Saturday, August 02, 2003


I have three stories to tell which illustrate how civilized Anglo-Saxon politics once were -- stories from New Zealand, Australia and Britain. All of them seem to be true stories but if they are not they should be. Today’s story concerns Australia’s redoubtable conservative Prime Minister Menzies. The time was the early 1950s and the height of the Communist scare. Many conservatives thought the government was not doing enough to combat Communism and some senior Ministers in the Menzies government agreed. Menzies was however a notable lawyer by profession and declared that a recent High Court case limiting Parliament’s powers in the matter had to be respected. This was felt to be an inadequate response so a triumvirate of senior Ministers got together and decided that Menzies had to be deposed, a State of Emergency declared, the Communist party banned and a major expansion of the armed forces undertaken. They decided to deliver an ultimatum to this effect to Menzies himself. Menzies was too imposing a figure simply to be bypassed. They decided to make a surprise call on Menzies one Saturday afternoon. Saturday afternoon in Australia of that era was a time when NOTHING happened. The shops were closed and, if there were no major sporting event happening, people just pottered in the garden, took rubbish to the dump or took a big nap to catch up on sleep missed during the week.

The triumvirs arrived at the Prime Ministerial residence and, as well-known figures, were immediately ushered into the presence of the great man. And what was the great man doing at the time? He was in the greenhouse transplanting tomato seedlings so there would be a good crop for the kitchen! It was the sort of hobby activity any Australian might be doing on a Saturday afternoon in that era. Its sheer normalness and ordinariness did however undermine the resolve of the plotters and Menzies, being a wily old bird, probably realized that something was in the wind so continued to engage them in conversation about tomatoes, the seasons and gardening. When he had finished his transplanting, Menzies asked them to take afternoon tea with him -- which they of course accepted.

During tea Menzies asked them to what he owed the privilege of their visit but with all momentum lost by then all one of them could do was to say weakly that they had come to seek his views on the Communist menace. Being famously quick-witted, Menzies told them that he just that day had come to a major decision on the matter. He had decided to hold a referendum on banning the Communist party. As a referendum is an impeccably proper democratic procedure they could hardly argue -- though all those present would have been aware that referenda are normally lost in Australia. And so the rebels went empty away -- foiled by tomato seedlings.

The referendum was of course held -- and it was lost.

The story was relayed to me many years ago as “inside knowledge” by someone who was in a position to have such knowledge so I have no way of verifying it but I think it conveys very well the sheer mundane safety of Anglo-Saxon political life as it used to be -- the very opposite of the high drama that plagues politics in most of the rest of the world.


No comments: