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Menzies the puritan idealist

Conservative or liberal? A new book about the former prime minister rejects the old binary in favour of two other strands of thought

Ian Hancock Books 4 June 2021 1321 words

Not the twenty-first century: former prime minister Robert Menzies being installed as Warden of the Cinque Ports at a ceremony in Dover on July 1966. George Freston/Getty Images

The Forgotten Menzies: The World Picture of Australia’s Longest-Serving Prime Minister
By Stephen Chavura and Greg Melleuish | Melbourne University Press | $39.99 | 192 pages

Sir Robert Menzies is the heroic figure in Liberal Party mythology, revered for founding the party, devising its constitution, endowing it with a philosophy, formulating its policies and leading it to seven federal election victories.

Of those achievements, the last-named constitutes the sole unqualified truth. The other “truths” are so embedded in the collective memory of the believers that attempts to add nuance, let alone accuracy, are bound to be disregarded, overridden or even ridiculed. The Liberals like their history and their myths to be simple and uncluttered.

Liberals do, however, take issue with each other over one matter concerning Menzies: was “the great White Chief,” as one disciple liked to call him, a conservative or a liberal? The obvious answer — that he was one or the other at different times and in different circumstances — is of little solace to those who want to prove they are the true interpreters and successors of the party’s Messiah.

Those factional warriors might at first be bothered by this recently published book. After all, it is rarely pleasant to be told, albeit by implication, that you have missed the point. In The Forgotten Menzies Stephen Chavura and Greg Melleuish show that the “real” Menzies was a creation and a personification of a late-nineteenth-century world of “Greater Britain” that was very shaky by the 1930s and finally swept away during the 1960s. They demonstrate that twenty-first-century understandings of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” cannot, therefore, be usefully applied to Menzies’s thinking. He would have found the terms and definitions “puzzling.”

Menzies was not, as the authors emphasise, a profound philosophical thinker. His thoughts “tended to be discursive and superficial.” Nor was he primarily interested in advocating principles of liberalism. “He sought the reality of freedom, not the pursuit of a theoretical liberty.” He wanted “to govern in an effective fashion for the benefit of all Australians so that they could peacefully and freely pursue their goals.” He did not have a coherent philosophy behind this objective so much as a set of governing principles.

These principles were shaped by two long-gone nineteenth-century influences: “cultural puritanism” and “British idealism.” Menzies, the authors suggest, “may most helpfully be described as a cultural puritan who was also touched by British idealism — itself strongly informed by cultural puritanism.”

The authors describe “cultural puritanism” as “an outgrowth of the powerful connection between Protestantism and political liberty in British culture.” In essence, the cultural puritan was self-reliant, with a sturdy spirit of independence and humanitarian instincts, industrious, honest and honourable, a law-abiding Britisher who accepted responsibilities to the community.

The second influence, “British idealism,” was at its core “a faith that a new, better and more spiritual world was coming into being, a world that would reveal what was best in human nature.” Menzies encountered this faith at a time when its adherents — in Britain and Australia — were criticising the elevation of utilitarianism and materialism. According to the authors, Menzies always looked beyond the material benefits achieved by advances in science and technology to the gains made in the moral, spiritual and intellectual condition.

The chapters spent elaborating, defining and illustrating these influences require some of the puritan’s sturdiness. Imagine, for example, being a delegate to a meeting of the party’s NSW state council who has sat through the customarily tedious exchanges over proposed rule changes and a debate over yet another doomed reform package. How would you respond when a bright-eyed Young Liberal urged a rethink of the past and a new understanding of the Founder and quoted this paragraph from The Forgotten Menzies to describe his intellectual inheritance?

Cultural puritanism was characterised by a moral self-confidence borne along by the powerful cultural impact of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century evangelicalism and the buoying effect of the spread of the British Empire. It may be understood as a subspecies of cultural Protestantism, the latter emphasising anti-Catholicism and Enlightenment, not to mention individualism. Cultural puritanism’s ethic was a disciplined, world-embracing sense of duty to improve society, but not at the cost of self-reliance and striving, ungirded by a vague Protestantism without the enthusiasm characterising evangelicalism.

A delegate listening to that passage could restore self-confidence by reckoning that Menzies would also have found it “puzzling.” After all, he spoke and wrote in a language and manner that mere mortals could comprehend.

Fortunately, The Forgotten Menzies moves on from statements and restatements of generalities, and from darting between quotes taken from the good and the interesting, to show Menzies’s governing principles at work in his wartime radio broadcasts and on the subject of tertiary education, which was so dear to him. Chavura and Melleuish tell us much that is new about well-known material: for example, that we should look upon Menzies’s “Forgotten People” broadcast as “the greatest expression of his heroic attempt to revive cultural puritanism in a rapidly changing Australia.”

For all its many achievements, though, The Forgotten Menzies is loaded with curiosities, circular reasoning, and unfinished and unfurnished arguments, perhaps the result of meeting a deadline or a publisher’s word limit.

Some oddities are trivial. The authors include some of their own writings in the bibliography, as well as A.W. Martin’s biography of Sir Henry Parkes, but omit Martin’s two-volume biography of Menzies.

Some oddities are important. Chavura and Melleuish identify many pivotal moments without always providing argument and evidence to justify them. The Munich agreement of 1938 has been interpreted in many ways, but it was a surprise to learn that, in retrospect, “the fate of the empire can be seen to have been sealed at Munich in 1938 when the British made a massive miscalculation in not opposing Germany because of fear of the Soviet Union.” The next two sentences read: “The war exhausted Britain. The Britain of the 1930s that Menzies idealised was no more.” It all sounds impressive, except for the huge gap between the apparent cause and the provable consequence.

The throwaway depiction of Jan Christian Smuts of South Africa as a “racist” would have been reasonable if the authors had explained their understanding of the term — and its limitations here in view of what followed after Smuts lost the prime ministership in 1948. Branding individuals in this way may be expected, rather, of those whom the authors think abused the education they received after its expansion following Menzies’s retirement in 1966.

An older generation of Liberals, perplexed or angered by minorities shouting their demands for recognition and wholesale surrender, would agree with Menzies that “duties, not rights… generated proper moral order.” They would remain unaware that it was one of Menzies’s “boys,” Sir John Crawford, who after his retirement from the public service became vice-chancellor of the ANU, where he encouraged the students when they demanded a voice and a vote in university governance. Their successors, after Crawford’s time, built on their gains by seeking to determine who shall and shall not be heard within the university environment.

Overall, Chavura and Melleuish allow the true believers to retain the truths they have always accepted while probably reinforcing the dogmatism of those who regard Menzies as more of a conservative than a liberal — thus adding strength to the Labor view of him as a fossil. Yet there is something sad and embarrassing about elements of the Liberal Party’s broad church looking for sanction from a man who fought valiantly for values derived from the great days of the British Empire, which were already being overtaken by fresh events and new ideas.

Chavura and Melleuish offer a way out: just accept that the early twenty-first century cannot reproduce the late nineteenth century.

The pity is that this book is perhaps too cerebral for a party whose members, for the most part, believe it exists solely to fight and win the next election, and whose current federal leader is both the perfect embodiment and appropriate champion of that goal. •

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