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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Robert Menzies « Previous | |Next »
July 4, 2004

I'm reading Robert Menzies Forgotten People Essays at the moment. These were radio broadcasts made by Menzies in early 1942 just after the fall of Singapore.

I'm reading Menzies to understand how John Howard has taken an inherited political language developed for a bounded industrialized nation state, and then adapted it to the political present of Australia in globalized world.

Howard's political rhetoric adds social conservatism to the economic liberalism and the dry economic language of competitive, market-based liberalism. He connects this social conservatism to the experiences of the battlers----families and small businesses: to their lived experiences around work, family and neighbourhoods. This mainstream Australia was then enveloped in a taken-for-granted assimilationist nationalism. Hey presto, we can start talking about the nation as a common Australian culture again. The battler package became a political touchstone.

Howard's battlers move is similar to Menzies' forgotten people move 50 years earlier. That move adapted an inherited political language to the new circumstances of industrial Australia. In the Forgotten People speech Menzies says:

"In a country like Australia the class war must always be a false war. But if we are to talk of classes, then the time has come to say something of the forgotten class - the middle class - those people who are constantly in danger of being ground between the upper and the nether millstones of the false class war; the middle class who, properly regarded, represent the backbone of this country. We do not have classes here as in England, and therefore the terms do not mean the same; so I must define what I mean when I use the expression 'middle class’."

The middle class for Menzies lies between the rich and powerful and the unskilled labouring mass. This class consists in:

"....the intervening range - the kind of people I myself represent in Parliament - salary earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers, and so on. These are, in the political and economic sense, the middle class. They are for the most part unorganized and unselfconscious. They are envied by those whose social benefits are largely obtained by taxing them. They are not rich enough to have individual power. They are taken for granted by each political party in turn. They are not sufficiently lacking in individualism to be organized for what in these days we call "pressure politics". And yet, as I have said, they are the backbone of the nation."

This non-manual class becomes the forgotten people who are the backbone of the nation. The forgotten people constitute a moral community; they see themselves as the individual bearers of moral qualities or virtues; and they have their own homes in the suburbs. Menzies says that the value of this middle class is multiple. The first is that:

" has a stake in the country". It has responsibility for homes - homes material, homes human, homes spiritual...The material home represents the concrete expression of the habits of frugality and saving "for a home of our own" human is where my wife and children spiritual....combines dependence upon God with independence of man."

The value of the middle class also included other moral virtues:

"Second, the middle class, more than any other, provides the intelligent ambition which is the motive power of human progress...Third, the middle class provides more than perhaps any other the intellectual life which marks us off from the beast: the life which finds room for literature, for the arts, for science, for medicine and the law....Fourth, this middle class maintains and fills the higher schools and universities, and so feeds the lamp of learning."

Hence we have the moral middle class as a people with virtuous character who were deeply concerned with what is good for the nation.Personal virtue and national strength were linked to give an account of how people could live together and cooperate for their shared endeavours of nation-building.

What Howard was able to rework this understanding of the virtuous middle class and the nation. He drops all Menzies talk about service and obligations re citizenship and links what is left to the nation's history read through the prism of the Anzac legend.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:36 PM | | Comments (9) | TrackBacks (3)

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Thanks Glenn.

I'll read them and connect their insights with future posts on Menzies.

I reckon that Howard has betrayed the Menzies heritage. Especially the stuff that connects the middle class to the intellectual life of the nation and the midle class feeding the lamp of learning.

He has trashed that.He also reduces all Menzies rhetoric about citzenship and active civic involvment to that of the volunteer working together in adversity.

Some good points. I reread Menzies after reference to it in Webdiary and was surprised how well it stands up over time.

It is pitched at the middle class, but it is genuine liberalism with a small 'l'. And the talks do stress the two-way obligations to society.

While Howard skilfully invokes the Menzies icon (as he does the ANZAC one), his real model is Thatcher. It's a sort of puritan conservative social attitude combined with neoclassical economics.

But as with Thatcher, even that neoclassicism has to bend to the imperatives of favours to powerful interests.

I wonder what Menzies would have thought of the politisization of the publ;ic service eg Kelty etc. and the political use of the military eg Cosgrove.

yes there is a strong current of social liberalism running through Menzies.

It is what has been trashed by the Howard Liberals. Social liberalism is the enemy for the free marketeers within the Liberal Party.

Yet Menzies says in 'The Task of Democracy' that the first purpose of democractic government is the good of man. By this he means when we help and encourage him to be "strong, self-reliant,independent sympathetic and generous."

The language is old-fashioned--'man' and 'him'-- but the development of the fullest capacity of human beings is a long way from the number crunching utilitarians of today who talk about the end of government as increasing the standard of living.

Menzies talks in terms of both welfare and growth.

Gary, my closest friend, who is perhaps less forgiving than I am, would be stunned at this, but I have softened towards Ming over the years.

This is a big concession, having grown up on the impotence of Labor in the 50s and 60s when all we could do was hate Menzies.

But even a thing our parents and grandparents used to love rubbing in about Menzies, that he avoided serving in World War I, had a logical explanation.

A brother had already signed up, and the family didn't want to risk losing both sons. The family seems to have had a strong concept of service to the community, possible Calvinist or Scottish in origin.

If only Howard had something remotely like Menzies' values (ignoring his foreign policy and Anglophilia flaws) we would have a better future.

Howard's an American wolf in English sheep's clothing.

He has appropriated the Ming/Old Dart legacy but uses it's associations with fair play (cricket esp) and decency to obscure his real, far more US-influenced agenda... one that is contemptuous of 'the done thing', 'good form', 'noblesse oblige', honesty, good faith, honour for it's own sake, country before party... the sort of stuff that Menzies could never have considered 'non-core.'

Robert Bosler neatly makes the point that Menzies' appeal to individual freedom had a resonance in the grey postwar years that has disappeared today, rendering the whole Liberal raison d'etre open to question. If their philosophy is unchanged, it means advocacy of the further fracturing of an already atomised society by virtue of even more individual 'freedom' to opt out of social obligations (via tax in particular), when the problems that loom over us require collective action to address, let alone solve.

Menzies was a fairly typical product of his times and some of his legacy is as unlovely as you'd expect. Will bloggers in 50 years be cutting JH the same sort of slack; will there be anything in his legacy to inspire a similar re-casting of judgement?

I think not.

As Glenn points there is some unlovely stuff in Menzies. But if you read his democracy essays you can why you would soften to him. He is speaking in a way that the ALP has forgotten.

In The Nature of Democracy" Menzies says that he will spend some examining "democracy - its true nature, its past faults, its vital significance and function in the rebuilding of the world after the war. It will be my theme that we have misunderstood, ignored and occasionally despised democracy, and that if in the new political generation we practise democracy as badly as we did in the past, either democracy will disappear or the rebuilt world will be foundationless and will fall."

When did you last hear the ALP talk like that about democracy?

He then says:

"In my own opinion, our most grievous error has been that we have thought too much of democracy in mechanical terms - as a system of government - and too little of it as a spirit, a moving force; not a mere vehicle for the expression of the human mind alone, but a challenge to the human spirit."

The language is quaint but the sentiments are not. He adds:

"No, democracy is more than a piece of equipment. The fact that, for a score of years we have - the privilege of self-government attained - delegated its exercise to a relatively few patriotic and earnest, or ambitious and noisy, people, asking for ourselves only that we shall be left alone to our money-making or our pleasures, is the best proof that we have attached no value to a system the essence of which we have not tried to understand."

You could say that today it is accepted by the ALP that we should get on with our money-making or our pleasures and no worry about us not attaching value to our democratic system. After all, democracy is only a machine for deliving votes and gaining power. It has nothing to do with human spirit.

Gary, Im sorry to have to say that I agree with your description of the current ALP.

And while it's easy to blame it on the factional powerbrokers and the careerists. (I've never been so disappointed as in that leftwing whinge to the media about aboriginal affairs lacking career opportunities etc and why can't the Right take it on?)

All of us as individuals must also share some responsibility for this sorry state.

I think back to the 50s and early 60s. Labor might've had passion on some things then, but the people controlling the machines were just as selfish and insular as now. Joe Chamberlain and the Victorian Left were enormous deadweights.

Yet, you look at the way Dunstan and Whitlam worked away against the odds to abandon White Australia, recognize aboriginal rights and various other human rights issues...

Their obstacles (frequently recommended for expulsion, etc) were probably as great as believers face today. We need some people with the passion and perserverance to take the party on.

Perhaps it hasn't changed all that much since Swift's time. No matter how good or bad our institutions, virtue really comes from within.