Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

The Rise of the Insider: Memoirs and Diaries in Recent Australian Political History

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

The Rise of the Insider: Memoirs and Diaries in Recent Australian Political History

Article excerpt

The political memoir occupies an ambiguous position in historiography: simultaneously venerable and marginal, enduring and unstable. Students of autobiography emphasise its longevity. (1) Notable Roman histories drew upon a number of now lost autobiographical works, including Augustus' thirteen-volume memoir, and Claudius' less monumental self-portrait; Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars survives not only as an account of military achievement, but also as a model of vigorous self-promotion. (2) Among modern chroniclers, Clarendon's History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England provided both a personal record and a major interpretation; (3) Lloyd George and Winston Churchill could claim as much for their memoirs three centuries later. (4) By the second half of the twentieth century, it had become entirely conventional for a political leader to compose a memoir upon retirement from the fray; many, in fact, spent part of their careers in active preparation for the task. (5)

Yet such persistence obscures an ambivalence. Among the Ancients, Plutarch drew a distinction between the writing of "histories" and the study of "lives". (6) Suetonius noted the common criticism of imperial autobiographies as careless, inaccurate and tasteless. (7) Clarendon's writings would be debunked in the middle of the nineteenth century as superficial and partisan. (8) Rankean history would elevate the document over the reminiscence; (9) and the social movements of the modern world would direct attention away from the great personality, and toward the collective subject. (10) Perhaps the most authoritative survey of the political memoir argues that the genre's "hegemony" in "contemporary history" has been in decline from this point, around a century and a half ago. (11)

In Australia, the inconstancy and fluctuation of the genre is especially striking. Of colonial worthies, only Henry Parkes, John Dunmore Lang and Charles Gavan Duffy published political memoirs. Lang's characteristically egotistical title: Reminiscences of my Life and Times Both in Church and State in Australia for upwards of Fifty Years, promised much; in fact, it focused narrowly on his involvement in Church affairs, and terminated with "[m]y entrance into the colonial parliament". (12) Duffy's My Life in Times in Two Hemispheres was also somewhat misleading: it understandably focused mostly on his role in Irish rather than Victorian politics. (13) In consequence, only Henry Parkes' Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History could be considered a major contribution to historical scholarship. Even here, the apparent ambition was disarmingly constrained. The great survivor of New South Wales politics described his writing as "not a history nor yet an autobiography". (14) He offered an openly "broken record" to the reader--merely one "help" among "many aids" for that later time (unspecified) when "strong hands" would begin "to write the History of Australia". (15)

The succeeding century at first confirmed the pattern of reluctance and incapacity. Of early Prime Ministers, Alfred Deakin's beguiling pen produced a stream of fascinating journalism but only one attempt at political history (an account of the movement for Federation), and one fragment of political reminiscence (focusing upon his entry into Victorian politics in the 1870s).16 George Reid's memoirs were patchy and self-serving; (17) Billy Hughes offered what he called a series of well-worn anecdotes or "stories", not a "chronological record" or autobiography as such. (18) Of lesser lights, there was only a personal history of working-class mobilisation by early Labor representative, W.G. Spence, and a few reminiscences by politicians of the second-rank: George Pearce, Sir John Kirwan. (19)

This was undoubtedly meagre fare. When Earle Page, interwar leader of the Country Party, contemplated his own memoir in the middle of the twentieth century, he rightfully noted that: "No first-hand political histories have been written in Australia which cover this period. …

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