In the Footsteps of Keith Hancock

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In the footsteps of Keith Hancock Richard Allsop reviews A Three-Cornered Life: The Historian W K Hancock By Jim Davidson (UNSW Press, 2010, 624 pages)

Keith Hancock's stature as an historian is emphasised by a quote from Stuart Macintyre, prominently cited on the dust jacket of this new biography, that ?if there were a Nobel Prize for History, Hancock surely would have won it.'

Hancock is generally regarded as one of the big three Australian historians of the twentieth century, along with Manning Clark and Geoffrey Blainey. However, where their reputations were largely built by writing about their own country, Hancock's came from writing about other places. Major focuses in his career included the Italian Risorgimento, the British Commonwealth, the British war effort during World War Two (he was its official historian), and South African politician, Jan Smuts.

While pursuing these subjects he was based at the universities of Oxford, Birmingham and London and, as he captured in the title of his own memoir Country and Calling , he believed that to pursue his calling, he had to be away from his own country. Author of this weighty new biography, Jim Davidson, turns this duality into an aspect of a three-cornered life by pointing out that there were also lengthy periods when a third country was seminal to Hancock's work-Italy earlier in his career and South Africa later-indeed, ?he wrote far more on South Africa than he did on his homeland'.

Yet, despite the majority of his work being produced offshore and being about overseas subjects, in his home country Hancock's reputation still in large measure hangs off the book he wrote in his early thirties, during a short and generally unhappy stint at Adelaide University. Published in 1930, Australia has remained the benchmark by which other short histories of the nation are judged. As Andrew Kemp wrote in 100 Great Books of Liberty ?it is essential reading for the Australian liberal primarily for Hancock's eloquent criticism of the counter-intuitive policies of "state socialism" and protection, and the connection of those policies with Australia's democratic ethos.'

Hancock was never particularly proud of the book, not seeing it as forming a continuum with the rest of his opus, regarding it as ?off the main highroad that I was trying to follow in my teaching and thinking' and thought his next major work ?800% better.' In 1968, he reflected on the book in the IPA Review and found ?its style showy and its pronouncements sweeping' and thought he had been ?too fond of ticking off his fellow countrymen.' The view Hancock held at the time of writing Australia that, in Davidson's words, ?some return to classical liberalism was essential' bore the influence of time spent lecturing in Perth under the guidance of Edward Shann. However, over the years, Hancock became less sympathetic to free-market economics.

Late in life, he became a passionate environmentalist, an interest reflected in his pioneering environmental study of the Monaro region of NSW, Discovering Monaro , and even more so in his campaign against the building of the telecommunications tower atop Black Mountain in Canberra. He also adopted various other left-wing stances, such as opposing Australia's alliance with the United States, although on matters of etiquette he remained a conservative, insisting that younger academics wear ties for formal occasions.

Oddly, the work Hancock partially disowned has probably stood the test of time better than those of which he was more proud. The British Commonwealth has nowhere near the significance that Hancock foresaw for it. Jan Smuts was undoubtedly a major figure of the twentieth century and, in many ways, worthy of the inordinate amount of time Hancock invested in producing four volumes of documents and a two volume biography. However, even by the time Hancock had finished the work, the tidal wave of support for black majority rule amongst the Western intelligentsia had rendered the nuances of the different strands of white South African politics somewhat esoteric. …