Liberal history revisited

Back in 2018 I reported on the launch of the first volume of David Kemp’s five-volume history of Australia. I remarked then that Kemp “deserves every credit and encouragement” for trying to get the Liberal Party and its supporters to take their history seriously, while also suggesting that his apparent understanding of that history had some serious problems. I concluded with these words:

Someone less well-connected could maybe tell the history as one of betrayal: of a genuine liberal tradition, which formed one of the strands composing the early Liberal Party but was gradually stifled, finally expiring under Howard, or at the latest under Tony Abbott. But Kemp, surely, cannot tell the story that way.

Yet who knows? Perhaps the later volumes will surprise us.

Last night I attended the launch of volume four, which covers the years from 1926 to 1966. I haven’t yet read it, but judging by the event and the speeches made – by Menzies Centre director Nick Cater, federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg, and Kemp himself [link added] – we can confidently say that there are no great surprises in store.

Volume four centres on the career of Robert Menzies. There’s nothing wrong with that; Menzies dominated the era in federal politics, and there is much that is praiseworthy in his record. In many ways he was more progressive than most of his party, and today’s Liberal Party could probably learn a lot if it were to study his record dispassionately.

But the atmosphere last night was more of uncritical boosterism than dispassionate study. Helped no doubt by the Menzies Centre, which (unsurprisingly, given its name) already does a brisk trade in Menzies hagiography, the speakers encouraged the view of Menzies as an archetypal liberal (or perhaps Liberal – Kemp’s use of capitals is unpredictable) with only minor flaws. While I would not suggest that Kemp has tailored his historical opinions to win support from the likes of Cater, he has not helped his intellectual reputation by associating himself with them.

More important, though, than the assessment of Menzies is the implicit link with our own times. The speakers were keen to draw the mantle of Menzies over today’s Liberal Party, pointing repeatedly to the fact that Frydenberg sits for the same seat in the House of Representatives that Menzies once did. While I’m no uncritical admirer of Menzies myself, I can’t help thinking that he would turn in his grave if he knew.

The government in which Frydenberg is an enthusiastic participant – even more than the Howard government, in which Kemp (to his credit) always seemed like a somewhat reluctant participant – has disgraced Australia in the eyes of world opinion with its blatant disregard for the rule of law and its adherence to the Trumpist agenda both at home and abroad. If this government’s story is to be part of the history of liberalism, as anything more than a cautionary example, then “liberalism” has lost all meaning.

If you want to know what it means to take history seriously, it’s worth taking a quick look at France, where president Emmanuel Macron has made headlines this week by admitting what everyone already knew: that Algerian nationalist lawyer Ali Boumendjel did not commit suicide by jumping from a sixth-floor window in 1957, but was tortured and murdered by the French army.

This is part of Macron’s effort to make amends for France’s record in Algeria, which he once called a “crime against humanity”, and for its conduct in the Algerian war of independence (in which, it’s only fair to note, the Algerians were no saints either). It still falls short of the comprehensive apology that Algeria would like, but it’s considerably further than any French leader before him has been willing to go.

And even that much is controversial. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, said that Macron was “continuing to send disastrous signals of repentance, division and self-hate,” and that as a result “communal separatism* and Islamism were advancing and nourishing themselves on our weaknesses.”

No-one is really surprised that Scott Morrison chooses to be a Le Pen rather than a Macron. But it’s disappointing to see Kemp and the whole Liberal Party establishment following him down the same road.

* The French “communautarisme” is difficult to translate; “communitarianism” in English means something rather different. “Communal separatism” is about the best I can do.

POSTSCRIPT: I’ve now read a review of the latest Kemp volume by Stuart MacIntyre at Inside Story; it’s very good.

One thought on “Liberal history revisited

  1. The English word ‘particularism’ might perhaps capture some if not all of the significance of the French word ‘communautarisme’.

    Liked by 1 person

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