In conjunction with the launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on the role and continued relevance of embassies.

In his first post in this series, Ric Smith emphasised the crucial role Ambassadors and diplomats play in adding that extra layer of analytical rigour and depth to Canberra's grasp of what is happening overseas ('Embassies can shape policy').

That issue of diplomatic reporting was one just of the factors at play in an obscure yet intriguing episode in the history of Australian diplomatic representation abroad: the transfer of responsibility for the administration of Australia House in London from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which had controlled the post since its opening in 1910, to the Department of Foreign Affairs. Lest readers think this is some kind of wistful waltz down memory lane, a dusty missive from the archival coal face, the move was freighted with a great deal of significance and meaning for Australia's place in the world in that era.

Detail from Australia House, The Strand, London. (Flickr/shirokazan.)

On the face of it, as Stuart Ward and I showed in The Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire, the move represented little more than an administrative convenience, with few if any direct complications. But it also formed part of a far deeper conceptual change in the way Australia's relations with the UK were conceived and conducted.

The story begins in the late 1960s and 70s, in the wake of two seismic shocks to the national strategic imagination: Britain's impending entry into the EEC and its decision to draw down its military presence in Southeast Asia.

Accordingly, Australian politicians and policymakers began the process of putting the relationship with Britain on a 'foreign' footing. As Prime Minister John Gorton had bluntly told the then High Commissioner to the UK, Sir Alexander Downer, on his arrival in London in January 1969 for a Commonwealth Prime Ministers conference, Britain 'had become for Australians a foreign country'. The 'old links were breaking', Gorton told Downer in the car en route from Heathrow to the Savoy Hotel, and 'sentiment alone could not sustain our association'.

For Downer, himself known around the traps of Whitehall as 'violently Anglophile', the Prime Minister's assessment amounted to a kind of heresy. Later, he recounted how, at hearing Gorton's words, he had simply slumped back into his seat, finding solace in a world outside he saw as his own: 'though the light was grey, the trees bare, Kensington Road and Hyde Park did not look like a foreign country to me'.

Clearly, to acknowledge that Britain was simply one of a number of 'foreign' countries with which Australia did business was akin to relinquishing cherished ideas about Australia's place in the world as a 'British' country. But in the late 1960s, that kind of language, and that kind of worldview, was already becoming a serious liability: out of step with a changing Australia.

Although the Prime Minister's department vigorously resisted any suggestion that it cede control of Australia House — they saw the Australia-UK relationship as the special preserve of the PM and his British counterpart — nevertheless Foreign Affairs officials continued to make the case to their political masters that the transfer of responsibility should take place.

In 1971, for example, Foreign Affairs Secretary Keith Waller believed that the case for a transfer was simple: he observed that 'a factor in the past was that Australians thought of themselves primarily as "British". Most now think of themselves as "Australians"'. The need, therefore, to 'mark our relations with Britain as something longer exists'.

As Stuart Ward has pointed out, no other country in the Commonwealth had a separate department of state to deal with Britain, and 'with the merger of the Commonwealth and Foreign Offices in Britain in 1968, it seemed natural and normal that Australia should adjust its own administrative practices accordingly'.

Waller's insistence on making the change also unleashed some internal departmental frustrations about the kind of reporting on British politics that it had been receiving from High Commissioner Downer at that time. Nigel Bowen told Prime Minister McMahon that as Foreign Minister he had 'less information as to what is the thinking of the UK government on various issues than from the other capitals in which we have the higher representation from Foreign Affairs'. In the Prime Minister's Department, those comments were taken as a 'vote of total no confidence in the present High Commissioner'.

Downer's trenchant views on many of the key issues facing the two countries at this time — not least Britain's EEC ambitions — were being interpreted as out of step with opinion back home in Australia, and his judgment was being called into question. Even the British Defence Secretary, Denis Healey, confided to Australia's High Commissioner in Singapore that 'poor old Alex...doesn't really understand us and we find there is not much point in talking to much longer does he have to serve?'.

Downer was vehemently against the idea of a transfer of responsibility for running Australia House, but had been effectively shut out of the negotiations. He was, however, supported initially by McMahon, who reminded Bowen that for many Australians, 'Britain has a special place not occupied by any other country in the world'.

A bitter debate then ensued between the Prime Minister's Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs. In the resulting compromise, McMahon retained responsibility for ties to the Crown, Commonwealth Prime Ministers conferences and the right to appoint the High Commissioner. Foreign Affairs acquired the right to appoint their own career officers to the crucial deputy high commissioner post, thereby securing effective responsibility for the mission.

When Prime Minister McMahon announced the decision in 1972, however, he said that it took place 'against the background of Britain's entry into Europe'. Far from representing a simply bureaucratic switch, the decision indicated that in the wider atmosphere of Australia's shifting policies and priorities following the demise of the British race idea, the old hearth at the heart of empire was to be treated just like any other Australian mission abroad.