The rise and decline of Anglo-Australia

This is a free preview of New Britannia, a book by Alan James

© Alan James, 2013

Robert Hughes was a leading international art critic, born in Australia in 1938. As a critic he was noted for both his original vision and his elegant style. His social commentary, however, was sometimes far more a product of his generation than were his writings on art.

In 1993 Hughes reminisced about his early education, and in doing so he expressed an attitude to Australia’s British heritage that is now held by most Australian intellectuals of about his own age. He wrote:

‘One of the more disagreeable moments of my education was having to stand up and speak extempore in Latin for four minutes, before other schoolboys and our Jesuit teacher, on Horace’s famous tag, Coelum non animam mutant qui trans mare currunt – “those who cross the sea change the sky above them, but not their souls.” I resented this, not only because my Latin was poor, but because the idea struck me as wrong – the utterance of a self-satisfied Roman, impervious to the rest of the world. Hegemonic Horace.

‘But most Australians were on his side. The motto of Sydney University expressed contentment with the colonial bind, Sidere mans eadem mutato, another version of Horace’s imperial thought – “the same mind under changed skies.”

‘Our education would prepare us to be little Englishmen and Englishwomen, though with nasal accents. We would not be accepted as such by the English themselves, we were not up to that. No poem written by an Australian was going to make its way into the anthologies of English verse – our national fate was to read those anthologies, never to contribute to them. It seemed natural to us that our head of state, with constitutional power to depose any democratically elected Australian prime minister, should be a young English-woman who lived 14,000 miles away. What native-born Australian could possibly be as worth looking up to as this Queen? Our Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, last of the true Australian imperialists, said we were “the Queen’s men,” “British to the boot-heels.” When asked what his dream of felicity would be on leaving politics, he unhesitatingly replied, “A book-lined cottage in Kent.”

‘In those days we had a small, 95 percent white, Anglo-Irish society, in whose public schools you could learn Latin but not Italian, ancient but not modern Greek. What we learned of the world in school came through the great tradition (and I use the word without irony) of English letters and English history. We were taught little Australian history. Of the world’s great religions other than Christianity – Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam – we were as perfectly ignorant as a row of cats looking at a TV set; or would have been, if Australia had had television in 1955, which, luckily, it did not. I didn’t meet a Jew until I got to University, and you can imagine the line the Jesuits took on the Spanish Inquisition and the policies of Ferdinand and Isabella. I didn’t even know what an Episcopalian was. Not until my late teens did I have a conversation with an Australian Aborigine, and it was short. There were no Aboriginal students, let alone teachers, at Sydney University. The original colonists of Australia – whose ancestors had walked and paddled there, across the string of islands that lay between “our” continent and Asia, around 30,000 B.C. – were completely unknown to us city whites, and their history and culture fell into a box marked “anthropology,” meaning the study of exotics with whom one had nothing in common, and whose culture had nothing of value to contribute to ours. Thinking so was our subliminal way of warding off the suspicion that ours had contributed nothing but misery and death to theirs.’ 1

Hughes succeeded here in capturing not just the thoughts, shallow as they are, of the most influential strand within his generation. He also expressed perfectly the sneering tone and the smug self-satisfaction with which this elite dismisses its own caricatured version of the British – and mostly English – origin of Australia’s traditional culture.

Robert Hughes was a writer of international distinction. He was the art critic of Time magazine from moving to America in 1970 until his death in 2012. Yet there is nothing in this brief extract from him that hasn’t been expressed over and over again (and often better) by lesser-known opinion-formers – by journalists, academics, politicians, teachers, and other members of the new elites. Hughes’ achievement in this extract was to have drawn together in four short paragraphs most of the Anglophobic touchstones that allow members of the Anglophobia lobby in Australia to identify one another.

These people are like the obsessed fans of some film or TV show who endlessly quote to each other the same treasured lines, and who seem to find that these lines grow more portentous the more often they are repeated. Theirs is a cult-like activity, in three ways. First, the boundaries between the in-group and the out-group are clearly drawn. Second, members of the in-group constantly reinforce each other as the sole bearers of sweetness, light and “progress”, with certain key phrases functioning like Masonic handshakes. Third, the world beyond the cult is portrayed as – at one and the same time – comical to the point of derision; ignorant, vicious and evil; bigoted and stupid; and so dangerous that the enlightened brethren must be ever vigilant lest they be overwhelmed by the vastly greater number of comical, vicious and bigoted fools outside their cult.

On that last point, at least, members of the currently dominant Anglophobic elite in Australia are partially correct. The majority of the population resents the social views of people like Robert Hughes. As it was in his own schooldays, so it is now; most Australians are still on the side of Horace, not Hughes.

The problem is that although the majority of Australians (who have probably given very little thought to either Horace or Hughes) are opposed to the cult of Anglophobia, the Australian majority has been marginalised. These Australians have been dispossessed and deliberately excluded from nearly all venues of cultural discussion – from academia to talk-back radio, from broadsheet newspapers to tabloids, from directing films to discussing current affairs in the school staff-room, from mainstream cultural organisations to internet newsgroups. As we shall see, to speak up for Horace and against Hughes in any of those forums can lead to a wide range of negative sanctions – beginning with social ostracism.

This book will examine the rise, decline, and possible conclusion of the series of social and cultural experiments that constituted Anglo-Australia. Before doing so, however, it may be interesting to return to the Robert Hughes extract with which we began, and to ask a simple question: How would those people who are excluded from participation in, and criticism of, the currently dominant intellectual fashion in Australia respond to Hughes, if they were able to do so?

To start with, they would possibly feel envious that Hughes had the good fortune to attend a school where Latin was even taught. In the 1950s most Australian children attended government schools staffed by teachers who generally would not be qualified to set foot in a classroom today. Latin appeared on the curriculum of only a handful of very selective schools. Hughes’ whingeing about his “poor Latin” is, of course, a form of blatant snobbery, since few students of his era could aspire to any Latin at all.

Second, ordinary Australians would immediately sense something false in Hughes’ quarrel with Horace. After all, although Hughes did not live in Australia for four decades, he still called himself an Australian, which rather bears out Horace’s line, “Those who cross the seas change the sky above them, but not their souls”.

As to the petulant sneer about “little Englishmen and Englishwomen”, some would ask why he chose the adjective “little”. Why not “diaspora Englishmen”, or “bronzed Englishmen” or even just “better Englishmen”? After all, these expressions, and many other similarly positive ones, had been used for over a century to convey the traditional self-image of Anglo-Australians.

“Nasal accents”? Once again, Hughes is parading his own generation’s unexamined and rather dated class-consciousness. The majority of Australians today feel no sense of inferiority on account of their accents, “nasal” or otherwise, just as few people from the varying regions of England are ashamed of their own local and time-sanctioned way of speaking.

Most of the Australian majority probably wouldn’t know or care whether Australian poems appear in anthologies of English verse. A few would know – as did Hughes himself – that Australian poets have always gained recognition in Britain, starting with Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833-70), whose bust can be viewed in Westminster Abbey. Henry Lawson also gained some recognition at the turn of the twentieth century; poets like Kenneth Slessor, Robert Fitzgerald and Judith Wright certainly did so in the middle of that century; and Les Murray does so today. Even a fictitious Australian poet, “Ern Malley”, a spoof on Dylan Thomas and his followers, caused more than ripples in the poetic circles of England in the 1940s. In 1965 A. D. Hope won the Arts Council of Great Britain Award for Literature. As The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature 2 affirms, “By the nineteen sixties, this [Australian] literature was being studied, not only in Britain, but in many other countries.”

It is true that Australia’s constitution sets aside “reserve powers” that can be exercised, in the case of national emergencies, by our Governor General – who is nominally the Queen’s representative. No British monarch has ever exercised these powers, and presumably none ever would. At a Federal level they have been used only once in Australia’s history. In 1975 they were invoked to resolve a serious constitutional crisis – by a Governor General who was born in the working-class suburb of Balmain in Sydney, Australia. And according to the Queen’s private secretary at that time, the Queen was not only not consulted by the Governor General, but she would probably have disapproved of his action. 3 So much for Hughes’ cheap quip about the Queen being “Our head of state, with constitutional power to dismiss any democratically elected Australian prime minister …”

The thrust of Robert Hughes’ rhetoric should be obvious by now. He selectively used half-truths to disparage Australia’s British heritage. Sadly, half-truths can be more damaging than outright lies. At least lies are more easily exposed.

Another example of Hughes’ half-truths comes in his statement that during his school days “we had a small, 95 percent white, Anglo-Irish society”. Yes, Australians were probably “95 percent white” at that time, but it is hard to see how their society could be called “Anglo-Irish”. The phrase suggests that something like half of the white population came from Ireland. This is wrong. For instance, according to Australian government statistics, in 1961, the year before Hughes dropped out of Sydney University, 718,345 Australians had been born in the UK while 37,057 had been born in Ireland. (As we shall see later, these figures require further analysis, but they are not untypical of any of the official census years since 1861.) The overwhelming majority of the British-born in 1961, 556,478, were from England. The Irish-born equalled just over 6.6% of the English-born at the time Hughes was discussing – and, significantly, they amounted to less than 28% of the Scottish-born.

There is little point in continuing to analyse most of Hughes’ remaining sneers against Australia’s British heritage. They tend to follow the same pattern.

But one interesting statement – which goes to the heart of Hughes’ credibility – is his claim that: “There were no Aboriginal students, let alone teachers, at Sydney University”. Actually, there were. The late Charles Perkins, a very well-known Aboriginal activist, was born in 1936, two years before Robert Hughes. Perkins graduated from Sydney University in 1966. (It is interesting to note that Perkins, the Aborigine, graduated in 1966. Hughes, the drop-out, gained his first degree, an honorary Doctor of Letters, from Melbourne University in 1995.)

Clearly, Hughes’ recollections of his schooldays and of his time at Sydney University have been warped by a political agenda. Had he wished to meet an Australian Aborigine at Sydney he could have sought out Perkins – but it seems he chose not to; and he falsely implies that the predominantly Anglo-Australia that existed in his undergraduate days deliberately excluded Aborigines, when clearly it didn’t.

Like most of the elitists dominating public debate in Australia, it is obvious that Robert Hughes preferred an Anglophobic agenda to a factual account of Australia’s traditional culture.

A national culture that was once extremely proud of its mainly English origins has degenerated to the point that ordinary Australians dare not or cannot speak up for their Anglo-Saxon heritage. That is one theme of this short book. The political and intellectual ramifications of the current marginalisation of traditional Australian values forms another.

Finally, it will be interesting to look at the besieged self-identity of Anglo-Australians. They still make up, by far, the largest single component in the Australian population. How they react to the psychological assault being waged against them will determine whether Australia is still culturally recognisable in a generation or two. Although perhaps few people outside Australia would notice the passing of its traditional cultural identity, the same forces that are threatening to destroy it are operating in all the nations founded mainly by Anglo-Saxons – not least in America, and in England itself. Australia can therefore be seen as a microcosm in which social trends threatening the cultural core of all the “English-speaking nations” are perhaps most easily studied.

On the surface, traditional Anglo-Australia appears to be lost. Whether that must be so is one theme of this book. What the result will mean for Anglo-Australians is another. But perhaps the main theme, threaded between the lines, is what lessons “Anglos” around the world can learn from Australia’s cultural experiment.

This study is therefore dedicated to all people of Anglo-Saxon and related origin, wherever they may live.

1. Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America, Robert Hughes, Oxford University Press, 1993

2. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature, George Sampson, Cambridge University Press, 1972

3. “Queen did not approve dismissal of Whitlam”, by Paul Kelly, The Weekend Australian, 10-11 March 2001, p. 1

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