On 29 March 1963 in Edinburgh, reported the London Gazette, ‘The Queen has been graciously pleased to appoint The Right Honourable Robert Gordon Menzies, P.C., C.H., Q.C., to be a Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle.’ The Order of the Thistle, an order of chivalry that was founded in 1687 by King James VII of Scotland, is the oldest order of chivalry in Britain, and second only to England’s Order of the Garter in precedence. Menzies is the only Australian ever appointed to this order, and the second of only two Australian prime ministers to be knighted during their term of office. In September 1963, the Canberra Times reported that ‘Scotsmen in Perth are dancing a new reel now—the Sir Robert Menzies Scottish Thistle … Sir Robert said he was most honoured that the dance had been named after him.’
So, after all this tartan-clad pomp and ceremony, what did Scotland represent for Menzies the man and Menzies the politician, and what, more broadly, do Australian Liberals owe to Scottish liberalism? Although the answers to these questions may provide some novel insights, they cannot exhaustively account for such a vast and contentious legacy. Instead, they are offered as a provocation to continue to think more carefully and more seriously about Menzies and his Liberals.
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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the name Theodore Napier would have been familiar to newspaper readers across Australia and Britain. Napier was a fervent Scottish nationalist and neo-Jacobite agitator. He would refuse to stand to toast the queen and, taking a dislike to Edward VII’s title, threatened to dispute it by challenging the king’s champion (who did not exist) to mortal combat at Edward’s coronation. Less dramatically, Napier would regularly and publicly rebuke organisations and individuals who used ‘England’ when they meant Britain, or ‘Britain’ when the subject was more properly Scotland. Historians such as Malcolm Prentis and I have kept Napier’s Jacobite flame burning, to an extent, and regularly find ourselves straining to highlight the Scots in Australian history. Prentis provocatively argues that
Australian history has not been written by the winners, but by the disappointed. This might help to explain Australian historians’ traditional preoccupation with the Irish, bush workers, unionists and Laborites; their more recent preoccupation with disadvantaged minority groups and their corresponding blind spot about a stereotypically successful group like the Scots.
In politics, Scots and Scottish Australians have been overrepresented in Australian governments since 1788 and have been peppered across both sides of politics. The Irish Catholic strand of Australian labour history has overshadowed the contribution of Scots to workers’ parties and movements from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. By the 1880s Scotland was in the vanguard of British socialism, and Scottish migrants brought their proclivities to the early Australian unions and labour parties; about a third of the Labour Party members in Australia’s first parliament were from Scotland. Stuart Macintyre has remarked that, later in the twentieth century, it was a ‘well-kept secret that Australian communism was a Caledonian conspiracy’. Trade unionism in Australia is still replete with Scottish accents.
Overall, however, Scottish Australians have achieved more prominence in the non-Labor parties—or what historians have come simply to call the Liberal side of politics, despite its historic discontinuities and ideological diversity—especially in Victorian and federal politics. Liberalism was the ascendant political vision in nineteenth-century Scotland, and the Scottish Liberal Party dominated from the 1830s until the First World War. The liberal movement in Scotland was responsible for significant reforms to suffrage and land laws that aimed to unseat the corrupt and unrepresentative ancien régime. Free trade was a matter of intense loyalty—Adam Smith, of course, was Scottish, but Scottish merchants had broken the monopoly of the East India Company, and later in the nineteenth century Scots enthusiastically demanded the abolition of the Corn Laws.
More broadly, the pursuit of non-protectionist policies was understood to be in the economic interests of the nation. Scotland’s economy was heavily embedded in imperial and global networks, and restrictions on international trade would be damaging to key Scottish industries such as shipbuilding and textiles. It was precisely the economic transformation of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Scotland that provided the means to export its people and their ideas throughout the British Empire and beyond. Liberalism was also strongly associated with Scottish nationalist sentiment. The pro–Home Rule, nineteenth-century Liberal Party’s social agenda focused most notably on temperance, but from the twentieth century there was a greater emphasis on the minimum wage, social insurance and housing.
The expressions of this political tradition in Australia are varied. The grandfather of both Scottish Presbyterianism and colonial radical-liberalism in Australia was the Rev. John Dunmore Lang. He was a reformer and a promoter of free migration and education, a republican and opponent of the poll tax; he was also a deeply chauvinistic Scot, and famously belligerent towards Irish Catholics in Australia.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the liberal tradition in Scotland helps to account for the predominance of Scots in Australian colonial arguments for manhood suffrage, land reform and free, compulsory schooling; Scottish Presbyterians had a particular zeal for state education and viewed the school as a foundation element of any community. Scottish merchants and pastoralists were prominent in Victoria’s free trade movement—on the other hand, perhaps the most important figure in Victorian protectionism was the Scot David Syme. Colonial liberalism was a distinctly Scottish affair. Later, Scottish pastoralists and landowners were significant opponents of the nascent bush unionism of the 1890s.
What we see by the end of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, broadly speaking, is that Scottish-Australian descendants of migrants from liberal, nineteenth-century Scotland were well represented in non-Labor parties, while the Scottish-born themselves are more likely to be found on the left; the Australian labour parties were, in essence, British institutions transplanted very successfully to the Antipodes.
Unlike the Scots who often spearheaded Australia’s labour movements but were reluctant to associate themselves with any particular line of ethnic contribution (indeed, modern Laborite historiography regularly asserts that the party is the most natively Australian of them all), Scottish Australians on the Liberal side of politics had more of a tendency to insert themselves into a Scottish liberal tradition in Australia, whether it be real or imagined. It is among these Scottish Australians that we can count Robert Menzies.
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Menzies was born on 20 December 1894, in the small country town of Jeparit in Victoria. His father, James, was the son of Scottish crofters who had migrated to Australia in the mid 1850s in the wake of the Victorian gold rush. One biographer wrote that ‘James and Kate Menzies had little money, but they had all that respect for education and learning so typical of Scots of humble origin of their times. They were determined that their children should achieve the best education of which each was capable.’
What Menzies learnt at school was supplemented by his parents’ habit of reading to the family—Menzies recalled reading ‘Henry Drummond for evangelical theology; Jerome K. Jerome for humour; The Scottish Chiefs for historical fervour.’ A short browse of Menzies’ personal library reveals a continued intellectual interest in Scotland, which is well represented, with a range of volumes on Scottish politics, history and culture, including the complete works of Robert Burns.
While the reading habits and intellectual proclivities of individuals can be hard to pin down without a degree of speculation, we are perhaps on firmer ground when it comes to Menzies’ public expressions of Scottish affinity. Scottish associational culture was strong across the diaspora, especially among descendants of migrants. One of the most prominent Scottish groups Menzies was associated with was the Melbourne Scots, an elite gentlemen’s club established in 1919 that brought together some of the most influential and powerful men in Victoria and, indeed, Australia. Menzies, as president, has been described as a ‘dominant force’ in the society during the 1950s and 1960s. Other Scottish Australians who have been involved in the club include Malcolm Fraser, Sir Ian McLennan, Sir Edward (Weary) Dunlop, Sir Billy Snedden and Sir Rupert Hamer. In his personal collection of papers, Menzies kept copies of numerous Burns Orations given for the society.
The other significant Scottish organisation in which Menzies was involved was the Royal Caledonian Society of Melbourne. Melbourne’s Caledonian Society was another Scottish organisation associated with many men of power and influence in Australia, including prime ministers George Reid, Andrew Fisher, Joseph Cook and Stanley Bruce. In his forward to the society’s 1950 history, Menzies was self-deprecating:
I am a Scot on my father’s side. The Melbourne Scots have done me the honour of making me their President. But (and here’s a serious subtraction), I have no Scots burr on my tongue, I have not yet (oh, shame!) worn a kilt, and cricket commands my love much more than tossing the caber. Why, then, this honour? The answer is simple. We Scots have memory but no regrets; pride but no envy. In our modest way we admit that J.M. Barrie was right when he said, in his Rectorial address at St Andrews (where my paternal grandmother was born) that ‘We come of a race of men the very wind of whose name has swept the ultimate seas.’
It is in his written and spoken legacy that we can find suggestions that Scottishness, for Menzies, was not merely a weekend game of dress-ups. There is a distinctly Scottish flavour to his political vision, although this has rarely figured prominently in histories of the Liberals, which often apply the more capacious ‘British’ descriptor. One element of Menzies’ public myth upon which most would agree is his love of Britain, or England. Judith Brett devoted an entire chapter to his affinity with and dedication to England in her study Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People. England was an imagined, idealised landscape for Menzies, says Brett—he was 40 before he visited—and a source of meaning and authority. ‘England was the centre of Menzies’ world, the source of all that was good or valuable,’ she writes. While I don’t dispute the importance of England to Menzies, it’s helpful—remembering Theodore Napier’s Jacobite insistence on precision of language—to highlight another place from which he drew meaning, authority and inspiration: Scotland. Indeed, I’d suggest, Scotland not only loomed large in Menzies’ personal life, but also inspired much of the political world view he hoped his Liberal Party would embody.
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Historian Richard Finlay suggests of the Scottish liberal political tradition that ‘Freedom and liberty was more to do with middle class individualism and anti-aristocratic sentiment than Jacobinism … Core values such as self-help, thrift, hard work, independence and respectability became ingrained as part of Scottish identity and character.’ Although the ways in which these ideas and values are transmitted can be difficult to trace, the relationship is far from tenuous. Menzies once wrote of ‘two Scots characteristics which endure, which the world values, and which mankind needs’. One looks to tradition and the good of society, the other emphasises the individual and their independence. Elaborating, he wrote:
One is a sense of continuity. No great good is done by those who say, ‘Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ But the man who feels pride in the past and a sense of responsibility for the future, though he may be called ‘dour’, or ‘canny’—or, even in Barrie’s celebrated phrase, ‘a Scotsman on the make’—does much for development and growth and the stability of society.
The second characteristic is allied to the first. It is the spirit of independence. That spirit is today in the twilight. We have learned to lean, to criticise, to expect, to see our neighbour’s duty much more clearly than our own. It is impossible to believe that this is a permanent state of mind. But if and when we come out of it, the sturdy independence of the sons and grandsons of Caledonia will have played some part in the revival.
These sentiments echo what is easily the most well-known demonstration of Menzies’ Scottishness: his 1942 radio broadcast now commonly known as the Forgotten People speech. The speech, part of a wider ranging set of orations from Menzies, makes clear that many of Menzies’ ideas on thrift, self-help, hard work, family life and the value of education were inspired by Scottish thinkers, writers and political trends. Rather than simply a projection into the homes of a future, postwar Australia, this paean to the middle classes also looked back to the colonial liberalism of Victoria, the warmth of his family home as a child, and to the emergent suburban dreaming of the interwar years.
A memorable feature of the Forgotten People speech is its distinct reference to Robert Burns’ poem ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, which the Scottish, free-trade liberal prime minister of Australia George Reid once described as a ‘beautiful picture of the domestic virtues [and] of religion’. Although the poem presents the image of Scotland’s rural poor, the opening dedication has clear resonances with Menzies’ interest in the Australian middle class: ‘Let not Ambition mock their useful toil, Their homely joys, and destiny obscure; Nor Grandeur hear, with a disdainful smile, The short and simple annals of the Poor.’
The expressions of Scottishness found on Menzies’ bookshelves and in his associational activities—which came to furnish his most well-known statement of values—were essentially nineteenth-century creations, ossified after their transplantation to the colonies, and were imbued with the dominant political strains in Scotland of that time. Scottish identity for the middle classes was as much indebted to British popular imperialism as it was to the meritocratic egalitarianism embodied in the lad o’ pairts ethos in which individuals should relate to one another and progress through society based on merit and not class or status.
The broader cultural influence of Presbyterianism included the idealisation of both individualism and civic duty, a balance of personal ambition and the need for active and responsible citizens. National and religious identities had long been integrated in Scotland when immigration to Australia began. In Scotland, religious values underpinned much of civic and public life; the clergy were dominant voices in debates around poverty, education, law and social policy, and provided Scotland with much of its intellectual and social leadership. Their couching of public debate in the moral terms of Calvinism, however, led to a propensity to reduce complicated social and political issues to a matter of individual responsibility. Broader social and environmental factors were often excluded in discussions, and, as the eminent Scottish historian T.M. Devine observes, the outcome ‘was a somewhat myopic commitment … to voluntary effort and passionate religious mission’ that complemented a vociferous opposition to state intervention in industry and commerce. Menzies, of course, was much more capable of recognising when and where the government might be expanded, such as in the provision of state aid to independent schools and expanded opportunities for university study.
All of this is reminiscent of what more recent commentators have described as Menzies’ interweaving of liberalism and conservatism—no mere alliance, but a holistic integration that was intended to speak to the moral qualities, political values and social skills of the Australian middle class.
John Howard has argued that the Liberal Party, founded by Menzies in 1944, maintains conservative and classical liberal traditions, the party of both J.S. Mill and Edmund Burke. But contemporary debates about whether the party is liberal or conservative would have bemused Menzies, suggests Howard; his view of things was much less defined by existing categories, and rarely articulated in the familiar language of political philosophy. In 1944, Menzies suggested that:
We have, partly by our own fault and partly by some extremely clever propaganda by the Labor Party, been put into the position of appearing to resist political and economic progress. In other words, on far too many questions we have found our role to be simply that of the man who says ‘no’ … Once this atmosphere is created, it is quite simple for us to be branded as reactionaries.
But, he said to his audience in Albury, ‘there is no room in Australia for a party of reaction. There is no useful place for a party of negation.’
Nevertheless, he also told his daughter Heather that he thought so-called small-l liberals to be ‘Liberals who believe in nothing but will believe in anything if they think it worth a few votes.’ On the other hand, in 1967 he explained that ‘We took the name “Liberal” because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights, and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea.’
There is in addition to this, however, a clear communitarian impulse to his thinking: duty to society is balanced with individual aspiration. We see this most clearly in Menzies’ consideration of the importance of home and family, and of ‘homes material, homes human, and homes spiritual’. Of homes human, Menzies said, ‘My home is where my wife and children are. The instinct to be with them is the great instinct of civilised man; the instinct to give them a chance in life—to make them not leaners but lifters—is a noble instinct.’ Building on key elements of Scottish liberal tradition, he continues:
If Scotland has made a great contribution to the theory and practice of education, it is because of the tradition of Scottish homes. The Scottish ploughman, walking behind his team, cons ways and means of making his son a farmer, and so he sends him to the village school. The Scottish farmer ponders upon the future of his son, and sees it most assured not by the inheritance of money but by the acquisition of that knowledge which will give him power; and so the sons of many Scottish farmers find their way to Edinburgh and a university degree.
The great question is, ‘How can I qualify my son to help society?’ Not, as we have so frequently thought, ‘How can I qualify society to help my son?’ If human homes are to fulfil their destiny, then we must have frugality and saving for education and progress.
Turning to homes spiritual, Menzies drew upon Burns more explicitly, suggesting that ‘This is a notion which finds its simplest and most moving expression in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” of Burns.’ He observes:
Human nature is at its greatest when it combines dependence upon God with independence of man. We offer no affront—on the contrary we have nothing but the warmest human compassion—toward those whom fate has compelled to live upon the bounty of the State, when we say that the greatest element in a strong people is a fierce independence of spirit. This is the only real freedom, and it has as its corollary a brave acceptance of unclouded individual responsibility. The moment a man seeks moral and intellectual refuge in the emotions of a crowd, he ceases to be a human being and becomes a cipher. The home spiritual so understood is not produced by lassitude or by dependence; it is produced by self-sacrifice, by frugality and saving.
As Prentis notes:
Burns hoped that his simple, hardworking, sincerely pious countrymen would be free of ‘luxury’s contagion’. Such humble Scottish families as that of the cotter in the poem fired in their members both personal ambition and a desire to be active and responsible citizens … these ideas struck a deep chord in the broad Australian middle class.
While it is common to suggest that non-Labor has historically represented economic and business interests, this essentially class-based analysis of the party is not enough to explain the electoral appeal and success of the Liberals, and of Menzies in particular. Indeed, Brett argues, ‘To win in lower house elections Liberals have had to do more than appeal to people’s economic interests, they have also needed to appeal to their values, and to succeed in telling them stories about politics in which they recognised themselves.’
What we see in Menzies’ own understanding of the Liberal Party is not simply a broad church in which two ideological camps are held in competitive tension, or even an alliance or coalition, so much as a closer intertwining of liberalism and conservatism that was supposed to reflect the Australian middle class, or was projected onto it, as some argue. In either case his political vision is distinctly Scottish too, carefully balancing the individual and their community, emphasising individual rights and civic duties, finding moral value in the humble lives and aspirations of his forgotten people, and stressing the virtue of education, thrift, canniness and hard work. We’d do well to investigate further Scotland’s political legacies in Australia, especially the influence of Presbyterianism and the Scottish Enlightenment.
It would be wrong, however, to overthink Menzies’ ideology, to seek firm analytical and philosophical grounding for a political vision that was rather more nebulous and organic in origin. Perhaps it would be best to articulate the Australian Liberal tradition with reference to a Scottish poem, as Menzies might have done. Thus, as Robert Burns mused in 1795:
The wretch that would a tyrant own, And the wretch, his true-born brother, Who would set the Mob aboon the Throne, May they be damn’d together! Who will not sing ‘God save the King,’ Shall hang as high’s the steeple; But while we sing ‘God save the King,’ We’ll ne’er forget The People! •
Benjamin Wilkie is a historian, academic and author of The Scots in Australia 1788–1938.