Frederic Eggleston on International Relations and Australia's Role in the World

By Meaney, Neville | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Frederic Eggleston on International Relations and Australia's Role in the World


Meaney, Neville, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Frederic Eggleston was one of Australia's few notable public intellectuals. Macmahon Ball, writing at the time of Eggleston's death in 1954, declared that he was "the most independent and important thinker about politics and society that we have had in Australia". (1) After making allowances for the customary encomiums of an obituary there is still much to be said for this judgment. Charles Henry Pearson, the author of the much neglected and misunderstood National Life and Character: a Forecast, (2) would seem to be Eggleston's only serious rival for the title.

Eggleston had broad intellectual interests which covered such issues as social change and social order, state planning and individual freedom, political leadership and mass democracy, national identity and human progress as well as the nature of international relations and the art of diplomacy. Above all, through these studies he hoped to contribute to the improvement of Australia's political culture and to a better understanding of Australia's relations with the world. In his major published works, State Socialism in Victoria, (3) Search for a Social Philosophy, (4) and Reflections of an Australian Liberal, (5) he addressed these questions, and as the title of the last of these would suggest he wrote from a committed liberal perspective.

His liberalism was expressed as a social philosophy. Though the only elected offices he held were achieved under the banner of the Liberal Party or as an independent Liberal, he was no narrow partisan in politics and was equally able to serve conservative and Labor governments. His vision was an open, searching one. Taking his starting point from the English new liberalism pioneered by Graham Wallas and others at the end of the nineteenth century, especially its emphasis on social psychology, (6) he argued that society was formed out of a "pattern" which was the product of instinct, habit and but a partly conscious awareness of its nature. The "pattern" gave order to social relations and adapted itself to social change. Since in the British tradition the "pattern" itself was flexible these changes took place gradually without the violence of revolution, which destroyed more than it achieved. While the liberal "pattern" made the people responsible for their own government and protected human liberty from arbitrary rule, it nevertheless adjusted to the growth of great economic institutions and accepted some degree of state planning, regulation and welfare so that individual citizens might live meaningful and dignified lives. The state's initiatives in furthering these aims should not be based on dogmatic principles but proceed through practical experimentation. He believed that the "pattern" was advancing human progress, and that the means for ensuring this end was active, self-reliant citizenship and a Christian ethic, which would allow the common good to triumph over sectional and class interests. (7) Lloyd George's "constructive liberalism", not Gladstone's laissez-faire, was his model. In Australia, Alfred Deakin was his hero and the touchstone of true liberalism. (8)

For Eggleston both the Labor and Liberal Parties--he was much more doubtful about the Country Party--were agents for the realisation of his conception of liberalism. He identified so closely with the Curtin and Chifley Labor governments that he played, perhaps rather lightheartedly, with the idea of entitling his 1953 work, Reflections of an Australian Liberal, "Reflections of an Ex-Liberal". (9) But despite his admiration for the Labor achievements, which was not uncritical, he still believed that the Liberal Party with all its shortcomings represented more completely his ideals. It was the party whose function it was "to conserve the interests of the community as a whole". (10) Thus it is fair to treat Eggleston as being an Australian liberal in both senses and to look at his ideas about international relations and his views on Australia's foreign relations as a liberal. …

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