Curtin’s Empire, James Curran.

Cambridge University Press Melbourne, 2011

"Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom" is probably the most famous and most plangent sentence in Australian history. We are not a rhetorical people, so it doesn't have much competition. But these few words, almost alone, embody a whole chapter of Australia's national story, and of John Curtin's place in it. They are seen to have defined, at the most critical moment of our history, a tectonic shift in Australia's idea of itself and its place in the world. They are seen to mark Curtin's achievement as a great leader, and the decisive point at which Australia shook free of self-identification with the British Empire, and stood up at last as an independent nation in its own right. And politicians like Julia Gillard line up to bask in the glow.

The job of professional historians is to puncture, or gently correct, such agreeable myths. In Curtin's Empire James Curran gets to work on this central chapter of our story, by scrutinising Curtin's attitudes to Britain and to Australia's Britishness. The result works both ways: it uses Curtin as a lens to explore Australia's attitude to Britain and in the process sheds new and revealing light on the shadowy and evasive Curtin as well. It is a fine and important book.

This is not new ground for Curran. In an earlier volume, The Unknown Nation: Australia after Empire written with Stuart Ward, Curran explored the collapse of Australia's sense of Britishness in the 1960s and 1970s. That book identified both how central our Britishness remained to Australians well into the 1960s, and how quickly and completely it fell away in the 1970s. Now his study of Curtin and the empire helps explain how and why Australians' identification with Britain survived so long after Britain failed us in 1941-42.

The heart of Curtin's Empire is a detailed account of Curtin's campaign in the later stages of World War II to rebuild and strengthen the British Empire as the foundation of Australia's post-war foreign policy. He developed and promoted a detailed proposal to remake the empire as a genuinely collective decision-making body that could harness its collective power in support of its members' individual interests. The proposal went nowhere, as so many other similar proposals had before. But the episode is intriguing because it has always been hard to reconcile with the mythic Curtin and his famous sentence. It has been tempting to dismiss Curtin's proposal as mere political or diplomatic window dressing.

Curran doesn't buy that. He argues on the contrary that Curtin was deeply committed to the idea that Australia's best hope after the war was to strengthen its place as an integral part of a revived and reformed British Empire. Curran supports this conclusion by looking specifically at the way Curtin developed and promoted his proposal, and by examining the way Curtin's attitudes to Britain and the empire evolved during his career.

Curtin's proposal deserves this close attention because it is perhaps the only piece of proactive foreign policy Curtin ever undertook. The circumstances of his leadership meant he was mostly just responding to events as they happened, rather then trying to shape the future. So this is the only evidence we have of Curtin's broader ideas about Australia's place in the post-war world.

It is to Curtin's credit that, as Curran shows, he started setting out his ideas as early as mid-1943, when major campaigns were still being fought in New Guinea. And for Curran, it says a lot about the grip of the empire and Australia's British identity on Curtin's ideas of Australia's future that at this time, only 18 months after the empire had failed Australia so spectacularly at the fall of Singapore, Curtin was so ready to restore the empire as the foundation of Australia's foreign policy. There is no doubt that Britain's and the empire's grip on Curtin's political imagination was very strong, as Curran shows. But—and this is really Curran's point—that tells us less about Curtin as an individual than about the Australia he came to lead. For Curtin and his generation, Australia simply was British.

Of course Curtin, like many of his contemporaries, disapproved of much about Britain's class-based political and social milieu, and he disapproved of the way many Australians—especially his conservative opponents—were drawn to it. But he found no difficulty in disapproving of aspects of Britain while still identifying closely with it. Ultimately this was a matter of race. Nothing separates our world-view today from Curtin and his generation's than the idea of race. To Curtin, racial identification with Britain was central to his vision of Australia and the empire. Curran recounts how, on the night after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and Malaya, announcing that Australia was at war with Japan, Curtin spoke of preserving Australia "as a citadel for the British-speaking race".

The mistake many people make is to assume that this kind of deep, ultimately racial, identification with Britain and the empire was incompatible with a clear sense of Australia's distinct interests, and a robust determination to promote Australia's interests above all else. Curran's work is a potent corrective. There is simply no doubt that Curtin was devoted both to Australia's British identity, and to serving Australia's unique interests, if necessary at Britain's expense. Reconciling this apparent paradox is central to understanding Curtin.

And not just Curtin: recent work by other youngish historians explores the same apparent paradox in the policies of Curtin's political opponents. David Bird's recent book on Joe Lyons, and David Lee's on Stanley Bruce, both show how throughout the 1930s these two conservatives identified Australia's unique interests in the gathering gloom of the 1930, and tried to use the empire to serve them. All were staunch imperialists, and all were willing to put Australia's interest ahead of the empire's.

The key to the paradox is simple enough, as Neville Meaney has shown in his great work on Australia's strategic choices before and during the World War I. To Curtin and his generation, just as for Billy Hughes and Andrew Fisher, participation in the empire seemed, generally, to be the most effective way to protect Australia's interests. They could see that Australia had interests that were not necessarily identical to those of other members of the empire, but they believed the best way to protect them was to work through the empire.

This raises an intriguing and important chicken-and-egg kind of question, which Curran touches on but perhaps doesn't quite answer. Did Curtin's sense of identification with Britain and the empire come first, drawing on some deep well of emotional or psychological identification, or was it simply a consequence of, and rationalisation of, the policy imperative to use the empire as apparently the best available means to look after Australia? Was imperial loyalty and British racial patriotism merely a kind of strategic cupboard love?

It is a chicken-and-egg question, because of course both can play a role, but whereas Curran tends to place most emphasis on the deeper well-springs of identity, I think there is an argument that the practical imperatives of policy did a lot to reinforce and perpetuate Australians' identification with Britishness. In other words, imperial loyalty flowed from, rather then fought against, a sense of Australia's unique interests and how best to protect them.

To see how this might be so we need to consider the problems they faced and the policy options they could see. We Australians have never believed we can defend the continent by ourselves, and have never been sure that our great and powerful friends would send help when we needed it, because they are so far away. Behind all the quasi-mystical mumbo-jumbo, the empire seemed to offer a way to make Britain identify with us, and hence make it more likely that it would send help when we needed it.

It failed the test in 1941, but by 1943, Curtin still could not think of any better way to protect Australia once the war was over. Knowing what he knew then, we might have agreed with him. He had no reason to believe that America would become our new protector; indeed MacArthur had told him specifically that they would not. The UN was still a distant dream. The empire's post-war disintegration was hardly imaginable. One can see why in 1943 turning again to the empire might have seemed the best option.

Actually it is surprising how close to right this turned out to be. After the war, Britain's power in Asia did revive for a while, and Australia depended heavily on it. It was not until 1968 that the empire finally disappeared as a major factor in Australian strategic policy. Since then, to our great good fortune, American power has kept Asia stable and Australia safe.

But now, again, power is shifting away from our great ally, and we face some pressing questions about how Australia should respond. Some—like the unthinking imperialists of old—believe that our relationship with America, anchored as it is in the deep bedrock of shared history, values and culture, transcends and even defines Australia's interests, and that the only possible way forward is to support American primacy come what may. Others believe we need to think a little harder about all this, and consider more carefully exactly what Australia's interests are and how the relationship with America can best serve them. Julia Gillard seems to have stumbled into the first category. I think John Curtin, where he living at this hour, would be in the second.