Ming was the real thing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS -

WHAT­EVER you think of Robert Men­zies, he is one of the tow­er­ing fig­ures of Aus­tralian pol­i­tics. In Men­zies at War Anne Hen­der­son has writ­ten a com­pelling ac­count of the first prime min­is­ter­ship of the fu­ture founder of the Lib­eral Party, who be­tween April 26, 1939, and Au­gust 29, 1941, led Aus­tralia dur­ing the trou­ble­some be­gin­nings of World War II. Al­though some­times repet­i­tive, this well-re­searched and finely il­lus­trated book fol­lows on from Hen­der­son’s pre­vi­ous work about Aus­tralia in the 1930s. In par­tic­u­lar, she has il­lu­mi­nated our un­der­stand­ing of the prime min­is­ter­ship of so­called La­bor rat Joseph Lyons.

In a sense his­to­ri­ans and au­thors should be thank­ful some of our prime min­is­ters were colourful enough to make them good copy. Men­zies’ story is well worth know­ing, and retelling.

Born in the north­west­ern Vic­to­rian town of Jeparit on De­cem­ber 20, 1894, and ini­tially ed­u­cated at the lo­cal one-teacher govern­ment school, Men­zies hailed from dili­gent Methodis­tPres­by­te­rian stock. This gave him a com­bi­na­tion of sto­icism and am­bi­tion that stood him in good stead dur­ing his time at Mel­bourne’s Wes­ley Col­lege and later study­ing law at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne. It also helped over­come what proved to be some­times dif­fi­cult po­lit­i­cal times that ini­tially lay ahead. This first ap­plied to his ten­ure in Vic­to­rian par­lia­ment and then in April 1939 af­ter the death of the Tas­ma­ni­an­based Lyons as federal leader of the con­ser­va­tive United Aus­tralia Party and, hence, as prime min­is­ter.

What is par­tic­u­larly il­lu­mi­nat­ing about Men­zies at War is how, dur­ing his first term of of­fice, he was white-an­ted by mem­bers of the UAP and the Coun­try Party. This es­pe­cially ap­plied dur­ing Men­zies’ long ab­sences over­seas where he tried to in­flu­ence Win­ston Churchill, who had taken over as leader of Bri­tain’s na­tional govern­ment on May 10, 1940.

Con­trary to the pre­vail­ing im­age of Men­zies be­ing more at home in Eng­land than in the An­tipodes and more loyal to Eng­land than to us, Hen­der­son makes it clear that he at­tempted to take on Churchill on be­half of the Do­min­ions, and that in par­tic­u­lar he cham­pi­oned the strate­gic needs of Aus­tralia in the Pa­cific.

Partly be­cause Men­zies had not yet gained the abil­ity to fi­nesse other politi­cians — even from his own group­ings — and to lis­ten to their opin­ions and their needs, dur­ing 1940 and es­pe­cially the early months of 1941, he had a great many en­e­mies in federal par­lia­ment. And a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of his op­po­nents at the time did not sit on the op­po­si­tion benches.

In­deed, af­ter his res­ig­na­tion as prime min­is­ter in Au­gust 1941 there seemed gen­eral agree­ment in con­ser­va­tive ranks that Men­zies was a spent force and that, as that age­ing po­lit­i­cal war­rior Billy Hughes put it, he “couldn’t lead a flock of hom­ing pi­geons”. Hence the pop­u­lar slo­gan “You’ll never win with Men­zies!”

In the dark days of 1941, no one would have imag­ined that by the end of 1949 Men­zies would again be prime min­is­ter and would hold power for a record term of 16 years be­fore re­sign­ing at a time of his own choos­ing on Aus­tralia Day in 1966. It is a tes­ta­ment to Hen­der­son’s schol­ar­ship that her in­sights into Men­zies’ ill-fated 1939-41 govern­ment at the same time il­lu­mi­nates his sub­se­quent abil­ity to change and to ma­ture, and to be­come an al­most po­lit­i­cally in­vin­ci­ble par­lia­men­tary leader who rev­elled in the ap­pel­la­tion Ming the Mighty.

Yet de­spite all that, for many on the Left Men­zies re­mains, as Hen­der­son puts it, some­one who was “never quite Aus­tralian” and who rep­re­sented “an An­glo de­pen­dence on all things Bri­tish”. This stereo­type gave rise to “a jaun­diced ac­count of Men­zies’s time in Lon­don in 1941 as that of an am­bi­tious do­min­ion leader look­ing to score a plumb Bri­tish ap­point­ment, even the (Bri­tish) prime min­is­ter­ship it­self”.

Af­ter read­ing Men­zies at War and es­pe­cially fo­cus­ing on Hen­der­son’s re­veal­ing chap­ters on the de­tailed in­ter­play and in­ter­ac­tion be­tween Churchill and Men­zies, the ab­sur­dity of these propo­si­tions is made clear. In­deed, in­stead of rolling over and kow­tow­ing to the great Bri­tish Bull­dog, the book re­veals Men­zies’ writ­ten and ver­bal an­noy­ance at Churchill’s dom­i­nance of the war cab­i­net and his seem­ing in­abil­ity to think out­side his naval and mil­i­tary con­cerns in Europe. Hen­der­son also makes clear the dam­age to Men­zies’ po­si­tion back home in Aus­tralia be­cause of his long ab­sences over­seas. This is some­thing Men­zies would not re­peat in his hal­cyon years as prime min­is­ter af­ter De­cem­ber 1949.

As well as de­tail­ing Men­zies’ in­creas­ingly frayed re­la­tions with Churchill, Men­zies at War in­ves­ti­gates the time Men­zies spent in Ire­land, which, like Por­tu­gal, was neu­tral dur­ing the hos­til­i­ties. It is use­ful to re­mem­ber that in 1941 Bri­tain did not recog­nise Eire as a sov­er­eign state. In fact, as Hen­der­son ex­plains, its neu­tral­ity was “re­garded as re­pu­di­at­ing the 1922 An­glo-Ir­ish Treaty — and by Churchill him­self as an il­le­gal act”. But this did not stop Men­zies ques­tion­ing Bri­tain’s at­ti­tude to Ire­land.

It is tes­ti­mony to the power of Hen­der­son’s book that, af­ter care­fully read­ing it, it is dif­fi­cult not to agree that dur­ing war­time Men­zies came to Eng­land not to save the em­pire but, as she puts it, “to save Sin­ga­pore and thus Aus­tralia’’.

Win­ston Churchill with Robert Men­zies in 1955

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