Books

Stephen A. Chavura and Greg Melleuish
The Forgotten Menzies

What would Bob Menzies make of Scott Morrison? An impossible question, of course, but one raised by Stephen A. Chavura and Greg Melleuish’s new book about the political philosophy of Australia’s longest-serving prime minister.

Chavura and Melleuish reject attempts by the various factions of today’s Liberal Party to claim Menzies as a precursor. “The kind of liberalism and conservatism that Menzies embodied,” the authors say, “was one that will not be found in modern textbooks of political philosophy.” They dub him a “cultural puritan”, part of a long Anglophile tradition centred on Protestant values such as independence, duty, freedom and self-reliance.

Their book constitutes a kind of cultural archaeology, an attempt to excavate a mode of thinking once widespread in Australia and the British Empire but now buried under modern preconceptions and prejudices.

Menzies, they tell us, identified the English as “the epitome of a civilised way of life”, their virtues centred more on habit and custom than ideas and philosophies. “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, undergirded by a vague Protestantism without the enthusiasm characterising evangelicalism.”

Unlike modern neoliberals, Menzies was not an individualist. He nevertheless cared deeply about individuality, which he associated with “independence of spirit” and a “brave acceptance of unclouded individual responsibility”. He put politics above economics; he valued education and treasured in particular the liberal arts; he thought that, though “the world might be harsh … good men of an enlightened disposition could work together to overcome some of that harshness”.

The obvious sympathy Chavura and Melleuish have for their subject means they don’t allocate space for the darker aspects of the Menzies world view. White Australia might have been associated as much with Labor as its opponents, but a cultural puritanism centred on loyalty to Empire seems inextricably linked to racialism, particularly in a colonial context. Similarly, the importance of traditional English domesticity in Menzies’ thought mandated – almost by definition – the exclusion of women from public life.

As Chavura and Melleuish note, cultural puritanism was dying during Menzies’ lifetime. They might usefully have spent more time on Menzies’ role in its decline, given the irony of Australia’s most Anglophile prime minister presiding over the nation’s Cold War integration into an empire led by the United States.

They describe the idealised Britain of cultural puritanism as akin to the village inhabited by J. R.R Tolkien’s hobbits, a comparison that brings to mind Paul Keating’s sneer at the “Menzian torpor”.

Still, if you want to appreciate the distance from Menzies’ Hobbiton to Scott Morrison’s Shire, this intelligent history isn’t a bad place to start.

Jeff Sparrow

Melbourne University Press, 192pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 22, 2021 as "The Forgotten Menzies, Stephen A. Chavura and Greg Melleuish".

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Reviewer: Jeff Sparrow