Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Britishness of Australia, Salisbury Review, Winter 2016

Here is 'The Britishness of Australia', my article in the just issued Winter 2016-17 edition of the Salisbury Review

There is nothing more traditional than an agricultural show in an Australian town, and nothing more British than a horse showing event. It’s a 3-ply-wool jacket and always the right handkerchief in the right pocket, even if the day’s a scorcher and birds are dropping from the sky. The accents of the competitors are broad Australian but the saddles are handmade English leather; the boots, the jodhpurs, the breeches all imported from Old Blighty. Even the riding ponies have their origins in England, with bloodlines that can be traced back to the original homeland. You might call it ‘Hot Britain’, although these days things have become a little more complicated in the Land of Oz.

The Britishness of Australia is unmistakable – the national language, driving on the left, the self- deprecating humour, cricket, football fanaticism (albeit a different code of the game), fish and chips, enthusiasm for the amber liquid and seaside piers, not to mention the names of streets, suburbs and cities. One of my regular haunts is Kensington Gardens – only it is in the leafy eastern suburbs of Adelaide rather than adjacent to London’s Hyde Park. Naturally, we have our own Hyde Park, a well-heeled suburb to the immediate south of the central business district. Adelaide itself is named after the queen consort of King William IV, Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, and our main thoroughfare is – you guessed it – King William Street. We could continue, but you get the idea.

The un-Britishness of Australia is its astonishing physicality. The country is 31.5 times larger than the United Kingdom or, to put it the other way around, the UK is 3 percent of the size of Australia. Nevertheless, the UK’s population of 64 million far surpasses Australia’s 23 million, and the vast majority of those live in the provincial capitals of Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Life in rural Australia is something of a mystery for city dwellers. It certainly was for me before I began my first ever job: History teacher in Streaky Bay, a small township on the western side of South Australia, 450 miles from home, a greater distance than between London and Edinburgh.

The ten-hour bus journey, overnight so there was no chance of a sleep between disembarking and walking to work after a weekend in the Big Smoke, delivered me to what I felt–as a young man–was the end of the world. In February 1981, when I first arrived in Streaky Bay, the town didn’t even have access to television. I viewed the place in much the same way a Briton coming to Sydney or Adelaide at that time might have seen Australia – ‘a country where they turn back time’, as Al Stewart sang in his 1976 song Year of the Cat. Nothing that happened in the town, a tryst between a fisherman’s wife and a farmer, or a teacher romance, eluded prying eyes. Streaky Bay people, with the neatly turned out war memorial and prominent Australian flag, got worked up about winning a gold medal in the Tidy Towns Competition (Eyre Peninsula Division). They were, I used to believe, a mixture of community minded and insular, with the balance tilting towards the latter. Thirty-five years later and I am prepared to reverse my opinion.

I saw the people of Streaky Bay as a throwback to the attitudes that predominated in Australia during the 1950s and early 1960s: yes, it was possible to become accepted as a local but only if one adopted the customary way of seeing and doing things. I felt as if the conservative parents in Streaky Bay saw me as an interloper: an inexperienced know-it-all from the city introducing dangerous ideas to their children. I might have been more paranoid than them. Leaving the town for the last time (with my possessions loaded up in my father’s car), a local drove past me in his utility. He was making some kind of gesture. Was it hostile? I pushed on towards the highway turn-off. Out of my rear vision, however, I noticed him make a sharp U-turn and come speeding after me. A police siren would have been less concerning. The next instant he was overtaking my car and basically forcing me off the side of the road. How sheepish I felt when he handed over a carton of beer and told me his son loved my History classes and wished I were staying another year.

Back in 1981, only one migrant family, an Italian one, lived in Streaky Bay, a place with 1,200 people. The little town was behind the times. Starting in the early 1950s, it was not only British migrants that came to Australia but people from all over Europe, especially Greece and Italy. In 1968, the Division of Assimilation within the Department of Immigration was renamed the Division of Integration. New Australians were encouraged to integrate into Australian life while at the same time retaining their customs, cuisine, music, sport, beliefs, art and religion.

The shift from assimilation to a more flexible system of integration was one thing, but the Whitlam Labor government (1972-75) went a step further and introduced the policy of multiculturalism. The then Minister for Immigration, Al Grassby, spoke about Australia building a ‘multi-language, multi- cultural participatory democracy’ that would ‘accept differences...loves colourful diversity’ and inspire ‘mutual respect between all’. The idea was that migrants could preserve their own culture while accepting the right of others to do the same thing, as long as people were loyal to Australia and followed Australian law. The term ‘multiculturalism’ has become so pervasive in public discourse that those who argue it is the engine of sectarianism and the portent of civilisational suicide find themselves denounced by the modern-day left as xenophobic fascists.

The irony, perhaps, is that advocates of the multicultural concept are often unaware of the original, and I would contend more appropriate, use of the term ‘culture’. Matthew Arnold, in Culture and
Anarchy (1868), speaks of culture in the broadest terms of Western civilisation – Hellenism, Hebraism, Christianity and so on – not as a mere ‘tribe’ in the politically-correct sense of (say) ‘gay culture’ or ‘Lebanese culture’. When Australia was established as a dominion on January 1, 1901, it was as a project of Western civilisation, albeit one with a distinct Anglo-Saxon sensibility. The Magna Carta, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution and the founding of the Commonwealth of Australia were all part of a continuum. British Westminster-style democracy and the independence of the judiciary are written into the country’s DNA and the increase of non-British migrants to Australia over recent decades should not alter that.

Whether Australians are now more likely to have wine rather than beer with their evening meal or buy a kebab instead of fish and chips ought not to affect the underlying civilisational fundamentals. In that sense, at least, the retention of the Union Jack on the flag, as a symbol of our heritage, makes perfect sense. Which brings us to the contention of Dr Benjamin Jones, post- modernist scholar at Western Sydney University, that Australia must disavow the British ensign since we are now ‘a thriving multicultural nation’ existing in a post- colonial paradigm. For Jones, and left-wing academics of his ilk, Australia is a confederation of contemporary tribes in which reminders of our hegomonistic British legacy need to be challenged and progressively eradicated. Some of those reminders include Australia Day (commemoration of 1788 British settlement at Botany Bay), our constitutional monarchy, Anzac Day (military involvement in the First World War and beyond) and, of course, the flag.

The Left-wing power élite in Australia wants to replace genuine diversity of opinion with the ‘diversity’ of ethnic-based special interests, Islamic particularism, Indigenous separatism, LGBT hysteria, Green fanaticism, third-wave feminism and so on ad infinitum. All of these latter-day tribes like to believe they are community-minded and the furthest thing from insular, and yet each resides within its own inward-looking echo chamber. The only thing these identity groups share is an antipathy towards traditional Australia – and that includes traditional Australians. Tomorrow doesn’t belong to us because we are not part of the PC Brigade’s brave new sectarianism. Well, bugger them, as my dad would say, running up a giant Aussie flag at the front of the house.