Us and the US
[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’. That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings. That format will be followed in the précis. The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Race; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword. Each chapter is about 1400 words.]
The Declaration of Independence was of, by, and for, white men. Opinions were asserted in 1776 that would find no place in America more than two hundred years later. We have seen that the Indians were written off as savage mass murderers. The statement that ‘all men are created equal’ was, to the certain knowledge of the authors, untrue – unless a black man is not a man. That is one count of dishonesty. The second count is the lack of candour on the causes of the revolt.
There is no history of the American Revolution that has been written that says that the American colonies revolted from their subjection to the British crown for any of the reasons that are set out in the eighteen clauses of the Declaration of Independence. The primary reason for the revolt of was the imposition of taxes by the British parliament – when those being taxed had no direct representation in the parliament levying the tax. But British taxation is only referred to once in the Declaration of Independence and then in false terms. They say the King imposed the tax. The Glorious Revolution had put paid to that. Most divorces are about money, and this one was no different. American historians are silent or coy about this. So, the Declaration was infected by two counts of deceit, which you can still see at work today.
The American Declaration of Independence is therefore of limited historical value in explaining why the Americans proceeded as they did, or what values of humanity they proposed to pursue for their future. The tragic truth is that the barefaced lie about slavery would haunt the young republic until it was expunged by the death of more than six hundred thousand Americans in the Civil War and by the moral courage and intellectual genius of Abraham Lincoln, the one unquestionable gift of the United States to humanity.
The United States Constitution is an altogether more prosaic affair. It has served the needs of the nation reasonably well. It was designed to permit the working of government consistently with the rights of its citizens. It was not designed to be an ideological platform, although the amendments that are collectively called the Bill of Rights inevitably invite political, if not ideological, debate.
Perhaps because the U S was moving away from a monarchical government, its constitution invests much more power in its president than do similar constitutions where the monarchy is retained. But a rigidly doctrinal adherence to the separation of powers has produced what for others appear to be unfortunate results. A president may be confronted by a hostile Congress which is bad for both the efficiency of government and the faith of its citizens in the workability of government; and the president is not accountable to Congress in the sense that he can be examined in Congress, as is, say, the prime minister of England every day of the parliamentary year. There is a related problem of the president not being in the parliament – neither is the leader of the opposition, because there is no such office. This does not conduce to honesty or sense from the party not holding presidential office. The result is a sustained divorce from reality that is not healthy and that cannot last. Other difficulties in the Constitution and party system are being fully tested in 2017. Just as tax was hardly spoken of in the Declaration, so no one speaks of it in U S government today.
The First Amendment begins: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ England still is the direct opposite. It has an established church of which the queen is the head and it has a constitution that bars Catholics from sitting on the throne. Yet religion at least appears to be far more prominent in U S political life than in, say, England, France or Germany where it is almost entirely irrelevant. That is the difference between a doctrinaire American and a pragmatic Englishman.
And the one shot that was heard around the world came in 1831 when the British Parliament outlawed slavery. That very significant act of political and moral courage was brought about after an inspired campaign to change and direct public opinion in Britain that was organised and directed by the established church, the Church of England, and a group of religious fanatics who had been hardly done by in America, the Quakers.
The picture of the United States that emerges from a comparison of the beneficiaries of the English and French Revolutions, is one of a conservative, staid and risk-averse political backwater. There are times when sadly the Americans just resemble a God-happy, gun-happy and flag-happy people still in search of a lost king.
The institutions of government in Australia were built by middle class people with at least some education, but the progress was less eventful or momentous. It is about as riveting as the story of the merger of a few town councils. The Australian colonies adopted the Westminster system for each government, and considered the American example in adjusting powers between the states, as the colonies became the Commonwealth of Australia. The federal body was given specific powers, and the states kept the rest.
Allowing for two world wars and the Great Depression, the Commonwealth did what it was appointed to do. Largely as a result of tax decisions of the High Court during the second war, the Commonwealth became preeminent in income tax and therefore political power to an extent not reflected in the Constitution itself. State functions like education, health and transport are de facto run out of Canberra, because it has the money, and this has been a buck-passing Godsend to politicians of all colours at all levels. The average voter, at least in the cities, feels no closer to government in Melbourne or Sydney than Canberra, and the states in America have more impact on life at large than in Australia.
The party that became the conservative party – the Liberal Party – took its time to emerge, but the Labor Party almost from its inception developed a capacity for publicly blowing its brains out by having leaders rat or by self-immolation in a split after World War II that disenfranchised a generation. As a result, it may have provided soul food to its own faithful, but it badly let the people down by failing to provide an electable alternative to the Pontius Pilates opposite them, and the nation drifted into a mindless conservative mediocrity – or, at least, that is how some saw it.
America and Australia now both have a serious problem getting the party model of parliamentary democracy to work. Government is no longer small, and never will be again; taxes are no longer small, and never will be again. We know that we have too much government and too much law. We also know that no one will try to fix it even if they could. It is no good for a political party to remain ideologically pure if it will lock itself out of government for a generation. The government has to govern for the people, and an opposition has to offer an electable alternative. Both nations need to see political parties offer a rational choice on how to go forward – but neither offers grounds for optimism.