse and ultimately self-destructive when directed at a country which founded and helped shape modern Australia. Britain is Australia's largest source of immigrants, second largest source of tourism (after New Zealand), second most important military ally and second largest overseas investor (after America) and fourth largest trading partner (after America, Japan and China). The demographer, James Jupp, says that, after Britain itself, Australia is the most British country on earth.

For peoples, as for individuals, the oldest and most important relationships tend to carry the most freight. As one wag commented, "no good turn goes unpunished". Even so, it is odd that, in multicultural Australia, the one cultural attachment no one can publicly acknowledge is the one that was taken for granted a generation ago. It is even more strange that the one country for which Australians are allowed no sense of affinity is the one which founded us. But the boiling rage of the cultural adolescents, only now starting to abate, has meant that the only culture which does not attract exaggerated respect is the one which most shaped us. For at least two decades, Britain has been one of the battlegrounds in Australia's culture wars.

In one of his most savage parliamentary assaults, Paul Keating described the 1950s as the "age when vast numbers of Australians never got a look in . . . when we had these xenophobes running around about Britain . . . and that awful cultural cringe which held us back for nearly a generation". In the same toxic outburst, he attacked the Liberal Party as the "old fogies who doffed their lids and tugged their forelock to the British establishment . . . They were not aggressively Australian, they were not aggressively proud of our culture and we will have no bar of you or your sterile ideology." On another occasion, Keating told an interviewer that one of his "enduring pleasures" was "putting a knife into the heart of Menzies' creation".

As a political hunter-killer, Keating sensed two things: first, Menzies' vulnerability to the charge of being "un-Australian"; and second, the Liberal Party's vulnerability to the debunking of its founder. Despite the federal Liberal Party's subsequent political success, and the recent decline of "identity" as an issue in Australian politics, Keating's rhetorical challenge has not yet been satisfactorily addressed. Menzies' place in the political pantheon cannot be sustained without "rehabilitating" Britain as the original inspiration of Australia's political institutions, national character and way of life.

Liberals cannot ignore Menzies' unfashionable attachment to Britain nor dismiss it as merely a product of his time. We cannot gloss over it as others might seek to airbrush out Mark Latham's description of the U.S. President as dangerous and flaky. It is self-evidently not possible for today's Liberals to believe, with Menzies, that to be Australian is to be British. But neither is it enough to give Australia's British heritage a perfunctory nod before turning to the much more urgent day-to-day task of managing the country and winning elections. Symbols are important. Myths matter. To a significant extent, we become what we persuade ourselves we are. Mature reconsideration of our heritage is important for the country as well as for the Liberal Party because the British connection has been such a defining part of Australia's development and nations do not function well when suffering self-imposed historical and cultural amnesia.

Edmund Burke once described society as a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born. Isaac Newton had much the same sense of indebtedness to the past and accountability to the future when he said that we are but pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants. There is no doubt that Menzies saw himself (and his fellow Australians) as part of a millennial culture, a long historical continuum emerging from the mists in Palestine, Greece and Rome and embracing the wider English-speaking world. Menzies may have been too starry-eyed and triumphalist for modern taste but his immersion in the West's high culture makes Keating's stress on being "aggressively Australian" look like football ground barracking.

As Menzies put it in a 1949 New York Times article, "a man with a deep sense of continuity sees himself, not as an accidental unit doomed to vanish in a few years but as one of a great human procession, influenced and helped by those who have gone before him, responsible in his turn for giving help and encouragement to those who will come after". For Menzies, settlement in 1788 and federation in 1901 were milestones rather than starting points in an Australian story which included Calvary, Runnymede and Trafalgar as well as the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation of the Slaves, because we are part of the wider drama of Western civilisation and the English-speaking world.

Why is it, then, that two decades on from sharing Barry Humphrey's 70s jokes about boorish Australian-ness, huge numbers of influential Australians fell for the political version of Bazza Mackenzie? Why was Australia's engagement with Asia often pitched as a kind of revenge for Britain's entry into Europe? The primal force of Keating's political personality, Hibernian folk memories resurfacing generations after real grievances had gone, and tribal resentment at being forced to wait in the aliens' queue at Heathrow airport are not adequate explanations.

Nearly every Australian has a story to "prove" that the English are a bunch of stuck-up snobs. As a student at Oxford, for instance, I had to dictate my final exam papers because the markers could not understand my handwriting. "And you mean to say that the typist could understand your speech", quipped an English friend. Somehow, I survived this indignity with self-respect intact. In fact, these days, the notorious English class structure is often little more than the elaborate personal tracking system always present in very stable societies, an extended version of what is found in every country town, and little more vicious than the judgments Australians might make about each other based on school attended or football code played.

In any event, there is some evidence that the phase of being "aggressively Australian" may now have passed, in much the same way that most teenagers eventually grow out of being truculently self-absorbed and start to discover that they are not unique nor necessarily the most interesting people in the world. In unlikely quarters, there seems to be some re-acknowledgment of the derivative aspects of Australian identity.

Don Watson, the former Keating speechwriter and mentor on history, began an influential 2001 Quarterly Essay meditation on Australia and the United States contrasting two turn-of-the-last-century paintings hanging in the Bendigo regional art gallery. One, entitled "Gentlemen, the Queen" portrays, as Watson puts it, "a bevy of whiskery British officers, resplendent in monocles and red uniforms, standing round a dinner table with their glasses raised in the royal toast". It seems "collective and triumphant, if to the jaundiced post-colonial eye, smug, effete and goatish". The other, styled "Charles Schneider Esq. of Cincinnati U.S.A.", is, by contrast, "clear-eyed and clean-shaven, impeccably groomed, unambiguously masculine, confident, whole". "In the 100 years since the painting of Schneider and the purchase of 'Gentlemen...'," says Watson, Australia has "floated between the two worlds of these paintings" before so firmly anchoring herself to America, he says, that we might almost become the 51st state. What is notable here is the welcome absence of being "aggressively Australian". Watson wants Australia to better reflect the best values of a mentor country – although admittedly in his view the virile Americans rather than the limp British.

In a more perceptive 2003 Quarterly Essay, "Made in England", the novelist David Malouf describes the creative coexistence of a Lebanese ethnic with an English cultural inheritance. Like Watson, Malouf appreciates that America is the permanent third party in the relationship between Britain and Australia but, unlike Watson, Malouf thinks it resembles a harmonious extended family more than a three-way tug of love.

Malouf once visited the Washington library with the world's most complete collection of Shakespeariana, described as a "communion" being in the "real presence" of texts "which belong equally to all...of us because we belong to the language that produced them". Britain, America and Australia, he says, share "not just the language itself but a particular habit of mind . . . an insider's understanding of one another because they inhabit the same language". In the English-speaking world, he says, like New Zealand and Canada, Australia has always been a minor player "but to be on the basis of 'family', the member of a powerful club, even a junior member, offers incentives to ambition and the opportunity to push them through that you would not have, at the same weight and size, if you were not. The family link is English, our shared language, and all that goes with it".

As Malouf's experience helps to demonstrate, countries like Australia have never really operated as "closed shops". The willingness to "have a go", exemplified by learning the language and starting a business, has been much more important to success in Australia than membership of any exclusive group. Although the English-speaking countries have handled differences badly (like everyone else but generally less so), race has rarely been central to any of the English-speaking national identities. Starting from Roman times, England was one of the first "melting pot" nations. More than any other, the English-speaking culture is prepared to take people from elsewhere on their own terms. No one who can speak English is really a foreigner in any of the English-speaking countries. This explains why they have been such magnets to people from all over the world and how countries like Hong Kong, Singapore and lately India have been able to share in their economic success.

What has always irked sophisticated Australians was the British late-imperial tendency to patronise their cultural offspring. This irritated Menzies on his early trips to London as much as it had earlier put off less incorrigible Anglophiles such as Alfred Deakin. A careful reading of Menzies' speeches reveals numerous reminders to take Australia more seriously. In a 1950 lecture, "The British Commonwealth", Menzies placed the Australians at Tobruk and Bradman at Lords on the same emblematic footing as the M.P.s at Westminster and the King at Balmoral.

In the same speech, he grouped America with the other English-speaking nations as "the same kind of people, with the same ideas, with the same ideals, with the same high faith, with the same basic belief that governments exist for the people, that they are the servants and not the masters". Or, as he put it to Richard Nixon, I may be "British to my boot heels but I love America".

In Menzies' day, Australians often referred to Britain as the "mother country" but this terminology does scant justice to Menzies' conception of the relationship. It might be fairer to say that he regarded Britain as the mother culture but that the contemporary relationship resembled that of adult equals, regardless of size. Britain and Australia (and America for that matter) were "brother countries" with different levels of social, military and economic strength but with an instinctive likemindedness in their response to the problems of the world and with their own distinctive contribution to make to the common culture.

For Menzies, the English-speaking solidarity was based on values not race. He told a 1941 gathering of Americans in London that he had "never had very much patience with people who wanted us to talk and think about Americans . . . as if they were all of the Anglo-Saxon stock. We know that they are not . . . What we should perceive is that there are much greater things that we have in common: a system of government, a way of life, (and) a scheme of spiritual values." In his understanding of the real bonds between peoples and nations, Menzies has turned out to have far more in common with Tony Blair than with Joseph Chamberlain.

In the aftermath of September 11, Blair declared that Britain "should remain the closest ally of the United States...not because they are powerful but because we share their values". Blair's instinctive response to the attack on New York was to go to America in a demonstration of solidarity, just as John Howard's instinctive response was to invoke the A.N.Z.U.S. treaty for the first time in its history. Britons and Australians instinctively understood, in a way that Europeans did not, that this was not an attack on America but an attack on civilisation.

In 1955, at the height of the Cold War, Menzies told the United States Senate that in the event of a "great world war in the defence of freedom, you would know, I would know, everyone in Great Britain would know, all around the free world we would know, that we would all be in it together". These days, Menzies would swiftly have perceived that there can be no compromise with people who believe, quite literally, in "death to the infidels" and that this elemental clash now makes Iraq the most important battle of our time.

Menzies has often been criticised for his 1939 broadcast that it was his "melancholy duty to inform you that, in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war". At the time, Menzies' statement was not seen as an expression of Australian subordination to Britain but as a reflection of the general Australian view that Britain ought not be left to fight for her life alone because an attack on Britain would be an attack on us in addition.

Australia's participation in the Anglo-American wars of the last century has sometimes been referred to as "paying our dues" (with the suggestion that the price of protection is far too high). With the possible exception of the Boer War, Australia has never joined a military campaign to advance other countries' interests that could not also be justified in terms of Australian values or direct Australian interests. Given the similarity in outlook, values and interests and given that any anti-war campaign in London or Washington would have identical twins in Sydney and Melbourne, there could be very few threats sufficient to provoke an Anglo-American military response which would not, quite independently, cause Australia the gravest concern. To be sure, Australia could not conceivably have been involved in Iraq alone, but because it would not have been possible rather than because it would not have been right. Once America decided to seek allies to enforce the relevant U.N. resolutions, Australia would have been shirking its responsibilities not to help.

In understandable alarm at the wartime threat to Australian security, John Curtin famously appealed to America, "free of any inhibitions arising from our traditional links and kinship with the United Kingdom". There is a sense in which Curtin's strategic choice of America over Britain, which seemed so far-sighted in the 1950s and 60s, now needs revision. Compared with any other country in the world, America's military and economic strength has never been greater. Even so, intelligence-sharing, personnel exchange and combined military planning mean that Australia's modern strategic partnership is with America and Britain rather than with America or Britain – which is something of a vindication for Menzies' position. Part of our role, like the runner at Caesar's side, will be to provide reminders of mortality.

To the critics, all that has changed in sixty years has been Australia's shift from Britain's dutiful daughter to America's "deputy sheriff". This is to confuse size with responsibility. As a nation, we have never been a reluctant partner. We have never been "obeying orders" because the "orders" have always been internalised. What has really changed is that we no longer habitually wait for someone else to take a lead. In East Timor (where an American helicopter carrier and a British Gurkha battalion joined an Australian-led expedition), in the Solomon Islands and in Papua New Guinea, Australia has been front and centre trying to restore and maintain the universal decencies of mankind. In a strategic sense, Australia has finally come of age under the Howard Government. Sir Robert Menzies, who knew that Australia could never be an equal partner but demanded to be an equity partner in the Anglo-American alliance, would surely have approved.

National Observer No. 62 - Spring 2004