Inside Story

Learning to think at Oxford

“There was nothing before Oxford, really,” says Malcolm Fraser in this extract from his political memoirs, written with Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons 23 March 2015 6113 words

The Oxford undergraduate with his first car, a Jowett Javelin, around 1950. University of Melbourne Archives

Among Malcolm Fraser’s personal papers in the University of Melbourne archives is a box of exercise books and foolscap paper covered in his characteristic cursive script. These are the records of the work he did at Oxford as he read his way through the set books and acquainted himself with the great thinkers of his own day and the centuries preceding. His handwriting got untidier as he got older. The notes he made as prime minister on the bottom of memos are barely legible to those who are not used to his scrawl. He would mark a paragraph with a heavy vertical line, and add a single word or phrase. “Get an answer,” or “Yes,” or “No.” But back then, before he turned twenty, his handwriting was a matter of square capital letters, abundant verticals and generous loops.

He was methodical in his learning. He would read with an exercise book open by his side and meticulously summarise the material on the right-hand page. On the facing page he made comments and notes to himself. Thus he worked through Bertrand Russell’s Theory of Knowledge and Problems of Philosophy and the question of what it is possible to know, and how we can claim to know it. “But for introspection we could never imagine the minds of others,” Fraser wrote to himself on the left-hand page. As Russell teased out the question of whether, indeed, it is possible to know anything at all, Fraser wrote in the margins of his notes, “This process is a nonsense,” and later a word that might be “rot” or “rats,” and later still “I doubt this.”

Fraser preferred Locke, and his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. For Locke, there was no innate knowledge. The mind was “white paper, void of all characters.” How then, did it come by “that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge?” Locke answered the question with one word: experience. From observation and reason, he said, comes all our understanding. The individual was central, and the freedom to think and reason were at the core of what it meant to be human. Governments, Locke said, and Fraser carefully summarised, were legitimate so long as natural rights were respected. If they became tyrannical, citizens were justified in overthrowing them.

In the same slow and careful manner Fraser read his way through the work of Hobbes and Rousseau. All of them seemed to make the human being central. He came to Machiavelli’s The Prince. “Avoid being despised and hated,” advised Machiavelli, and noted Fraser. “Have gravity and fortitude.” He noted Rousseau’s words, “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains.”

All of the thinkers Fraser liked placed the individual, and individual freedom, at the heart of things. This was a message that spoke to Fraser, the self-sufficient solitary boy. He had learned, as a child, to rely on himself and his own judgement. Ever since, he had wanted freedom. Oxford provided the intellectual framework for his instincts, and Oxford made these instincts more than matters of individual preference. They were universal imperatives.

Years later Fraser summed up what he learned. “If the human being is to be central, empiricism, pragmatism, basic common decency would seem to require such a commitment be universal,” he wrote in his 2002 book Common Ground: Issues that Should Bind and Not Divide Us.

And thus the assertion of human rights and freedom is fundamental to any person who claims to be liberal. It is liberalism’s supreme contribution to human thought and human progress… [T]hose who look for a perfect system of government are unlikely to find it. Those who look to general rules that can apply in all circumstances will be misled. Good government is essentially pragmatic. Decisions need to be guided by philosophy but based on empirical evidence. Government is not about a deductive system, it is inductive, based on circumstances and facts as they emerge. There are no formulas that can make government easy.

In this same archive box are Fraser’s notes on the leading economic textbooks of the day, and his essays on politics and economics. He wrote about whether there was an optimum size for a company appropriate to each industry, and whether or not political parties were a necessary part of the machinery of democracy. He thought not: “I would go so far as to say that [political parties] are the remnants of past regimes, that they are totally unsuited to democracy and a constant danger to its survival.” He decried the “subordination of individuality to the machine.”

In this way, for the first year of his course, Fraser worked hard at understanding and getting to grips with the tides of thought that made up the course of Politics, Philosophy and Economics. There was a good reason for his effort. In his first few weeks at Oxford he’d had an enormous intellectual shock. He had been near the top of his class throughout his school career but Oxford made him feel that he knew nothing – either about the course material or the state of the world. Here, thrown in the deep end among the tides of modernism, he was a relatively untutored colonial boy. Nor did his family’s social position mean much. He was an outsider, and he was green. His fellow undergraduates were more sophisticated and knowledgeable in every way.

“They would have understood apartheid,” Fraser remembers. “I said, ‘What’s apartheid?’ Apartheid wouldn’t have been written up much in Australian newspapers, and I didn’t read newspapers in those days… I probably would have argued, if I said anything at all, that the policy is equal but separate development. If it is equal development, what is wrong with that? That shows you how much I knew. But people around Oxford University had been condemning it. There was a South African, he just didn’t want to go home. Pressure compelled him to go home. He just felt appalled at what was being done in 1948–49.”

In fear of failure and humiliation, Fraser set about catching up.

Later, Fraser was to describe these postwar years as the beginning of a new age of enlightenment. In the years before his arrival at Oxford in 1949 the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund had been established. The year before he arrived, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been adopted by the United Nations, and during his time at Oxford countries all over the world were negotiating conventions to give it legal force. All these mechanisms were, as Fraser would later say, “designed to establish a fairer and a more peaceful world. Colonialism would be outlawed. People would look after their own affairs. The techniques of modern economics gave hope to governments worldwide, that unemployment could be banished.”

Fraser was at the intellectual heart of Europe, and for the first time since his early childhood, he felt free. “There were rules, sure, but I thought I’d escaped something, and it was a very exciting time and it was an optimistic time.”

As is traditional at Oxford and Cambridge, Fraser’s chief identification was with his college, Magdalen, rather than with the university as a whole. Like most undergraduates he lived in college and had a scout – a manservant – who was not backward in ticking off the students if they made too much mess. He had his own bedroom and living room in one of the more modern parts of the college. He had a washbasin in his room and shared a bathroom.

Although Magdalen was an ancient and beautiful institution, even here there was only limited shelter from the hardships of postwar Britain. In many practical ways life was grim. Meals were held in the dining hall. Rationing applied. There was little meat, other than fowl of some kind. “It certainly wasn’t chicken. It was both fowl and foul,” remembers Fraser. He familiarised himself with Audit ale – “so thick you could eat it” – and watched the Dons at the high table each with their own little carafe of wine “to make sure that they all got equal shares and nobody hogged it.”

Under the Oxford college system Fraser’s principal intellectual relationship was with his college tutor, and in this he was fortunate. The tutor was Thomas Dewar Weldon, known to everyone as Harry. Weldon, a key figure at Oxford, had served in the first world war and was wounded and decorated. Like Fraser’s father Neville, he had been in the Royal Field Artillery. The war had marked him deeply, and his colleagues would say later that he never fully recovered emotionally. Intellectually, he was impelled to make Magdalen a heart of the kind of modern thought that would lead mankind to a better future. He devoted himself to his students, always available to them with a glass of whisky or wine and a preparedness to discuss both the course material and the wider world. He was an antagonist to some other, more traditional, Oxford dons – including C.S. Lewis, who described him as the most hard-boiled atheist he had ever known. And he was, according to his biographers, responsible not only for forming the Modern Greats curriculum, but also for transforming Magdalen from an easygoing place, in which wealth and family position were key selection criteria, to an academic meritocracy.

To Fraser, Weldon was an exemplar of energetic, thoughtful pragmatism. He convinced the young Australian that philosophy was an important, practical pursuit. To begin with, though, he was simply terrifying. At their first meeting, when Fraser’s bags were barely unpacked, Weldon thrust him a copy of John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, and said, “Write a 2000-word essay on this by next Friday.”

Fraser had never heard of Keynes. He went to the library and began to struggle with the book. He felt as though he were illiterate. “What did the terms mean, the ‘marginal productivity of capital’? Somebody with my sort of education knew nothing about this.” He wrote 2000 words – “the worst rubbish I ever wrote – absolute crap.” He doesn’t remember Weldon’s response. Probably, Fraser reflects, the task was designed to sort the geniuses from those who needed more work. Fraser understood only too well that he fell into the latter category.

Yet the writings of Keynes in many ways topped and tailed Fraser’s experience at Oxford. He not only got to grips with the economist, but he also came to regard him as one of the main reasons for the optimistic spirit of the times. Keynes justified the belief that mankind could solve its problems. “He was a man who gave hope, he gave encouragement. You could build a better world. You didn’t have to live in this miserable, wretched world.”

There were other tutors who also marked Fraser. One was the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who was credited with restoring Oxford to a leading place in philosophy. His book Concept of Mind was one of the texts that Fraser meticulously noted. Ryle was against “metaphysical assumptions” and Fraser agreed with him. In one of his essays, Fraser wrote:

I must from the start deny the existence of the mind as distinct from the body. I will admit no hidden entity. As Ryle puts it, there is no machine within the machine… [I]f a machine makes a mistake we say it has gone wrong and fetch the mechanic. To a person we are much more likely to say “Have another try.”

In the same essay, Fraser rejected the notion of determinism, because without free will “morality also goes out the door.” In a marginal note in his exercise books he asked himself “Is there anything to be said for metaphysics? The idea that God exists is a nonsense.” This attitude – what C.S. Lewis might have called “hard-boiled atheism” – did not persist. Fraser continued to reject “metaphysical assumptions” as a foundation for human reasoning, law or politics, yet embraced “something of the metaphysic” as the core of his motivation in public life.

“There is no point talking about it, because you can’t prove it,” he said later. And yet were it not for “something of the metaphysic” he would not have entered politics. “I suppose I would have entered a commercial career and tried to make as much money as a number of my contemporaries have done.”

Another of his lecturers was the leading liberal thinker Isaiah Berlin. Fraser remembers Berlin “putting his head on one side and talking nineteen to the dozen” as he taught them modern logic. Also at Oxford was the historian A.J.P. Taylor, whose lectures Fraser attended even though he did not need to. Everyone knew that Taylor was writing a book. “If a man was writing a book,” Fraser recalls, “I thought you should go and hear him speak. If the book was already written, then you could just read the book.” Taylor, a former communist, was exactly the kind of intellectual Fraser had been taught to suspect. But Fraser found him not an ideologue, but a free thinker. In his lectures, he offered a view of foreign policy and of communism that challenged Fraser’s predispositions. “I remember making quite a study of the Korean war, because of what Taylor was saying,” says Fraser. By the time he had finished his study, Fraser in many ways agreed with Taylor’s views. “I respected his independence of mind, his rejection of the slavish orthodoxy of some Marxist thought, and he argued well and his views had substance.”

Among Fraser’s university essays and notes there is a draft of a speech about Keynes. It is not clear when it was written, though there is a reference at the beginning to a forthcoming political event that may well have been the 1950 election.

“J.M. Keynes has had a profound influence on your life and mine,” Fraser began.

He was not like Churchill or Disraeli; a man whose actions appear in the headlines of national papers. His work, though, is no less important and was accomplished quietly. The main result of his teaching brings untold benefits to every man and woman irrespective of nationality. I want to remind you of the world into which he was born and to show you how he rid that world of one important and ever present fear.

The fear to which Fraser referred was the thing that had shadowed his childhood, and blighted so many others. Depression.

Fraser went on to sketch Keynes’s life story, and the importance of the Gold Standard in governing the wealth of nations – how gold flowed in and out of the country to pay the difference between imports and exports. The system had worked well until the first world war, Fraser wrote, but since then had become unfeasible; in any case, “the system was always bad” because the level of domestic employment depended directly on the external trade balance. “Slumps and depressions were an accepted part of the unchanging order of things.”

Into this stepped Keynes, having gained experience and a reputation in India. Lloyd George called on him to join the Treasury at the beginning of the first world war. Keynes saw that the Gold Standard was unworkable and began to lobby for its abolition and for the establishment of an international financial body. He went to Versailles as part of the team negotiating the peace. Fraser wrote that Keynes had been opposed, among others, to the Australian prime minister, Billy Hughes, who was advocating that Germany be punished for what it had done. Hughes wanted vengeance; Keynes rose above such base motives and sought a generous peace. Vengeance won out. Horrified at the terms extracted from Germany, convinced they would lead to more trouble, Keynes resigned from the Treasury and wrote his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

“Time,” wrote Fraser, “proved Keynes right,” and not only about Versailles. By the mid 1920s it was clear that the Gold Standard wasn’t working any more. “For the first time,” wrote Fraser, “practice had shown that the traditional dislike of devaluation together with the semi-religious attachment for the Gold Standard had resulted in great domestic trouble caused by the inherent incapacity of the system.”

Then came Depression. In the middle of it, Fraser wrote, Keynes published his General Theory – the book Fraser had so struggled with in his first week at Oxford. Now he wrote:

The book revolutionised economic thinking and government financial policies… [T]he cruelty of the Gold Standard… was finally exposed. The book showed how governments could control the economic activity of a country through the budget and central bank finance. For the first time economic equilibrium was regarded as something that men could achieve by skilful manipulation of these tools. The automatic fatality of the Gold Standard that guaranteed a slump about once every eleven years was gone.

As a result of Keynes’s work, Fraser concluded:

Men no longer throw up their hands in despair at inflation and depression. They set to work to do something about it, before the disease becomes painful. And this is Keynes’s great achievement. Before him we did not think there was anything we could do about it… It is for us now with hope and with reason to make full use of the knowledge Keynes left behind him. We have the technical knowledge to keep the economy on a level keel and our success depends on how skilful we become in allying the economic answers with what is politically expedient.

Fraser does not remember writing this speech, and he is sure he didn’t deliver it. He says he never made a speech of any significance until his preselection address after his return to Australia. Although he attended the Oxford Union, the famous debating society where would-be politicians cut their teeth, he never dreamt of giving a speech there himself. But he recognises the sentiments, and fifty-five years of political experience have not dimmed his enthusiasm for Keynes. Today he describes him as “by far the best economist of the last century; I also think he has been the most maligned and misunderstood economist of the last century.”

This is an enthusiasm that will surprise those who remember Fraser’s prime ministership in terms of razor gangs and cuts to government spending – the beginning of the fashion for small government. But Keynes was misunderstood, says Fraser. He was writing in the teeth of the Great Depression. Increased government spending was the appropriate prescription for the times.

“If he was writing for the sixties or seventies, he would have been writing in quite different ways,” he says. “He would have then said, ‘This is a time for a government to spend less money, and all those governments that are spending more money are causing inflation and not safeguarding their economies. They are adding to the boom.’” Fraser believes that “governments in Europe in the sixties and seventies were spending far too much money, borrowed money, and running up huge deficits. I mean, that was regarded as Keynesian economics. It wasn’t Keynesian economics. He would have opposed that absolutely.”

The Fraser government was among the first, he points out – before Reagan and before Thatcher – to suggest a different path, and to suggest that government spending could and should be reined in. This, he believes, is what Keynes would have advocated, had he been writing at the time. Yet Keynes, Fraser believes, would not have agreed with a total free-market world. The role of governments, after all, is to govern.

There is a convention among archivists that the order of papers not be disturbed more than is necessary for their preservation. The way in which a donor kept their papers might seem haphazard, but is usually idiosyncratic – revealing of connections apparent in no other way.

So it is that the archival box containing Fraser’s university notes and essays also contains the notes for the speech – the first he ever made – that obtained preselection for the seat of Wannon in the year after his return to Australia and launched his political career. The speech is of a piece with his Oxford studies. Malcolm Fraser’s adult political development began at Oxford. There, his intellect was awakened. So too his idealism. Oxford set him on his course. “There was nothing before Oxford, really,” he says. What Oxford taught him was “how to think.”

Yet though he was profoundly marked by Oxford, he himself did not leave much of a mark there. In the mid 1970s, Australian journalists made the trip to Magdalen in search of information about the new prime minister. Oxford dons struggled to remember him. Harry Woodley, the head porter at Magdalen in Fraser’s time, remembered him as “fairly reserved, not what I’d call a good mixer… He was a very pleasant chap, but I couldn’t imagine him on the hustings.” The journalists made the obvious comparison with that other well-known Oxford man, Bob Hawke, who was well remembered, as much for his partying and drinking exploits as for his academic brilliance.

Fraser was a fascinated and engaged spectator at Oxford, rather than a participant. He admired his tutors but did not develop strong personal relationships with them. He had no mentors. He was still, in many ways, locked within himself. Even as he travelled silently from lecture to lecture and tutorial to tutorial, thinking his thoughts and writing his essays, Fraser was beginning to see his shyness not as strength but as weakness – even a curse. He was ashamed of it, as one might be ashamed of a handicap. He was beginning to think of it as something that it was fitting and necessary for a man such as himself to overcome. “I was not proud of it. I thought I should try and conquer it,” he says. But to begin with he had no idea of how this might be done. Yet the draft of his undelivered speech on Keynes shows that he was already beginning to think that he had things to say, and wanted to say them.

Socially he was less inhibited. Never the life of the party, he nevertheless was part of a tight-knit group of about eight undergraduates, and together they would kick back in the comfortable lounge rooms of Magdalen and talk “about the affairs of the day, about nonsense, about your lectures.” They went drinking together at the Eastgate Hotel opposite the college, and on one occasion he drank so much at a restaurant that he had to be carried home.

One of Fraser’s best friends was a scholarship boy, Nicolas Browne-Wilkinson, who went on to become head of the Privy Council and vice-chancellor of the High Court. It was Browne-Wilkinson who, in 1999, delivered the watershed judgement concerning Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator charged with crimes against humanity – one of the most important landmarks in international law. Another Fraser friend was a brilliant law student, Colin Forbes, who mystified Fraser by committing suicide shortly after leaving university. “He had so much going for him,” says Fraser. “What drives people to that?” John Turner, future prime minister of Canada, was also part of the group, and Fraser kept in touch with him throughout both of their political careers. Another friend was Raymond Bonham Carter, son of the political activist Violet Bonham Carter, who was in turn the daughter of prime minister H.H. Asquith. Raymond Bonham Carter became a leading banker and leading figure in British public affairs, as well as the father of the actress Helena Bonham Carter.

This small group was not part of the elite at Oxford. With the exception of Bonham Carter, they were neither the richest nor the best connected, yet clearly they included some of the most able. Fraser, the boy from down under, lacked some of the social connections of his friends. He remembers Bonham Carter being surprised when he turned up, courtesy of some of his London based cousins, at one of the prestigious “coming out” parties that served as a marriage market among the English upper classes. “He didn’t mean to be offensive. He just was surprised that I had the connections to get there.”

At the end of his second year, thanks to his parents’ generosity, Fraser was able to buy his first car, a Jowett Javelin. That summer he and three of his friends took it for a trip around Europe. Money was tight, and the budget was a total of £22.10 for three weeks, including fare for the car, tickets, petrol and food. There was nothing left for accommodation, which alarmed Fraser’s English friends. He proposed that they sleep out under the stars, as people did when travelling in Australia, and so they slept in the open when it was fine, and in the car when it rained. They went for a week without a bath, and ate raw rolled oats for breakfast because they swelled in the stomach and stopped them from feeling hungry.

There was also another kind of awakening for Fraser. In his second year at Oxford, he fell in love. This is one of the things he will not talk about today. Some of the story, though, is already on the public record in Philip Ayres’s biography of Fraser. The woman was Anne Reid, an Australian he met at a party in London. Reid was an idealist, and a romantic. It was she who ended the affair with Fraser, and it apparently caused him great pain. She went on to marry the historian Geoffrey Fairbairn, who was one of the few academics who supported the Liberal government’s prosecution of the Vietnam war. As Anne Fairbairn, she advocated poetry as a “universal language” that could bind people from different cultures – particularly from Australia and the Arab world. In 1998 she was awarded an Order of Australia for services to literature and international relations.

This, then, was the social climate in which Fraser came to intellectual adulthood. He was surrounded by big intellects, big ideas and lively idealism. He was in every sense awakened.

In his last year at Oxford, he found another thinker who spoke to his hunger for activism, and his idealism. Arnold Toynbee was a fashionable historian at the time. He made headlines with his immense comparative history of the world – twelve volumes in all – in which he suggested human affairs could be analysed in terms of universal rhythms of rise, flowering and decline. “I only read the two-volume digest,” says Fraser. “That was enough.” Toynbee drew on myths and metaphors as much as hard historical fact to reject determinist ideas of history. His was a sweeping and inspiring analysis, based not on nation-states alone but on civilisations, including religious groupings. It was possible, he said, for civilisations and empires to shape their own destinies. “Civilisations die from suicide, not by murder,” Toynbee wrote. They had to grow, or they would die. It was essential to be progressive, and active.

Fraser did not read all of Toynbee’s twelve volumes – only the digest – but he was powerfully impressed. He was to return to Toynbee repeatedly in his early political speeches. Before he left Oxford he was already thinking of Toynbee’s ideas in terms of the challenges facing not only the Western world in general, but in particular his home country.

What was the challenge facing Australia? It was both familiar to him from childhood, and newly threatening. The views of A.J.P. Taylor had led Fraser to make a study of the Korean war, which had begun in his second year at Oxford. Australians were already there, in the fight. Fraser did not agree with Taylor’s analysis. It was, he noted, the United Nations, part of the new machinery of international hope, that had asked the Western nations to go to defence of the South. It was not American imperialism. The Korean war was part of a larger conflict in which two civilisations, the West and communism, were trying to determine the future of the world. The name for this conflict was on everyone’s lips. The cold war. In Oxford, people spoke mostly of the battle over Europe. At home, Fraser knew, the frontier was Southeast Asia. This was Australia’s challenge.

Meanwhile, under Labour, Britain was establishing the welfare state and nationalising industry in a country still recovering from war. Outside the beautiful walls of Magdalen College with its landmark tower and its deer park, the country looked grim. In London there were dilapidated, unpainted buildings and the people were shabbily dressed. It took most of the decade to repair bomb damage in the major cities. There were few cars on the road, and because of postwar balance of payment problems, the best British goods went for export. Many kinds of food were still rationed. On the one hand, the British working class was probably better off than ever before. Rationing at least meant that nobody went hungry. On the other hand the country was bankrupt and the drabness of government control was everywhere.

In Australia, the fear was that the countries of Southeast Asia would “go communist.” In England the question was how far the Labour government would push socialism. The difference between socialism and communism, Fraser understood, was that socialism could be established by democratic means. Communism was imposed by force. He was against both of them. Both put the state ahead of the individual. But it was communism he feared. There could be no doubt, watching events in Europe and Southeast Asia, that the Soviet Union was outward-looking and aggressive.

Yet he had learned to be optimistic, and pragmatic. “The end of the war, victory in the Pacific, carried with it the message that human beings could sort things out, could resolve their differences,” he recalls. “And America and Russia were talking, even though Russia was saying that communism must thrive and therefore the United States must fall. The United States didn’t sit back and say we won’t talk until you acknowledge our right to exist.”

Now, Fraser draws a comparison with the present day, and the refusal of the West to negotiate with its opponents. “Western policies have again made it so easy for the terrorists,” he says. “For some time the West had been urging and encouraging democratic elections, not only in Palestine but throughout the Middle East. When Hamas won the free and fair democratic election, that should have been predictable to anyone with knowledge of Palestine. It would have been possible to say to Hamas, ‘From our point of view your attitudes and policies must change, but you have won a democratic election therefore we will talk, we will negotiate.’ Little by little it may have been possible to find areas of agreement. Instead the United States and others refused to talk to Hamas and cut off aid. They forced Hamas back to the weapons that it had known from the beginning: to violence, to warfare. In the process of reneging on their own principles, the West gave the terrorists a major weapon: democracy would only be acceptable if it gave the result the West wanted.”

Always, he says, one should keep talking. This is the essence of diplomacy, and of pragmatism – of managing human affairs through reason, not ideology.

Academically, Fraser did not do particularly well at Oxford. His results slipped in his final year. Why, given his intense engagement with the ideas that underpinned the curriculum? Fraser makes no excuses. “It was my own fault, I think. I worked very hard in the first year, because I wasn’t sure that I could master anything or everything, and by the end of the second term you had to do exams which decided whether you stayed in the place or didn’t stay in the place, or if you failed you’d be given a bit of a second chance and a supplementary. Well, I got through that quite well, and in the second year I probably worked reasonably hard, and in the third year I worked less hard.”

Another problem was the verbal examination, designed to see whether a candidate should transfer to a higher degree. “I don’t think I handled that very well. I thought the questioner was asking me questions which I’d covered in the written papers, and so instead of going through it again, I said on a couple of occasions, ‘Well I thought I’d answered that adequately in the written papers,’ where clearly he was wanting more.” Fraser was still locked in himself.

Others have suggested the reasons for his ordinary result might include the pain of his relationship with Reid. Fraser’s mother, Una, remembered that there was a time when her son was homesick and talked of abandoning his course and coming home. Whatever the reason, Fraser graduated in 1952 with a third-class degree – about halfway down the field of 228 students who took their degrees that year.

More significant than his result, though, was the impact Oxford had had on him. There was no one moment in which it became clear to him that he wanted a political career. Rather, he was “caught up in the notion that it was a time for hope. A time for doing things. I was caught up in the belief that a better world should be built. That was part of what these different people and lecturers were trying to do. Harry Weldon at one point I remember in a tutorial was asked ‘what’s the line?’ He said, ‘there is no line, you’ve got to work it out for yourself. All we can do is to try and help your thought processes, try and think clearly.’ They were trying to teach people to think, because that was what was needed in this new world.”

But what could he, Fraser, do in the world if he could not speak, and engage, and persuade? Politics had always been there, because of his grandfather Simon Fraser, a Victorian MP, and because of his family’s relationship with the politically active Casey family. “Perhaps I began to think at this stage that politics might be combined with farming, which of course you can’t really do. If you want to achieve anything in politics it is all-consuming.” The one clear thought he had was that while he was happy to return to Nareen and help his father on the farm, this was not all that he wanted to do. There must be more. He must reach out. He must speak, and take his place.

He was never in any doubt about where his future lay. He had grown up. He wanted to come home. •

This is an edited extract from Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs by Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons, published by MUP.

Revised: Updated 29 July 2015 to correctly attribute the aphorism, “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains.”