Menzies and the Middle Class

1 October 1992
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It is the fashion among today’s ‘clever’ people to pour scorn on those who influenced or controlled Australia’s destinies in the past. These earlier leaders were apparently misguided nincompoops who must be held largely responsible for the deplorable situation in which Australia now finds itself. Although a rather too critical book, Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People avoids this absurdity.

For nearly two decades after the War, Menzies dominated the Australian political stage like no other politician before or since. He was respected, even feared, not only by his opponents but also by many in his own party. His exceptional talents were conceded by all. Under his leadership Australia prospered, the economy grew rapidly, living standards rose year by year, unemployment was almost nonexistent and inflation minimal. There has been no other period in this century where Australia’s economic performance even remotely rivals that of the Menzies era. Perhaps he was lucky in that the economic winds were generally blowing strongly in his favour. But whether or not this is so, he provided the country with a sense of stability and a background of solid continuity which have been missing in the years since his retirement. Whether one liked or disliked him, agreed or fundamentally disagreed with him, most Australians felt that nothing could go too seriously wrong while he was at the helm. With others there was an element of risk; with him the risks were minimized; it was wise therefore to play safe. There can be no doubt that in the main he inspired confidence both in his own country and overseas. This was no small matter.

Yet with all this unparalleled record of achievement, Sir Robert remains something of an enigma, a difficult but fascinating study for biographers and political scientists.

The latest work is Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People – an extensive character analysis rather than a biography. It is a bold attempt at throwing new light on the forces that drove Menzies and on the contradictory and often puzzling elements in the make-up of his character. In order to do so she resorts to Freudian psychoanalysis.

I find this part of the book most unconvincing. Here I am influenced by the fact that I knew Menzies personally.[i] Judith Brett attributes much of Menzies’ overriding ambition to a reaction to the dominance and authority exerted by his father within the family. Put simply, the son was determined to show that he was a bigger and better man than his parent. Even the prime ministership of Australia was not in his eyes sufficient for this purpose. He looked further afield to prove himself, even to achieving supremacy among the great of England. Brett suggests he wanted a place in the British War Cabinet – which is perfectly understandable – not just for itself but so that he could intrigue against Churchill and ultimately displace him as the British Prime Minister and leader of the Empire.

All this was early in 1941: not long after the Battle of Britain, not long after his tremendous wartime speeches, when Churchill must have been on a pinnacle with the British people. Churchill, of course, had, too, a vast experience of war. Menzies had none and was, by common consent of his peers, not so much a man of action as one with an extraordinary skill in the use of words. In war, the ability to act decisively and comprehensively is vital. But Menzies, like Asquith in World War I, was the cool, logical advocate rather than the man of action. One had the impression that he had not mastered the particular mystique of getting things done and done quickly. This part of Judith Brett’s book, which is the most original part, based on a piece of speculative psychoanalysis, has, I believe, little foundation in fact.

Dichotomy in his Character

Having said that, I think Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People is in many ways an admirable book and a credit to the industry and scholarship of its author. She writes with insight and penetration on many aspects of Menzies’ character. Judith Brett is right to attribute great importance to his famous radio talk in 1942, The Forgotten People, the forgotten people being the middle class. Menzies himself was middle- class to the bootstraps. He had all the virtues – although in a magnified form – and all the defects – also in a magnified form – of that class. He had the ambition, the work ethic, the basic honesty, the proud independence, the sense of service, the respect for moral values, the responsibility and essential decency of its better representatives – at least in the Menzies era. But also, strangely for a man of his transcendent talents and superb intelligence, he had the defects of the middle class – the insularity, narrowness, complacency, sell-satisfaction, intolerance, suspicion of the unusual, lack of imagination. In his public life Menzies exhibited these weaknesses in a most exaggerated form. It is this dichotomy in his character – high intelligence, peerless talents, unswerving honesty on the one side, the petty, unattractive smallnesses and narrowness on the other – that makes him such a difficult person to understand.

He had all the virtues – although in a magnified form – and all the defects – also in a magnified form – of the middle class

Menzies had little interest in the world beyond that of the English-speaking peoples. Unlike Casey, he displayed no curiosity about the Asian countries. Judith Brett relates that when he visited India in 1959 he did not, according to the Australian High Commissioner, Sir Walter Crocker, “ask a single question about India … He wanted to see none of the sights and he had no curiosity about and no interest in India or Indians.” When one thinks about it, this is nothing short of astounding. Nor, says Brett, did his curiosity even extend to Europe. Even more astounding! The Australian middle class of that period was certainly cocooned in its own little world, but not quite so much as Menzies appeared to be. He certainly seems a bad ‘choice’ to carry out negotiations over the Suez Canal with Nasser. Brett writes:· “Casey’s attempts to advise Menzies on the way the Egyptians felt were of no avail.” There were other questionable essays into the wider world – for instance, his performance at the United Nations in 1961, his attitude to Britain’s joining the European Community.

There were other not negligible shortcomings besides his insularity. Judith Brett writes of his “vindictive wit.” I doubt whether “vindictive” is a fair description of his remarkable but rather cruel talent, which he could not resist using, for making fun at other people’s expense. It was one of his most unattractive traits. Few people escaped the sharp edge of his merciless tongue.   He did not seem to realize how much pain it inflicted on others. He could be generous – sometimes over-generous – in his praise of people to their face. But the fact that he made slighting references to the intelligence and idiosyncrasies of so many people, made you wonder what he would say about you when you were not in his presence. Those who make a practice of constantly denigrating others do so because they feel inferior: they raise themselves, in their own estimation, by lowering others. It is a not uncommon practice but those who indulge in it mark themselves down as little men (or women). But Menzies was anything but “a little man.” He was a human being far above the common run. He had no need to resort to the ridicule and the denigration of his peers.

Associated with this was his well known aversion to having people with brains too close to him: he wanted to shine alone. This was a major weakness but not an altogether unexpected one in a man ‘who had fought his way to the peak from small beginnings. He had a reputation – apparently not undeserved – for being rut bless in dealing with possible political rivals – Casey and Bruce for instance – “Ming the Merciless.”

Menzies was probably a little oversuspicious of others, their intentions and ambitions insofar as they might affect himself. I have a clear recollection of an amusing incident during the convention he called at Canberra in 1944 to launch the new Liberal Party. The IPA was invited to send delegates, but by that time we had decided that if we were to have a future it should be non-political and the invitation was declined. The Council of the Institute, however, agreed to send observers, and the Secretary, Captain A.C. Leech, and myself were dispatched to Canberra to act in this capacity. Menzies did not particularly like this because he felt that as mere observers, we would not be able to commit the powerful people behind the Institute to support the courses of action which he might wish to promote. Moreover, our role as observers was no doubt to report back to our masters in Melbourne on the personal performance of the convenor, Menzies himself. At dinner one evening in the Hotel Canberra, Menzies entered the dining room and espied Leech and myself already seated not far from the door. He moved in our direction, then suddenly dodged behind one of the pillars (which were a feature of the hotel dining room) and poked his head out, the rest of his body being concealed. With his hand cupped to his mouth, and in a mock whisper he said, “Seen anything suspicious, boys?” We collapsed in laughter. We knew what was in his mind. In fact, his performance throughout the convention was masterly, and we said so in our subsequent report on the proceedings.

The 1949 election was a climacteric in Menzies’ career: it brought him the Prime Ministership which he retained for the unprecedented period of 17 years. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising that the book he wrote after his retirement devotes less than a page to this crucial event. Menzies attributes the Liberal triumph to the people’s rejection of the Socialist State. This may be true enough as far as it goes: but the key issue of the election was almost certainly the threatened nationalization of the banking system, which Menzies mentions only in an almost off-handed fashion. There can be no doubt that the shrewd campaign against bank nationalization, organized and led not by a politician but by the Chief Manager of the National Bank, Leslie McConnan, contributed to a major extent to the overthrow of the Labor Government in December 1949. [ii]  In his book Menzies fails to mention this important, indeed, critical, fact and the name of McConnan finds no place in the index to Afternoon Light. It is a strange and, one might say, an ungenerous omission.

Afternoon Light has some purple passages but, considered as a whole, is, I think, somewhat disappointing. One would have expected something more weighty and instructive from a man who had been at the helm of his country in affairs for so many years. It smacks too much of an essay in self-justification. Moreover, it is rather uneven and ill-proportioned. The final chapter is on cricket (late in life Menzies still retained an almost school-boyish hero-worship for the great figures of the game). He too frequently writes in the same mannered and self-conscious idiom which one had come to expect from him in his speeches, but which seems inappropriate in written prose. With his transcendent talents he could, one feels, have done a great deal better. Nevertheless Afternoon Light makes interesting reading, and has its high moments. It contains, for instance, a beautiful and moving chapter on his parents.

A Decent Man, An Honest Government

Most of those who knew him must have been aware of the flaws in Menzies’ make-up. But then, all men of size have their shortcomings and, in Menzies’ case, one would have to say they were far outweighed by his virtues. Judith Brett’s book fails to give sufficient emphasis to his manifest qualities. Essentially a decent man himself, he gave decent and honest government. One wonders what he would have thought of today’s politicians with their lavish retirement benefits largely financed by the taxpayer. When he retired from politics he had little, apparently not enough to purchase a home in Melbourne. But then Menzies was contemptuous of the purely materialist values and scornful of those who were driven by them. He had no great regard for businessmen as a species (neither, for that matter, did Casey). One thing is certain – the disasters and excesses of the 1980s, from which Australia is now suffering grievously, could simply not have happened if he had been at the helm. This is worth more than a moment’s reflection. There is no doubt that the ruling passion of his life was his desire to serve and lead his country (although it is true that he believed he was much better fitted to do this than anyone else).

The disasters and excesses of the 1980s, from which Australia is now suffering grievously, could simply not have happened if he had been at the helm

To gain a just appreciation of his stature one has only to consider most of those who have succeeded him in the prime ministerial office. He appears a giant among pygmies. He brought to public life a balance and a style and dignity that were conspicuously lacking in the Hawke years, and his behaviour after retirement makes a vivid contrast with that of Hawke, which has demeaned the great office which he (Hawke) held.

One of Menzies’ most revealing speeches was given at a private dinner in his honour in 1954 at the Athenaeum Club arranged by the Institute of Public Affairs and attended by some 150 of Melbourne’s business leaders. This speech, more than any other I have seen, expounds Menzies’ philosophy of politics. The concluding words are worth recording:

If it [politics] is all expediency, if it’s all what will win votes next week or next month, you don’t need me. There are much better phonograph records than myself. All you need is a few humble obedient time-servers and if those are what you want you’ll get them … But, you know, if politics were only a matter of occupying a job, how many of us would be in it? Did anybody suppose that a man like myself who loves the law, and the practice of the law, and the whole philosophy of the law, would go into this turbulent stream for a job? A job! Of course not! And what I ask you to realize is that people like myself – and I’m not the only one – go into this life because they have beliefs, because they have a faith, because they believe that there is something that matters for their country.

[i] I have always been puzzled as to how biographers can paint a perfectly accurate picture of their subjects without personal knowledge. Of course, I am not suggesting that this should be a necessary qualification for the biographer; otherwise probably few biographies would be written.

[ii] See C.D. Kemp, ‘Sir Leslie McConnan and the Battle for the Banks’, IPA Review, Vol. 45 No. I, 1992, p.57.

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