Sunday, December 7, 2008

The forgotten people

This is one of the all time great speaches given in Australia. Still as relevant today as it was over 60 years ago when it was given by Sir Robert Menzies on 22 May 1942 ...

Quite recently, a bishop wrote a letter to a great daily newspaper. His theme was the importance of doing justice to the workers. His belief, apparently, was that the workers are those who work with their hands. He sought to divide the people of Australia into classes. He was obvioulsy suffering from what has for years seemed to me to be our greatest political disease - the disease of thinking that the community is divided into the rich and relatively idle, and the laborious poor, and that every social and political controversy can be resolved into the question: What side are you on?
Now, the last thing that I want to do is to commence or take part in a false war of this kind. In a country like Australia the class war must always be a false war. But if we are to talk of classes, then the time has come to say something of the forgotten class - the middle class - those people who are constantly in danger of being ground between the upper and the nether millstones of the false class war; the middle class who, properly regarded, represent the backbone of this country.
We do not have classes here as in England and therefore the terms do not mean the same; so I must define what I mean when I use the expression "middle class".
Let me first define it by exclusion. I exclude at one end of the scale the rich and powerful: those who control great funds and enterprises, and are as a rule able to protect themselves - though it must be said that in a political sense they have as a rule shown neither comprehension nor competence. But I exclude them because in most material difficulties, the rich can look after themselves.
I exclude at the other end of the scale the mass of unskilled people, almost invariably well organised, and with their wages and conditions protected by popular law. What I am excluding them from is my definition of middle class. We cannot exclude them from the problem of social progress, for one of the prime objects of modern social and political policy is to give to them a proper measure of security, and provide the conditions which will enable them to acquire skill and knowledge and individuality.
These exclusions being made, I include the intervening range - the kind of people I myself represent in Parliament - salary earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on. These are, in the political and economic sense, the middle class. They are for the most part unorganised and unselfconscious. The are envied by those whose social benefits are largely obtained by taxing them. They are not rich enough to have individual power. They are taken for granted by each political party in turn. They are not sufficiently lacking in individualism to be organised for what in these days we call "pressure politics". And yet, as I have said, they are the backbone of the nation.
The middle class, more than any other, provides the intelligent ambition which is the motive power of human progress. The idea entertained by many people that, in a well-constituted world, we shall all live on the State is the quintessence of madness, for what is the State but us? We collectively must provide what we individually receive.
The great vice of democracy - a vice which is exacting a bitter retribution from it at this moment - is that for a generation we have been busy getting ourselves on to the list of beneficiaries and removing ourselves from the list of contributors, as if somewhere there was somebody else's wealth and somebody else's effort on which we could thrive.
To discourage ambition, to envy success, to hate achieved superiority, to distrust independent thought, to sneer at and impute false motives to public service - these are the maladies of modern democracy, and of Australian democracy in particuar. Yet ambition, effort, thinking, and readiness to serve are not only the design and objectives of self-government but are the essential conditions of its success. If this is not so, then we had better put back the clock and search for a benevolent autocracy once more.
Where do we find these great elements most commonly? Among the defensive and comfortable rich, among the unthinking and unskilled mass, or among what I have called the "middle class"?
One of the great blots on our modern living is the cult of false values, a repeated application of the test of money, notoriety, applause. A world in which a comedian or a beautiful half-wit on the screen can be paid fabulous sums, whilst scientific researchers and discoverers can suffer neglect and starvation, is a world which needs to have its sense of values violently set right.
Now, have we realised and recognised these things, or is most of our policy designed to discourage or penalise thrift, to encourage dependence on the State, to bring about a dull equality on the fantastic idea that all men are equal in mind and needs and desserts: the level down by taking the mountains out of the landscape, to weigh men according to their political organisations and power - as votes and not as human beings? These are formidable questions, and we cannot escape from answering them if there is really to be a new order for the world...
If the new world is to be world of men, we must be not pallid and bloodless ghosts, but a community of of people whose motto shall be, "to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield". Individual enterprise must drive us forward. That does not mean that we are to return to the old and selfish notions of laissez-faire. The functions of the State will be much more than merely keeping the ring within which the competitors will fight. Our social and industrial obligations will be increased. There will be more law, not less; more control, not less.
But what really happens to us will depend on how many people we have who are of the great and sober and dynamic middle class - the stivers, the planners, the ambitious ones. We shall destroy them at our peril.

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