Australian External Policy and the End of Britain's Empire (1)

By Goldsworthy, David | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Australian External Policy and the End of Britain's Empire (1)


Goldsworthy, David, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Australia's attachment to Britain was only one factor, and very often not a major one, in the policy-making of the post-war Menzies Government. In security matters, for example, the ANZUS agreement of 1951 was followed in 1955-57 by developments in Australian defence doctrine that decisively confirmed the United States as Australia's principal military ally in Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific. As for economic matters, from the early 1950s the government scouted well beyond the sterling area and the Commonwealth preference system in its search for export markets, investment capital and loans for national development.

To make this general point, however, is not to argue that Australia's political, strategic and economic relations with Britain in the 1950s were in serious decline. The material connections were still close and still substantial. In the commercial realm Britain remained by far Australia's largest trading partner. There was continuing military collaboration in Malaya, and a broader regional pattern of imperial defence planning under ANZAM (Australia, New Zealand and Malaya) that involved Australia with both Britain and New Zealand. There was an ongoing Asia-focused association in the Colombo Plan. There was a shared understanding of many major international issues, leading Australia to provide diplomatic support for Britain rather than the United States when the two powers differed over Indochina in 1954, and leading Robert Menzies to support a beleaguered Britain, again contra the United States, over Suez in 1956. There was also a history going back to the 1940s of close cooperation with Britain in the development of nuclear weaponry. And further reinforcing all this there was still an atavistic sense of community, exemplified by Richard Casey's remark that: "We are a member of a great cooperative society: the British race, of which the senior partner is our mother country." (2) Or as Menzies famously put it to Anthony Eden shortly before the British troops went into Suez: "You must never entertain any doubt about the British quality of this country." (3)

In this world-view, the concepts of Britain and empire were virtually inseparable. Menzies was wont to describe the British Empire in organic terms; it was, he wrote in 1948, "a living and breathing and everlasting unity". (4) Yet it could not be said that he applied the organic notion with equal force to all parts of the Empire. For roughly the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the period that encompassed the political careers of Menzies and his major colleagues, the British Empire comprised diverse components, and Australian organicist sentiments applied strongly to only one of them. This was the empire of the old dominions; in other words, Casey's racially defined "great cooperative society". By the later 1940s the term "British Empire" had been officially superseded by "Commonwealth" and the old dominions had been joined as members of that Commonwealth by India, Pakistan and Ceylon. Yet the idea of a special imperial affinity among the old dominions, or more exactly the sense of a common British descent and a shared allegiance to the Crown, retained its potency among many who lived in these countries. Loyalty to empire in this sense was fused with loyalty to Britain itself, the seat of the monarchy. Indicatively, in later years Menzies would sometimes refer to the old-empire group of states as the "Crown Commonwealth", in order to distinguish them from the ranks of the Commonwealth republics.

Outside the Commonwealth lay the other main component of empire: that congeries of dependent, and mainly tropical, territories still administered (or in the case of "informal empire", overwhelmingly influenced) by Britain. It was never a secret that Menzies felt little or no sense of familial attachment to the leaders and peoples of the British dependent territories in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere. They stood well below the old dominions in the imperial hierarchy, which was also, rather clearly, a racial hierarchy. …

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