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Boris Johnson’s forgotten people?

17 December 2019

7:16 PM

17 December 2019

7:16 PM

With an ascendant, centre-right leader triumphing over an avowedly socialist opponent in an epoch-making general election, just as Robert Menzies did in 1949, could Boris Johnson be Britain’s new Menzies? Of course, it is still very early days and a completely different historical context yet that said, there are parallels between the re-election of Britain’s Prime Minister last Friday and the election of Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister on 20 December 1949.   

First, the two prime ministers brought a similar political creed to their respective elections. As leaders of the Anglophone centre-right and fellow devotees of Winston Churchill, Johnson and Menzies each stand as heirs to the Victorian British Liberal/Conservative tradition. Menzies was described as a Gladstonian Liberal, while Johnson presents as a “one-nation conservative” in the tradition of Benjamin Disraeli. Although Johnson’s instinct for social and economic liberty may differ in some respects from the Tory paternalism of Disraeli, he holds nonetheless to the “one nation” view that members of society have mutual obligations. In particular, this implies that the wealthier members of society have a duty to improve the lives of all people, provide social support and protect the working classes. “One nation conservatism” is known as such because it envisions not a society of two nations, with a rich one and a poor one, but rather a whole, cohesive nation with its social classes in sync.  

In a similar vein, Menzies held to the notion of a unified Australia that transcended sectarian and class divisions. In contrast to the socialist rhetoric of class conflict, Menzies preached class harmony and the cooperation between capital and labour. In common with Johnson’s “one nation” philosophy, Menzies stood for the interests of the working classes by defending trade unions and reminding businesses of their obligations to protect the rights of workers. In desiring to improve the lives of all people, Menzies expanded health cover for Australians just as Johnson is pledging to do now by boosting the NHS in Britain.  

In resolving to re-enfranchise the nation as a whole, both leaders had invoked expressly the notion of a “forgotten people”. In essence, this represented a broad middle-class constituency of ordinary people whose interests were seen to have been overlooked. Basking in the victory of the Brexit referendum to leave the European Union on 23 June 2016, Johnson remarked that ‘we heard the voices of millions of the forgotten people’. Indeed these ‘forgotten people’ were famously remembered, several decades earlier and half a world away, by Menzies in his Forgotten People speech of 1942. Much like the people Johnson regarded as being forgotten in the whole Brexit debate, Menzies had similarly identified a constituency whose values and aspirations were neglected by the ruling elites in the Australia of his day. In both Australia’s 1949 election and Britain’s 2019 election, this constituency assumed a “kingmaker” role in redrawing the electoral map. 

While the flamboyant and cosmopolitan former mayor of London may seemingly have little in common with the stately, old-world demeanour of the “boy from Jeparit” who led Australia through the post-war years, both men were English-style liberals adept at exploiting the popular appetite for personal libertyLike Margaret Thatcher, they appreciated that the true engine room of freedom and prosperity was not the state, nor big business, but an empowered middle-class. Venturing beyond the echo chambers of focus groups and the clamour of big business, Johnson and Menzies at all times had their ears fixed to the grassroots, attuned to the aspirations of ordinary citizens desiring greater personal freedom.    

Besides the common approach between the two men, a striking symmetry could be detected in the mood of both Johnson’s and Menzies’ constituencies of forgotten people. In both cases they were presented with the choice of either the centre-right pathway, offering smaller government and greater personal liberty from bureaucratic regulation, or the socialist alternative, promising nationalisation and the expansion of government.

In his bid for election as Prime Minister in November 1949, Menzies asked the people: “Are we for the Socialist State, with its subordination of the individual to the universal officialdom of government, or are we for the ancient British faith that governments are the servants of the people?” Like British Labour’s plan to (re)nationalise the railways and other public utilities, it was the central plank of the Chifley Labor government’s policy platform to nationalise the banks and centralise power even further. In both the Australia of 1949 and the Britain of 2019, this broad middle-class constituency, wearied by big government over-reach, voted en masse to regain freedom and personal control over their daily lives without the feeling of being constantly dictated to by the state.  

Just as Menzies’ envisioned a freer and more prosperous post-war Australia unshackled by the dead hand of state socialism, the re-elected Johnson entertains a similar future for a post-Brexit Britain. Having referred to the loss of democratic control as “spiritually damaging”, he maintains that “outside the job-destroying coils of EU bureaucracy”, Britain can “survive and thrive” as never before. Thus having warded off the threat of a socialist Corbynite government, the remaining challenge for Johnson in Britain’s path to greater freedom is to now broker an acceptable secession from the EU 

With Menzies reading adroitly the mood of the Australian public in the 1940s, it was little surprise he was able to foresee the popular discontent that could arise in Britain if it were to go down the path of European integration. In his retirement, he speculated that the English resolve to guard its tradition of responsible government would set the country on a collision course with the aspiration of the European project to override national sovereignty. In 1970, Menzies presciently observed: I think that there are deep-seated instincts…to make the Englishman distrust the idea of subordinating his interests and his political rights to any institution established in Europe’.

With Boris Johnson likewise understanding these ‘deep-seated instincts’ of the national psyche and mobilising these to great effect in the success of the 2016 Leave campaign and the recent general election, could the re-elected Prime Minister of Britain assume the mantle of Menzies as the champion of the ‘forgotten people’?  

David Furse-Roberts is a research fellow at the Menzies Research Centre.

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