Stone the crows! The Brits bequeathed us the killer apps for prosperity and identity – which will help as we grow closer to Beijing.

The Crows are just old enough to remember when the left walloped Westminster as well as Washington, when the British ruling class was despised for sending Anzacs to the slaughter in WWI, for trying to rob us blind in the Depression and then abandoning us after the fall of Singapore in 1942.

Manning Clark had a great deal to do with keeping these inane ideas alive, notably the way he sneered at R G Menzies’ affection for the Brits.[i] So did Paul Keating, what with the way he praised the founding fathers with faint damns. “Our Federation was put together by lawyers and businessmen – mostly old forelock tuggers – people who set us up as a British satellite. They were little nationalists. Safe little nationalists.” [ii]

Which they were – Australian/British nationalists, committed to the ideal of Australia as a British country, a commitment that continued well after WWII. It did not mean Australians subordinated their own interests to those of the UK – from Federation there were incessant Australian demands for more loans and defence guarantees that protected Australia rather than imperial interests.

As Neville Meaney puts it, “This pattern of independence in policy-making neither derived from Australian national sentiment nor helped in any substantial way to foster it. Australian leaders’ Britishness led them, as cultural nationalism required, to persist in looking for common policies which could unite all British peoples.” [iii]

But, as well as identity, investment and immigrants, the Brits gave us something else as valuable – institutions – and it is the last that shaped the first. As Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens pointed out on Friday, being settled by the Brits gave us parliamentary democracy plus property rights protected by the rule of law. As Stephens put it:

The fact that so many prominent English-speaking former colonies are counted among the rich of the advanced world today is perhaps not entirely a coincidence.[iv]

Of course, it isn’t that simple. Britain’s old African empire has struggled with the foundations of freedom and many of its former Asian colonies still struggle to get the hang of it. But the settler societies, where British institutions were built from the bottom up – Canada, Australia and New Zealand – have done well and are now doing better than Britain itself.

This is not to ignore the fate of the original owners of the three countries – as Mr Stevens said of Australia:

…that property rights could become so well established in a society in which the “immigrants” of 1788 had no such rights is, perhaps, an ironical outcome. And we are still coming to terms with the property rights of those descended from the inhabitants who were here before 1788.

Even so, the Brits got it relatively right, where just about no other colonial power did, even the US. While Hawaii is a state of the Union, the other big colony, the Philippines, is hardly a model state. Its per capita purchasing power is 165th in the world and it rates 105 on Transparency International’s 2012 list. [v]

What the Brits provided their settler societies with was the rule of law and property rights and at least the foundations of democracy – the first two are among what Niall Ferguson calls the “killer apps” in ideas and institutions that laid the foundations for today’s richest nations.[vi]

As Glenn Stevens said, “There is a real sense in which the UK and Australia share an outlook, at a very basic level, on how an economy should be organised and governed.”

The great Deirdre McCloskey argues that respect for entrepreneurs, rather than the killer aps of democracy, free enterprise and the rule of law, creates national prosperity.[vii] But the latter create the conditions where the former can grow. And the Brits gave them to us.

They will come in handy in years to come as we cosy up to Beijing, a regime we do not have lot in common with, other than trade. Just as we hung on to the imperial link after it had become practically pointless we will maintain our shared values with the Yanks, long after they no longer can or will guarantee our sovereignty.



[i] Brian Mathews, Manning Clark (Sydney, 2010) 361

[ii] Paul Keating, “Speech to Australian Labor Party Gala Federation Dinner,” May 8 2001 (in) P J Keating, After words: the post-prime ministerial speeches (Sydney 2012) 166

[iii] Neville Meaney, “Britishness and Australian identity: the problem of nationalism in Australian history and historiography,” Australian Historical Studies, 32, 116 (April 2001) 76-90, 88

[iv] Glenn Stevens, “The United Kingdom and Australia: shared history, shared outlook: remarks to the Australia British Chamber of Commerce,” October 18 @ http://goo.gl/cbgnJQ recovered on October 19

[v] Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, 2012 @ http://goo.gl/yRCQh recovered on October 19, Transparency International. “Corruption Perception Index 2012,” @ http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2012/results/ recovered on October 19 http://goo.gl/DV4Fqa

[vi] TED Radio Hour, “Will the west of the world catch up to the west?” National Public Radio, October 18 @ http://goo.gl/DV4Fqa

[vii] Deirdre McCloskey Bourgeois Dignity (Chicago 2011)