Memories of Spender tend to feature contrasts or qualifications: a loner, yet with extraordinary capacity to cultivate relations with people; a maverick within the Liberal Party, yet one of its star performers; an advocate of relinquished state sovereignty in the interests of international arbitration while acting as though this ideal was almost beyond reach; and an enthusiast of the ideas behind ‘the American Century’ while despairing at the lack of thorough Australian–US planning in defence, foreign policy and economic cooperation, in the wake of the ANZUS treaty. Rather than puzzling contradictions, I suggest that such tensions were symptomatic of a life that not only happened to be in politics, domestic and international, but a life that was, to a large degree, made by politics. Spender was more than merely an observer-participant in the great upheavals wrought by war, hot and cold, and the erosion of Europe's influence overseas in the middle decades of the twentieth century. He drew energy from travelling, reading, debating and generally plunging himself into the ceaseless task of constructing policy that would cater for Australia's distinctive interests in this changing world.
In the realm of Australian foreign policy he is rightly celebrated. ANZUS and the Colombo Plan, while both the products of several policymakers and particular circumstances, owe a lot for their conception to Spender's drive, intellectual rigour and will to succeed. His lobbying and cajoling could be abrasive, but it was also effective.
In February 1943 the ABC broadcast a profile of Percy Spender as part of a series of Australian biographies. Rich in detail and generally admiring, the profile concluded; ‘Mr Spender is one of the small group of men … who have done much to raise the quality of the federal parliament in the last decade; young and successful men, but with a breadth of culture and independence of mind which distinguish them from the conservative leaders of a past generation’.
Spender's strong streak of independence, both literal in his status during his first year in parliament and then evident in his behaviour after joining the United Australia Party, gave him a maverick status in the party. His position within the UAP was not quite unique, for there were some general dividing lines in non Labor politics. In New South Wales a generational divide corresponded roughly to those with whom he mingled. A good number of older members never forgave Spender his impudent deposing of party stalwart, Parkhill. The younger members (i.e. those under fifty), often university educated, and several in law, formed their own sub-group. As Henry Storey, one of the young turks, recalled, the 1930s was remarkable for the sudden influx of university-educated men who revelled in ‘hunting and scalp-gathering together’. Independent-minded members flourished in an environment enriched by the jostling of conservative. Wales energy flowed smoothly into a rift-ridden federal party.
The four years between the end of the Second World War and the 1949 election campaign saw fierce political debates about the future of Australia's democracy. The Chifley government, from 1945, pushed ahead with an ambitious programme of social welfare, nationalisation of key industries and extending the Commonwealth's control over prices, rents, banking and other aspects of commercial activity. The backlash to such measures assisted the new Liberal Party in developing some momentum in parliament. This period also saw a substantial adjustment from Spender on the issue of central powers versus individuals' and states' rights. By the end of 1947, ten years after he had first entered parliament, he had abandoned his dogged preparedness to side with Labor in the interests of a strong central government providing direction for the economy.
It appeared such a change of heart that it attracted derision from Labor politicians, and puzzled some of his supporters. The reasons for his shift were several. In general terms, they stemmed partly from his growing conviction that Labor was debasing parliamentary democracy and deliberately extending wartime exigency into its post-war planning, but also from his first-hand observation of socialism overseas, and of the implications of the Cold War for Australia. Importantly, the change also meant that Spender became a far more effective and reliable frontbencher in parliament.
New South Wales politics stabilized under the Stevens–Bruxner coalition government, although Lang and his supporters bounced back from their defeat to maintain greater influence than the now-separate Labor Party. The New Guard had petered out by 1935. Unemployment had peaked, but the national figure was still over ten per cent in 1938. Most attention in the latter part of the decade was focused on the unemployed youth. There was a generation of men (such was the concern for young men that the nearly 200,000 women factory workers of Australia generated considerable resentment) who were aged fifteen to seventeen in 1930, and were now in their early twenties, who had experienced either little or no work. Looking outside Australia, there were good grounds for thinking that disaffected youth were vulnerable to the extremist politics, especially fascism, which had taken hold in Europe. If Germany and Italy were too removed from the Australian Anglocentric political culture for real comparison, then Oswald Mosley's fascist youth in England was unnerving. The Stevens–Bruxner government set up a Young Citizens Movement in 1932 for the youth of New South Wales in an effort to combine occupational training with social and recreational activities.
There was a degree of public self-examination prompted by Australia's sesquicentennial celebrations, focused on Sydney, from January to April 1938. Amidst the notes of self-congratulation marking 150 years since white settlement, there were also some cross-currents of anxiety about Australia's standing in the world.
There was little time to pause and reflect on electoral success and Percy's latest tilt towards leadership of the party. Two very different developments dominated the immediate aftermath of the election. One was his purchase of Headingly House, and the other was preparation for a Commonwealth foreign ministers' conference, the first of its kind, to be held in Colombo in January. Within three weeks of the election Spender was flying to Ceylon, via Djakarta. In the eyes of many, the year 1950 also marked the spread of the Cold War into Asia. In February Stalin signed a friendship treaty with Mao's new Chinese People's Republic and in the middle months of the year communist-led pro-independence groups launched or intensified attacks against governments in Vietnam, Malaya and the Philippines. More than these developments, the North Korean invasion of South Korea on 25 June marked the start of a new prospect of escalating wars in Asia. The attack triggered a military response by a US-led United Nations force, and from November, Chinese involvement in support of North Korea.
Spender was only Minister for External Affairs (and for Territories) for sixteenth months, and he treated this period as a long-awaited window of opportunity in which to realize some of the reforms he sought in Australia's overseas relations.
This book is a life story of one of Australia's most internationally-minded politicians; and a life story revealing new perspectives on the tensions between Australian ‘Britishness’ and the rise of the United States as a world power in the middle decades of the twentieth century. The book is innovative in adding the type of social, cultural and intellectual perspectives to broader understandings of Australia's changing orientation in world affairs that can best be appreciated in the context of a prominent life story. One of my main arguments is that Spender's attraction to the ‘American Century’ provided mixed blessings in public life: his independent thinking about Australia's future and the rise of the United States helped ensure political prominence, but through the 1930s to 50s, it also leant a maverick status that was hard to throw off.
The related aim is to reveal the full life story of a figure who is always invoked in studies of Australia in world affairs, but has never been subjected to biographical treatment. In brief, the course of Percy Spender's life fits the pattern of the self-made man. From humble origins he succeeded both scholastically and as a Sydney barrister, and then, as an independent candidate, was elected to federal parliament. He joined the anti-Labor United Australia Party (UAP) and soon won respect and ministerial positions in the Menzies government of 1939–41, and then re-emerged as one of Menzies's senior colleagues in the coalition government elected in December 1949.
Percy Claude Spender had a difficult childhood. He was born on 5 October 1897, the fifth child of Frank Henry Spender and his wife Mary (née Murray). Since marrying in 1885 in Norwood, Adelaide, Frank and Mary had produced children steadily. Percy's three brothers, Augustus (Gus), Frank and Lionel were born in Adelaide, in that order, between 1886 and 1889. The family then moved to Sydney in 1890. The first girl, Lavinia, was born in 1893, followed by Percy, and then another daughter, Alice, in 1900.
Percy's father Frank, himself one of seven children, was ‘an independent locksmith’ in Darlinghurst Road, King's Cross, and Percy was born in nearby William Street, at number 153. Frank had grown up in Adelaide, where his father, Job, was a successful master builder and was ultimately appointed the city's Clerk of Works. The line of Australian Spenders is traceable to western England in the fourteenth century, with the most direct descendants concentrated in Wiltshire, particularly at Trowbridge and Bradford on Avon. The name ‘Spender’ connoted a class of minor officials dispensing the moneys of dignitaries. Percy's father Frank was neither official nor dignitary but was well-regarded, both in the neighbourhood and as a tradesman.
All of Percy's childhood homes were in close proximity: William Street, first number 153, and then number 188; from 1905 to 1914, in the terrace above his father's place of trade, 29 Darlinghurst Road; and then back to William Street, briefly number 229, and later number 191.
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