How the Liberal Party Got its Name

Penning the first of his two memoirs, Afternoon Light, in 1967, Sir Robert Menzies gave the rationale for badging his new party “Liberal” in 1944:

We took the name “Liberal” because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights, and his enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea.

Ever since Menzies wrote these words, this mini-blueprint of the Liberal Party’s philosophy has been quoted and contested by political pundits from university students and political scientists to newspaper columnists, Liberal MPs and even prime ministers. With the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Liberal Party this year and the shift in etymology behind some of Menzies’s key concepts since that time, it is timely to provide some historical context to this oft-quoted yet seldom understood passage.

This essay appears in December’s Quadrant.
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Most importantly, what did Menzies actually mean by “Liberal” in 1944, given the protean nature and contested meaning of the term? If the dominant centre-Right party in Australia was then the United Australia Party (UAP), albeit in a moribund state following its severe loss to Labor in the 1943 federal election, what “Liberal” tradition was Menzies really appealing to? From his myriad speeches, lectures and addresses, it was certainly evident that Menzies identified as a “liberal” before a “conservative”, or for that matter, anything else. Menzies was an avowed liberal, with his philosophy firmly rooted in the soils of both Australia’s Federation liberalism and the earlier Whig liberalism of nineteenth-century England.

Before delving further into the liberal traditions that Menzies sought to channel, it would be useful to explore why Menzies and the early figures of the modern Liberal Party shunned the name “Conservative” in favour of “Liberal” for their new centre-Right party. If today’s Liberal Party is frequently viewed by its detractors and supporters alike as the gate-keeper of conservative principles, does this necessarily mean that the party has betrayed the liberal vision of Menzies, or did Menzies’s original conception of “Liberal” entail conservative predilections?

Menzies and the founders of the Liberal Party cast their nets wide when deliberating about what to call their new party at the October 1944 Canberra conference. Graeme Starr’s insightful study The Liberal Party of Australia: A Documentary History revealed that the name “Liberal” was by no means a foregone conclusion. Delegates canvassed a range of other names including “Democratic”, “Nationalist”, “Constitutionalist”, “Commonwealth”, and indeed, “Liberal” and “Conservative”. The name “Liberal” was initially deemed “unsuitable” for the reason that “the great Liberal Party of Britain has outlived its usefulness and the use of the name in Australia savours of looking backward instead of forward”.

For the reasons outlined later, Menzies eventually settled on the name “Liberal”. But why was “Conservative” rejected as the name for a new centre-Right party that would succeed the UAP? According to the delegates, “Conservative” was deemed “unsuitable” because its adjectival meaning was too narrow and its “aristocratic associations” were unhelpful.

Taking the classic etymological meaning of “Conservative” first, it is apparent that the word told only half the story of the political philosophy behind Menzies and his new party. Taken alone, “Conservative” would imply that the objective of Menzies’s party was merely to preserve and maintain Australia’s economy, infrastructure, society and culture as he found it. While Menzies believed profoundly in the preservation of every good tradition and institution, he also had the wit and imagination to embrace reform and progress ranging from engagement with Australia’s “near north” to increasing the participation of women in higher education and raising the rate of home ownership to around 75 per cent of the population.

This forward-looking approach, indeed, would be borne out in Menzies’s lengthy post-war prime ministership, when his government was responsible for forging new diplomatic and trade ties with the Asia-Pacific region, establishing the Colombo Plan, expanding the higher education system, building new dams, reforming aged care and absorbing over one million new immigrants. Menzies had articulated his ideas for post-war Australia in the Forgotten People broadcasts of 1942-43, and the name “Conservative” was incapable of doing sufficient justice to his progressive vision.

In addition, the aristocratic connotations of the term “Conservative” were problematic. With the name virtually synonymous with the Conservative Party of the UK, it was considered less than apposite for modern Australia. In the middle of the twentieth century, the British Conservative Party was still connected closely to aristocratic interests, even though its constituency had diversified considerably since the great Reform Acts of the nineteenth century. In Australia, on the other hand, the Liberal Party and its centre-Right forerunners since Federation had always been primarily middle-class movements appealing to a broad constituency of both urban and rural Australians.

Furthermore, Menzies, whilst a firm monarchist, was more liberal-democratic than aristocratic in his philosophical sensibilities. In contrast to some of Australia’s early colonial liberals such as William Charles Wentworth, the notion of a “Bunyip Aristocracy” or formal class of “landed gentry” in Australia held no appeal to Menzies. For all his affection for Britain and the Crown, Menzies had no desire to import the old English class system into Australia’s egalitarian, broadly middle-class society. Eschewing the class-consciousness of either aristocracy or socialism, Menzies envisioned a Liberal Party beholden to no classes or sectional interests. Representing the aspirations of ordinary citizens over and above the powerful interests of either the state or of landed wealth, the party would govern for all Australians. In short, Menzies’s Liberals would be the party not of privilege but of aspiration.

Despite the earlier misgivings expressed by delegates to the October 1944 conference, Menzies and his colleagues decided to name their new party the “Liberal Party of Australia”. If the word “Liberal”, however, had associations with the contemporaneous UK Liberal Party which conference delegates were seeking to avoid, then why did Menzies eventually settle for this contentious name? Some clues can be found in the pages of Afternoon Light. Attempting to explain his decision about the party name to English and American readers, as well as Australians, Menzies said at page 286:

The Liberal Party in the United Kingdom is a survival of the great party of Gladstone and Asquith which for so many generations had disputed the field with the Conservative Party. When the Labour Party became, first, a force and then a major force, the Liberal Party became a residual party, destined to be a small group at Westminster. It continues to make an intellectual appeal in University circles, for it always seems to me (and I speak with respect to its leaders) to represent a state of attractive philosophic doubt; to expound its ideas in the general, but seldom to condescend to particulars. It certainly does not constitute an alternative government … When therefore, we decided to call the new and united party the Liberal Party, we were adopting no analogy to the Liberal Party in the United Kingdom.

Accordingly, when Menzies decided on the name “Liberal”, he was of the same mind as his conference delegates to draw a distance between Australia’s new Liberal Party and its British namesake.

The UK Liberal Party by the time of the 1940s was just a shadow of its former self. Emerging as the immediate successor to the Whig Party from the 1850s and competing with the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party had dominated the political scene from the mid-nineteenth century to the Great War as one of Britain’s two major parties. The last Liberal Prime Minister of Great Britain was Lloyd George, who served from 1916 to 1922. After Lloyd George’s premiership, however, the electoral clout of the Liberal Party diminished, superseded by the Labour Party as the alternative to the Conservatives. After the Labour premiership of Ramsay MacDonald in the 1920s, the Liberal Party never returned to being anything other than a philosophically-centrist third force that eventually morphed into the UK Liberal Democrats of today.

Accordingly, when Menzies used the name “Liberal” it was far less about invoking the contemporaneous UK Liberal Party than appealing to the old Whig-derived liberalism of Victorian England. Indeed, one of Menzies’s parliamentary colleagues, Paul Hasluck, observed that the Liberal Party founder saw himself as a political heir to William Ewart Gladstone, the pre-eminent Liberal statesman who served as Prime Minister of Great Britain four times from the 1860s to the 1890s.

Propelled by the twin impulses of tradition and progress, the English Whig liberalism that Menzies identified with had a long heritage dating back to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the seventeenth century. Emerging from these conflicts, Whig liberalism affirmed the principles of parliamentary supremacy and religious toleration. Drawing heavily on the philosophy of John Locke, the English Whigs espoused the notions of “social contract” and “natural rights”, namely the rights to life, liberty and property. In the eighteenth century, these ideas were championed on both sides of the Atlantic by figures such as the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke and the Founding Fathers of the United States such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington who drafted the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers

For Menzies, the Lockean principles of contract and natural rights formed the bedrock of his unshakeable faith in the inherent dignity and freedom of every individual. The Liberal Party’s founding platform affirmed the right to private property and freedom of association, while Menzies himself invoked the Lockean concept of social contract when he spoke of the mutual rights and obligations binding citizens together in a democracy.

The other English Whig ideas that Menzies brought to his philosophy of liberalism were its narrative of human progress and commitment to humane social reform. Each of these came to the fore in the Victorian age, best epitomised by the British prime ministers Lord Palmerston, Lord John Russell and William Gladstone, together with the Whig historian and MP Thomas Babington Macaulay.

In his celebrated History of England, Macaulay portrayed English history as a story of inexorable human progress towards personal liberty, constitutional government and scientific advancement, yet always guided by the best English traditions. Imbibing Macaulay’s narrative of human progress, Menzies, in a 1943 radio broadcast, “The Achievement of Democracy”, quoted a lengthy extract from The History of England with approval as he marvelled at the social and economic strides made by the English-speaking democracies. Like Macaulay, Menzies attributed many of these gains to the progressive impulses of Whig liberalism to improve the wellbeing of humanity.

Channelling Macaulay’s teleology of human progress, Menzies held that Whig liberal principles were the key to Australia’s advancement. In his election campaign speech of 1958, he explained how the application of these principles would bring not only material dividends, but spiritual and mental benefits to make a great nation even greater:

We are determined to help to bring about, in our land, a rapidly growing population of free people, rising production and social wealth, increasing skill and intellectual competence, with emphasis upon the individual and his dignity and independence and, through these priceless elements, the emergence of an Australia powerful and responsible, adequately furnished in material terms but even more richly furnished with those mental and spiritual qualities which have made our race great in the past and will make it greater in the future.

As a Whig-inspired Australian liberal, Menzies envisioned Australia as charting the same upward course as Macaulay’s Britain.

In the tradition of the Victorian Whig Liberals, Menzies also held humane social reform to be an essential driver of human progress. Humane and reforming yet deferential to the Crown and the constitution, the Whig Liberals of Victorian England had a laudable record of advancing human dignity and freedom. With the support of some Tory-aligned parliamentary colleagues, not least William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury, the Whigs and their Liberal successors achieved Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867 to broaden the franchise, the abolition of slavery in 1833, the progressive abolition of child labour in British mines and factories, the expansion of education, and Jewish Emancipation in 1858.

Accordingly, when Menzies took the word “Liberal” for his new party in 1944, he consciously assumed the mantle of the old English Liberals to realise the same ideals of individual dignity, freedom and opportunity for Australians in the mid-twentieth century. Whilst most remembered for his contribution to Australia’s post-war prosperity, Menzies was also a social reformer. His most noteworthy social reforms were in aged-care policy where his government’s Aged Persons Homes Act of 1954 helped personalise and improve the quality of aged care for Australians. For Menzies, the reform of aged-care facilities from the character of institutions to homes stood in the tradition of the nineteenth-century social reformers who had similarly humanised prisons and hospitals. In other social reform measures, Menzies and his government introduced the Medical Benefits Scheme and established work centres to give people with a disability the opportunity and dignity of work.

With his appeal to the notions of social contract and natural rights, his faith in the teleology of human progress, his reverence for English traditions and his commitment to humane social reform, Menzies very much represented a twentieth-century Australian Whig. 

As an Australian-born and Australian-educated liberal, Menzies’s political philosophy was much more than a mere transplant from Britain. Drawing from the more recent tradition of Australian liberalism at the opening of the twentieth century, Menzies’s conception of “Liberal” was indebted to the great Federation-era liberals Henry Parkes, Samuel Griffith, John Downer, Isaac Isaacs, Patrick McMahon Glynn, George Reid, Alfred Deakin and Joseph Cook. For the most part, they adhered to the classic Whig political philosophy of progress and reform guided by tradition and historical precedent. Like the English Whigs, they affirmed the principles of constitutional government and religious toleration that found expression in the Australian Constitution of 1901.

The Federation liberal that Menzies most esteemed was undoubtedly Alfred Deakin, whom he lauded as “one of the greatest men we ever had in Australia”. Admiring Deakin’s contribution to the political and social history of Australia, Menzies remarked that he could see “the name of Deakin and the deeds of Deakin” in all the matters that lay “at the base of Australian development”. Serving as Australian prime minister thrice in the first decade of Federation, Deakin executed his liberal vision of constitutional liberty under the Crown, industrial justice, high living standards, nation-building and a regulated free enterprise that eschewed the extremes of laissez-faire and socialism. This vision was revived by Menzies and his Liberal Party colleagues.

Committed to consolidating the liberal tradition in Australia, Deakin merged his Protectionist Party with the Free Trade Party to form the Commonwealth Liberal Party (CLP) in 1909. In what is historically referred to as the “Liberal fusion”, the CLP led by Deakin and then Joseph Cook represented the first antecedent to Menzies’s Liberal Party.

In what he called the “revival of liberalism in Australia”, Menzies saw his new Liberal Party as returning to the ideals of the Deakin–Cook CLP recalibrated to the circumstances and needs of the post-war years. As David Kemp appreciated, Menzies did not necessarily replicate Deakin’s policy particulars of industry protection, compulsory arbitration and the strict enforcement of White Australia, but rather, applied the broad Deakinite vision to post-war reconstruction, economic growth, industrial relations, foreign policy, education, health and aged care. 

Having established the origins and character of Menzies’s liberalism, would it be accurate to conclude that Menzies was a non-conservative, as some commentators claim today? Prima facie, Menzies’s statement about wanting his new Liberal Party to be a “progressive movement” and “in no sense reactionary” would suggest that his vision for the party had little room for entertaining conservative, traditional or old-fashioned attitudes.

The first thing to remember, however, is that the words progressive and reactionary carried different meanings in Menzies’s time. For Menzies, being a “progressive” was not about being at the vanguard of fashionable and trendy causes, but about advancing the economic and social wellbeing of the nation through free enterprise, limited government, stable families and strong communities. “Reactionary”, meanwhile, referred not to traditional attitudes but rather to the extremes of Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism that Menzies sought to avoid by “marching down the middle of the road”.

Second, it is important to appreciate what Menzies actually said in Afternoon Light immediately after his statement about his vision for the Liberal Party. At page 286, he went on to say, “In the United States of America, the word ‘liberal’ is used in contradistinction to ‘conservative’.” In contrast to the reforming yet tradition-grounded liberalism of Australia that Menzies saw his centre-Right Liberal Party as embodying, the contemporary American liberalism to which Menzies referred to in the late 1960s was an avowedly non-conservative, culturally progressivist, bigger-government philosophy that eventually found its home in the Democrat Party. Menzies was drawing attention to a stark philosophical tension that he did not see existing in the Australian context. While conservatism and liberalism in the US may have represented two contradictory streams, each finding its respective home in the Republican and Democrat parties, this was by no means the case in Australia, where the Liberal Party accommodated a synthesis of the two.

Menzies’s Australian liberalism envisioned no tension between advancing the causes of individual freedom and progress and safeguarding traditions such as the British Crown and Westminster parliamentary democracy, the Australian Constitution, the Judeo-Christian ethic, the natural family, private property and the rule of law. Like Burke, Menzies believed that the maintenance of these institutions provided the essential preconditions for personal liberty and social progress. Menzies embraced a thoroughly Burkean synthesis of liberalism and conservatism.

The other argument used to support the proposition that Menzies was “non-conservative” is that he rarely, if ever, employed the term “conservative”, at least on the public record. A perusal through Menzies’s myriad speeches, addresses, lectures and interviews confirms this. But a reading of this material reveals frequent appeals to tradition, continuity, stability, endurance and preservation. To illustrate how Menzies spoke the mind and vocabulary of a philosophical conservative, a few of the following examples will suffice.

On August 2, 1950, Menzies delivered his first address as Prime Minister to the United States Congress. Commanding the floor from the rostrum, he concluded his speech with the exhortation: “May all that you stand for and that we stand for be preserved under the providence of God for the happiness of mankind.” This revealed the mind of a conservative whose esteem of Australia’s (and America’s) received values was such that he appealed to divine providence for their protection and preservation in the face of Soviet communism.

In a Melbourne speech on March 21, 1959, Menzies spoke about the importance of revering one’s forebears: “This sense of tradition, the sense of continuity—the feeling that one’s predecessors have done well and one must not let them down—this is one of the great things in human life.” This evinced the mind of a conservative who recognised the indispensability of past figures to the present day.

And in Afternoon Light Menzies provided what could only be described as a conservative apologia for keeping the British Crown: 

I believe in the significance of the Crown in our British system of government; and above all I believe that in my time we have had monarchs of high character and powerful personality, who have made a notable contribution to our history, who have been real contributors to the continuity of our institutions, and whose status, both official and personal, has helped to establish that simple sense of continuity and endurance.

Conservatives by no means believe in preserving every institution merely for the sake of preservation, but if a cogent case can be made for how a received institution continues to enrich the present, conservatives will defend it, just as Menzies did with the constitutional monarchy.

Given the demonstrated capacity of Menzies’s liberalism to conserve the best of the received traditions, mores, values and institutions of the past, in contrast to liberal movements elsewhere, most notably in the United States, there was little need for him in his day to qualify his creed with the label of “conservative”. 

As a barrister and a connoisseur of English literature, Menzies understood well the power of words and the meaning they could convey, a meaning often forged through centuries of history. Nowhere was this more apparent than when Menzies and his colleagues decided on the name with which to christen their new political party seventy-five years ago.

For the Liberal Party’s founder, the adoption of this name evinced not so much a repudiation of conservative principles, but rather a recognition that “Liberal”, as he conceived it, captured more holistically the political creed he embodied. “Conservative” might have touched well upon his party’s reverence for tradition and instinct to conserve the best of the past, but “Liberal”, especially when understood in the light of its Australian heritage and English Whig origins, encapsulated fully the new party’s disposition to both tradition and progress. In an age where the etymology of “Liberal” is perennially contested both inside and outside the Liberal Party, this historical context helps us to appreciate why Menzies took the name “Liberal” for his new party in 1944.

David Furse-Roberts is Research Fellow at the Menzies Research Centre. He edited the collection Menzies: The Forgotten Speeches (Connor Court, 2017)

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