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Contrasting Conservatives

25 March 2022 98 views No Comment

 Contrasting Conservatives: Wilfred Kent Hughes and Keith Feiling


Notoriously stubborn and abrasive, strongly anti-communist and for a time pro-fascist, Sir Wilfred Kent Hughes (1895 – 1970) had a long career in state and federal politics, most notably as a minister under Liberal Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. As an athlete and organiser, Kent Hughes also had a long-standing involvement with the Olympic movement. At the 1920 Antwerp Olympics he represented Australia in hurdling, and in 1956 he helped organise the Melbourne Olympics. 

   Noted for his conservative interpretation of the past and defence of the church, the monarchy and hierarchical authority, Sir Keith Feiling (1884 -1977) was an historian and biographer. From 1946 to 1950, Feiling was Professor of Modern History at Oxford University. 

   A number of private letters between this idiosyncratic MP from Melbourne and the eminent British academic highlight key differences between the Australian and British varieties of political conservatism. The correspondence in question is housed at the National Library of Australia in Canberra.  

   Representing a succession of right-of-centre parties, Wilfred Kent Hughes served in the Victorian and federal parliaments for over 40 years, beginning in 1927. Born in East Melbourne in 1895, he was a graduate of Melbourne Grammar School. A scholar and a sportsman, he took up a Rhodes Scholarship after serving with distinction in the Great War, receiving a Military Cross. In 1918 he published a memoir, Modern Crusaders, about his exploits in the Light Horse Brigade at Gallipoli, where he was wounded.

   At Oxford, Kent Hughes enrolled at Christ Church, where Keith Feiling was his tutor. The Australian received an honours degree in History in 1922 before returning to Melbourne with his American wife Edith (née Kerr). Kent Hughes loved his years at Christ Church, but his return to Australia interrupted the connection with his Oxford tutor.

   In 1924, Keith Feiling became an original member of the Oxford University Conservative Association. However, he was never narrowly partisan. In a 1913 tract titled Toryism: A Political Dialogue he rejected rebarbative ideology. He sought, he said, “not to criticise but to accept, to work with facts and not to formulate theories“.

   In contrast, Kent Hughes, was much more of a zealot. After he entered the Victorian state parliament, he developed a strongly competitive public persona. This culminated in 1933 when he published four articles in the Melbourne Herald in which he revealed that he was “a fascist – without a shirt”. A deep fear of the spread of Communist ideology caused him to use such language.

   In 1938 in a letter to Kent Hughes, Feiling acknowledged a failure on his part to reply to the Christmas cards that Kent Hughes was wont to send. He also admitted to not keeping up with his ex-student’s political career in Victoria.

   Their relationship continued on-hold during the Second World War. Although by now middle-aged, Kent Hughes, remained a warrior. He again enlisted for active service and was again mentioned in dispatches. In 1942, following the fall of Singapore, he became a prisoner of war of Imperial Japan at the notorious Changi camp. 

After the war, Kent Hughes became Deputy Premier of Victoria in 1948. But a year later, he transitioned to the federal parliament, winning the plum Liberal Party seat of Chisholm in Melbourne. In 1951, as Menzies’s Minister for the Interior, he became widely known as the “uncrowned King” of Canberra. In June 1952, Kent Hughes was also appointed as Minister for Works and Housing.

   Feiling, for his part, was equally occupied. He published impressive biographies of Neville Chamberlain and Warren Hastings. His well-regarded A History of England appeared in 1950.

   By the mid-1950s Kent Hughes was increasingly seen by some government members and Labor MPs as a loose Cold War cannon. This was primarily because of his strong support for the exiled Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek in Formosa (now Taiwan), whose independent existence the Communist regime in mainland China was (and staunchly remains) committed to ending.

   In the mid 1950s, Feiling, who was living in retirement in London, had more time at his disposal. There was a reconnection with his ex-student in the summer of 1955 after Kent Hughes’s secretary, Margaret Anderson, paid a social visit to Feiling while she was in London. The visit was facilitated by an exchange of letters between Feiling and Kent Hughes.

   The renewed connection came at a time when Kent Hughes’s concerns about Communist China were becoming ever more pronounced. A few months earlier he had toured Asia, as an official visitor from federal parliament. While there he learnt that British freighters were conveying diesel engines for landing craft to China via Hong Kong. This development dismayed him mightily.

   Kent Hughes set out his position in a letter to Feiling dated June 24,1955. Communist China, he noted, was being materially assisted by Britain’s “jealousy of Uncle Sam and her concentration upon trade which she is not getting”.

   As was made clear in a reply dated July 10, 1955, Feiling did not share Kent Hughes’s Cold War zeal . He wrote that he did not see any British government ever being ready to fight communism as such. “We have never, since the days of (William) Pitt and (George) Canning, argued on ideological lines”. The Americans were different, Feiling noted. They seemed bent on dismantling the British Empire, driven on by “certain dogmas and a great deal of jealousy“. That is why “they did their best, successfully, to run us out of India in a hurry”.

   America’s refusal to allow Communist China to become a member of the United Nations did not impress Feiling. He saw it as “rank folly”; nor did he favour enlisting Japan and South Korea as part of a chain of defence against mainland China.

   Kent Hughes replied in a letter sent three months later – he was still a busy minister of state after all – in which he readily acknowledged his differences of opinion with his old tutor. Tensions, he wrote, were lessening in Europe, but he lived near Asia where they were increasing. Even in the jet age there was “a vast difference between the perspective of 1,000 and 10,000 miles”. Kent Hughes was certain that the American defence chain in the Pacific, which Feiling saw as provocative, was vital to ensure Australia’s survival. But Kent Hughes’s fervour got a bit too much even for Prime Minister Menzies, who sacked him as a minister early in 1956. As a consolation prize, Kent Hughes was knighted after helping to organise the successful Melbourne Olympic Games at the end of the year. In a world-first, Kent Hughes engineered the sale of television rights for the 1956 Olympics. Two years later his old tutor was also knighted, by Queen Elizabeth as part of her 1958 Birthday Honours. 

Yet at times, there is a plaintive tone in the two men‘s correspondence. Both believed that they were becoming ever more distant from the ultimate centres of power. They were in danger of sounding like two old codgers complaining about a recent decline in standards.

  In a Christmas letter in 1956, in the wake of the debacle surrounding Britain and France’s loss of the Suez Canal, Feiling had described Anthony Eden as “a wretched, shuffling P.M.” Kent Hughes in turn tended to blame Winston Churchill: “The GOM (Grand Old Man) hung on too long“. Nor did he spare his own prime minister: “I do not agree with the silence of America and Canada any more than I agree with the enthusiasm born of ignorance of Mr Menzies”. 

   So, there was much discontent.  But Kent Hughes and Keith Feiling exhibited two quite different perspectives.

   Kent Hughes was a Cold War internationalist, whereas Feiling was not. Despite the ravages of time, Feiling still had a deep contentment with traditional English customs and institutions, whereas Kent Hughes, coming as he did from a far less established society, was dogged by a sense of insecurity and fragility. Without vigilant leadership, Australia he felt would easily be swept away by its sinister neighbours. In the wake of the Suez crisis, Kent Hughes in his correspondence with Feiling lamented the lack of confidence and coordination between Washington and Westminster. Jealousy and brashness were deadly. Cooperation was vital to preserve freedom everywhere, especially in the free world.

  Feiling was more attuned to pragmatism. He was no militant counter-revolutionary. The great aim from his perspective was for the United States to loosen the alliance between China and Russia. If this meant sacrificing Formosa, so be it. At one stage he even suggested to Kent Hughes that a diplomatic way to get rid of President Chiang Kai-Shek would be to endow him with a chair – presumably at the Australian National University, in Canberra!

   Kent Hughes was far from convinced. He lamented the willingness of the British government – now headed by Harold Macmillan – to seek trade opportunities with Red China. Fear of China might not loom large in England, but the viability of the anti-communist regime in Formosa meant a lot to Australian security. “We do not like throwing our allies into the discard (basket)” was how Kent Hughes summed up matters.

   Time was remorseless. In a letter dated February 8, 1964, Feiling told Kent Hughes that he and his wife had just moved from Chelsea to Norfolk. He was glad to be rid of modern London, which had become “intolerably ugly, noisy and expensive“. By the 1960s, most people in England had never had it so good, but by then Feiling saw himself as part of a side-lined minority. This is even though, a festschrift, Essays in British history presented to Sir Keith Feiling, edited by Hugh Trevor Roper with a foreword by Lord David Cecil, was published in 1964.

   In any case, Feiling’s new locale soon palled. In a letter dated November 30,1965, Feiling lamented the cold of Norfolk. His wife Caroline was suffering because of it. Visits to Oxford were a blessed relief.

   One of the big political foreign policy issues at the time concerned the British colony of Rhodesia, where Ian Smith had just issued his Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Apart from the tricky problem of Rhodesia, Feiling wrote that Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson seemed to be “firmly in the saddle”.

   Feiling remained very much aware of Kent Hughes’s relentless fighting spirit.  He expressed the hope that Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war would not lead to its being involved in a third major world conflict.

   Vietnam and Rhodesia were hot-button issues. Kent Hughes supported the governing regimes in both Saigon and Salisbury. In his reply to Feiling’s 1965 letter, he referred to a visit he had paid to South-East Asia in the middle of the year. He also was trying to make an independent trip to Rhodesia. He regarded Harold Wilson‘s rejection of UDI for Rhodesia as “shocking”. Kent Hughes argued that, apart from shadow Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas Home – a former Christ Church man himself – there seemed to be a lack of sense and sanity among the British political elite concerning Rhodesia.

   By 1967 even Oxford – with the conspicuous exception of Christ Church – had lost much of its charm for Feiling. “I feel nostalgia and sick at heart” he told his ex-student. Feiling had ceased to be an active historian “perhaps because one has lived through such bad historical times”.

   The final item in the National Library of Australia’s collection of the Kent Hughes-Feiling correspondence is a letter from Feiling dated July 29, 1967, in which he told Kent Hughes that he had just moved away from Norfolk to relocate in Gloucestershire. Norfolk was too cold for Caroline and their old house was too big.  The “follies” of English public life were all too much for him: “so won’t dilate on present politics”. 

   Feiling had peppered their recent correspondence with references to attacks of influenza and bronchitis, and to the general impact of creeping venerability. Kent Hughes in contrast came across in their letters as much more vigorous. He was almost eleven years younger than his tutor and his letters referred to his love of skiing and to his continued activism as indicated by the repeated trips he took to Asia to monitor local opposition to communism. We also know that, when in Canberra, he loved jogging along the banks of the city’s magnificent new artificial lake.

   Kent Hughes’ death in Melbourne on July 31,1970, came as a shock. He had been re-elected to federal parliament only months earlier. (As it happens, the funeral service for Kent Hughes was conducted by Manning Clark’s brother Russell.)

   Feiling outlived Kent Hughes by seven years. In his eighties, he endured major surgery with characteristic courage. He died in a nursing home in Putney on September 16, 1977.

The personal material in their correspondence aside, the letters between Feiling and Kent Hughes indicate a disconnect between two different world views. Right-of- centre politics was in the ascendancy in both Australia and Britain in the 1950s when the two men resumed contact. But there was still much scope for local and national diversity to come into play. Feiling’s default position of mellow rootedness contrasted with the sense of fragility and Cold War anxiety emanating from his former student. Feiling was mainly calm and settled; Kent Hughes was certainly not. Their differences were not simply a matter of personal idiosyncrasies. The divergence between them reflected differences between the two British worlds – one a raw outpost of empire, the other the old imperial hub – from which the two men sprang .  One saw Asia as remote and exotic; for the other it was the first line of Australia’s defence.

   As the letters between them confirm, the Australian came from a land of recent dispossession, whereas his ex-tutor had a deep love for the traditional ways of England. Sir Keith was not a zealous crusader. In contrast, Sir Wilfred remained a warrior.

   Most of the preceding observations about Feiling and Kent Hughes derive from an examination of letters between them held in the National Library of Australia. This collection comprises ten original letters from Feiling together with copies of four letters from Kent Hughes to Feiling (an extract from a fifth letter to Feiling appears in Frederick Howard’s 1972 biography of Kent Hughes). There may well be other surviving letters, especially from Kent Hughes to Feiling, existing somewhere in England. If such correspondence were ever to surface, the letters in question would likely help round out and confirm what we know about the different versions of conservatism held by the relatively placid Christ Church don and his restless Australian student.


Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University. One of his recent books is a memoir, Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey, published by Hybrid in Melbourne. Dr Stephen Holt is a Canberra writer and historian. He is the author of Manning Clark and Australian History 1915-1963 and A Short History of Manning Clark. Together they wrote the biography Alan “The Red Fox” Reid: Pressman Par Excellence (2010), which was short-listed for the National Biography Award.

Quadrant, April 2022, pp 50-53.

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