Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

John Howard Extends His Reign

I GAVE JOHN HOWARD’S hulking autobiography Lazarus Rising to my younger daughter for a birthday present, and now I have borrowed it back. She was impressed, and I am too. Prime minister of Australia for more than eleven and a half years, Howard was never a physically imposing figure. When he went out for a run every morning, he could leave some of the journalists gasping, but showing off was not his style. He writes as he spoke: always clear but never exciting. To be without style was his style: on holidays at Nambucca Heads on the northern coast of New South Wales, he would paddle about in the water in his long shorts with a hat improvised out of a handkerchief to protect him from the sun. At such times he was the very picture of what Australians call the Aussie Battler: the average bloke slogging along to keep his family fed and well. But in Parliament his mind came into play, and it ran rings around the opposition, the Australian Labor Party, or ALP. The ALP regarded him as the devil. So did almost the whole of the Australian intelligentsia, who have been handing down their elementary anti-American, anticapitalist, and indeed anti-Australian views from one generation to the next for many years now. There is a vestigial blue-collar left to which I myself still belong, but the much more vocal white-collar left has always been united in hating Howard, despite, or perhaps because of, his popularity with the electorate. The Labor Party spent a doomed decade looking for a leader who would be so different from Howard that the electorate would change its allegiance. Then Kevin Rudd realized that the only way to win against Howard was to promise to do all the same things Howard did, but do them younger.

Howard’s book is an educational text for showing how far you can get in Australian politics by balancing the books and saying what you mean. Nevertheless, he could make mistakes, and he made a whopping mistake in his last term, when he somehow concluded that he could not endorse his highly competent treasurer, Peter Costello, as his natural successor. Effectively, Howard was calling himself indispensable. The British have a monarch anyway; and the Americans treat their president as a monarch, sometimes with ludicrously overblown results; but most Australians want no monarchies any closer than, say, London.

I deduce from Howard’s book, which is luminously self-aware in all other respects, that Howard never quite grasped why he was toppled. But the answer is not beyond analysis: as long as he behaved as if he thought of himself as an ordinary man, intelligent voters were ready to think him extraordinary, but when he behaved as if he thought of himself as an extraordinary man, he was finished.

Finished but not quite. He has written this book, and soon there will be another one about the Menzies era. The name of Menzies, crucial to modern Australian history, is already forgotten out there in the less fortunate world, and soon the name of Howard will be too, to anyone except a student of Western democracy. But he’s ready for that.

One of the many admirable things about him was that he genuinely believed that to be prime minster of Australia was quite enough glory to be going on with. His successor, Kevin Rudd, wanted to be secretary general of the United Nations. The debate goes on about which of Howard’s successors was worse: Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard. To help scramble the question further, each of these two Labor Party giants has published a book vilifying the other. In the meanwhile, Howard is adding to the essential literature which will help explain to the next generation of Australians just how their nation has come to hold its exceptional position.