When a few months ago my friend Tom Switzer – former editor of this magazine and now director of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney – invited me to Australia to talk about Brexit and the British political situation, little did I imagine the frenzied chaos I would be leaving behind in Blighty. Three years and three months after the biggest democratic vote in my country’s history was cast to leave the European Union, we have not left. Our new prime minister says he would rather be ‘dead in a ditch’ than seek an extension of our EU membership while a deal is negotiated, a law having been passed ordering him to do so; he may be sent to jail if he doesn’t. As I went from Sydney to Brisbane to Canberra to speak about all this, I realised how lucky it was that when my Australian audiences were awake the British political class was asleep. Given the speed at which events were moving, I could at least be sure the situation I was describing had not changed utterly by the time I had finished my remarks.
I first visited Australia in 1988 as part of Mrs Thatcher’s press party, during the bicentenary. As a child in the 1960s and 1970s I had been brought up on Chips Rafferty films, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and The Flying Doctor: Australia seemed a paradise where the sun always shone. A snobbish colleague on that trip told me on the plane going out that it was ‘the biggest sergeants’ mess in the world’; the sincere welcome then has been replicated on my five subsequent visits.
There is no country on earth with which a normal Pom feels greater affinity, or instantly feels so at home, as Australia – reminding us how ridiculous it was to distance ourselves from our kith and kin when joining the Common Market in 1973, and what enormous scope there is to renew, rebuild, and strengthen both cultural and commercial relations once we shake off the yoke of Brussels. And for those of us who enjoy the local produce, the whopping 32 per cent tariff Europe imposes on wines from the new world to protect the often paint-stripperish stuff it produces will be consigned to history. Cheers!
The only disappointment of my trip was that a dinner scheduled with Tony Abbott was cancelled because he had something better – much better – to do. In his role as a reserve fire officer he was fighting the alarming bush fires in northern New South Wales. Back in Blighty our politicians grease up to what they patronisingly call “ordinary people” by “paying tribute” to the emergency services at every opportunity. I cannot immediately call to mind any senior ministers who, having lost office, proved the sincerity of their admiration by volunteering for fire, police or ambulance work. Our former Secretary of State for Defence, Penny Mordaunt, has however a distinguished record of service in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. It was widely agreed that this made her an exceptional secretary of state. However, for failing to support Boris Johnson in his recent leadership campaign – even though she is a Brexiteer – she was sacked. If the same fate befalls Mr Johnson – as it well may – we would await with interest to see whether he uses the resulting abundance of leisure to learn to drive a fire engine and deploy a hose.
Australia is not, regrettably, unique in harbouring a cadre of leftist soi-disant intellectuals who hate their country. The absurd objections to the work of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which simply seeks to educate people properly about the richness of Western culture, have included some halfwit blaming the Christchurch massacre of Muslims on the sort of work the Ramsay Centre seeks to do in Australian universities. In encouraging the teaching of Western civilisation, the centre makes no case for its supremacy: only an idiot would do that, or think it possible. One of the most breathtaking things I learned about Australian discourse during my visit was that people are objecting to the commemoration next year of the 250th anniversary of the arrival of Captain Cook. The logical course of action for such people is to repatriate themselves to the lands whence their forebears came to Australia, thereby avoiding association with the imperialist and invader. And the sooner they do, the better for Australia.
It was a joy to re-visit Brisbane, where it seems, to frozen and rain-drenched Poms, to be summer all year. I hadn’t been there since November 1990 when, in one of the more embarrassing moments of my life as a political commentator, I was at the Gabba watching England lose to Australia at the very moment Mrs Thatcher was being defenestrated by the largely forgotten pygmies who formed her cabinet. It was a profoundly depressing experience, its pain unassuaged by the consumption of my first Four and Twenty pie, obtained from the Wally Grout Refreshment Bar at the Vulture Street end. (It has ever since been my ambition to achieve such eminence that a place of refreshment is named after me; I continue to fail.) Still, it was probably a more satisfying event than one I experienced on my first visit to the city, two years earlier, to the bicentenary Expo on Mrs Thatcher’s Australia trip. All other memories have been erased by the hideous spectacle of Rolf Harris greeting her and singing Tie me Kangaroo Down, Sport to the tune of Land of Hope and Glory (do try it in the bath; it fits). It was not an offence he asked to be taken into consideration when sent to prison in England for unspeakable crimes, but probably should have been.