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Ming was the real thing

28 June 2014 215 views No Comment

Review

Menzies at War

By Anne Henderson

New South, 263pp, $34.99

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 so-called 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 Methodist-Presbyterian 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 Tasmanian-based 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.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, June 28-29, 2014, Review, Books, p 22

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