Friday, March 4, 2011

John Curtin - champion of the Empire

I'd tweeted about this on Wednesday after reading it in the Oz's Australian Literary Review, but have just come across the article online. August 1943, in preparation for his visit to London the following year for the Dominion Prime Ministers Conference, Curtin announced to the Labor Party and the Australian people his vision for the post-war British Empire. Speaking to the United Commercial Travellers Association he called for a "new approach to empire government". It was simply no longer sufficient for Britain "to manage the affairs of empire on the basis of a government sitting in London".

At the core of his thinking was the need to create a permanent imperial secretariat or "Empire council", which would oversee the introduction of a new era in imperial affairs once the war was over. Curtin wanted this new machinery to "provide for full and continuous consultation" between Britain and her overseas dominions -- Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. He envisaged more frequent prime ministers conferences that could be held in all parts of the Empire, not just London, with a secretariat of high-level officials to provide advice on matters of common interest.

As Curtin put it, such a body in its ability to meet at all corners of the Empire would represent "everything inherent in dominion status" and thus symbolise the ideal of organic imperial unity. In other words, he wanted an Empire that worked better to protect Australian interests, an Empire truly representative of its constituent parts, not confined to the corridors of Whitehall but a "moveable venue", equally at home in Ottawa and Canberra, Pretoria and Wellington, and therefore equally attentive to the needs and interests of all parts of greater Britain. Curtin was trying to find the means by which the British peoples around the globe could face the world as one.

It's interesting that, speaking the day after the Japanese attack on the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour, Curtin did not just say as is so often repeated, (in the context of declaring that we were now at war with Japan), that Australia would be a place where civilisation would persist.

He also declared that Australia would be "a citadel for the British-speaking race."

"We Australians have imperishable traditions. We shall maintain them. We shall vindicate them. We shall hold this country, and keep it as a citadel for the British-speaking race, and as a place where civilisation will persist."

Great read for anyone interested in Australian history and identity.

I see that James Curran also has a book on this subject out at the moment, which I saw at Boffins the other day.

Curtin's Empire:

Drawing on new archival material including sensitive and private correspondence from Curtin never before seen or quoted, Curtin’s Empire shows that this British world vision was not imposed on him from abroad, rather it animated Curtin from deep within. Since entering politics Curtin had fought a bitter battle with his opponents – both inside and outside his party – over loyalty, identity and national security. At stake was how he and Labor related to the defining idea of Australian politics for their times: Britishness.

I think I'll be buying this one and helping to support a fantastic independent book seller at the same time.

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