Monday, June 25, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            Some people can get quite het up on the topic of monarchy.

            I can tell you my own nearest encounter with a rabid monarchist.

            I was at a banquet at a Cambridge college. The royal toast was proposed, whereupon we were all supposed to raise our glasses and say “The Queen!” Not wishing to upset the loyal throng, and making sure that my voice could be heard only by those nearest to me at the table, I instead raised my glass at the given moment and said “The Republic!” This was greeted with good humour by most of my neighbours, who understood, as I did, that toasting the Queen is a mere formality. But one zealous monarchist was seated opposite me. “Shame!” she hissed, her face livid with anger. Oh dear. The poor woman obviously took this mummery seriously. Her identity was bound up in it. She wished to argue the case when conversation resumed, but I let her rant without replying. She eventually ran out of puff.

            Rational discussion with zealots is an impossibility.         

            Not all my encounters with convinced royalists have been this fraught.

            Some time ago, I was having a polite difference of opinion with a gentle-spirited but committed royalist. He, a New Zealander, maintained that the royal family was necessary to preserve a sense of historical continuity and stability, and that it represented something called “heritage” (a term much beloved by makers of bad British historical films). I maintained that the main function of the royal family nowadays was as a drawcard to bring tourists to Britain, and that the queen could no longer be called “sovereign” in any real sense. Functioning democracy means the people – and their representatives – are now sovereign and ultimately decide whether there is a monarchy or not. The Queen is, in effect, an approved civil servant.

            We disagreed amicably. I assure you it was not a heated or intemperate argument.
            Imagine my amusement, then, when the following day a leading newspaper published a feature article supporting monarchy on the grounds that (a.) it brought to Britain so much revenue from tourism; and (b.) it was still approved of by most of the British public. These were very arguments that my royalist friend had found unsatisfactory as rationales for monarchy.

            I tell these anecdotes first, to establish that I do not spend my time campaigning ardently for a republic and I do know some quite nice royalists even if I have met some ridiculous ones.

            No rational argument for monarchy stands up. Why, we have to ask, are there hereditary heads of state anyway?

            Once upon a time it would have been said that God chose them to rule, and there may be a handful of people who still believe this. But I doubt that the vast majority of any monarch’s subjects any longer believe it. This would be true even of the religious believers among them. I know of no respectable modern theology which says that choosing and endorsing monarchs is part of God’s business.

            Closely allied to the argument of divine approval there is the argument of legitimacy. By bloodline and royal descent, the Queen is seen as representing an unbroken line of monarchs and hence as embodying a tradition as old as the nation. But this argument rapidly proves to be a falsehood based on simple ignorance of history. If we look at the real history of any country with a monarchy, we find that there is never an unbroken lines of monarchs. There have always been usurpations and depositions and monarchs made and broken for the sake of political convenience. Henry VII and the Tudors grabbed the English crown with no legitimate claim to it. James II was kicked off the throne because he was the wrong religion. When his daughter Anne died, a German princeling was found to fill the English throne rather than defaulting to more legitimate heirs. There was funny business involved in the way Victoria succeeded her debauched uncles.

            There are doubtless alive many obscure descendants of Angevins and Plantagenets and Stuarts with more real claim to the throne by bloodline than the present incumbent. The legitimacy argument doesn’t work.

            One argument I might possibly accept from monarchy is the argument of mystique. The monarch is said to have influence by virtue of nothing that can be rationalised, but by virtue of the office and its distance from ordinary human experience. This argument probably worked for many in the days before the mass media. A king or queen was a distant and never-seen person to most peasants and burghers, so he/she could become a reassuring, almost religious figure. But the concept of mystique is less tenable in an age of mass exposure. Nearly sixty years ago (in 1955), in a New Statesman article, Malcolm Muggeridge accurately described the British royal family as an “ongoing soap opera for the middle classes”. The article caused outrage among royalists at the time, but read now (it can easily be accessed on-line) it is the mildest and most polite criticism of the institution of monarchy, and certainly less trenchant than criticisms that have come since.

            The media have moved on and the mystique of monarchy has all but evaporated. Even sane publications like the NZ Listener can still go gooey and come out with over-generous assessments of the Queen on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee. But the reality is that royalty now inhabits the same cultural niche as rock groups or soap stars – fodder for women’s magazines and tabloids. No mystique there.

            I admit that I can see a role for a reassuring national figurehead above politics, and I find the need for such a figurehead the most sympathetic argument for monarchy. There is a place for somebody, other than a partisan politician, to launch ships, open hospitals, declare times of mourning after a national tragedy and so on. By this stage some royalist has probably been itching to tell me that  the Queen reigns, she doesn’t rule”, and in reigning the Queen mainly fulfils this figurehead function.

            Among 20th century monarchs who have provided supra-political reassurance, I think the supreme example is King Juan Carlos of Spain. Simply by being there, Juan Carlos was able to preside over a smooth transition to democracy after civil war and more than 30 years of dictatorship. He reassured the Right simply by being there and he didn’t frighten the Left as he so readily accepted the principles of constitutionality and multi-party democracy. Even left-wing commentators (like Paul Preston in his biography of Juan Carlos) expressed their admiration. So there is a role for the figurehead monarch. But I hasten to add that some republics (Germany, Ireland) have figurehead presidents to carry out figurehead duties, leaving the political dirty work to a prime minister or chancellor.

            God’s favour, legitimacy and mystique are no longer valid arguments for monarchy, and (given the right constitution) the non-political figurehead function can be performed by a president as well as by a king or queen.

            So much for my views on monarchy in general.

            With regard specifically to the British monarchy, there are some additional problems. One is the sectarian nature of the institution. Admittedly, in Britain, the Church of England is now essentially the prophylactic a small group of English wear to prevent an outbreak of religion. It is largely an inoffensive and ineffectual body which enjoys the active participation of a fairly small number of Britons.

            So why should this body have a privileged position in Britain, with the monarch pledged to be its Supreme Governor and with a coronation oath barring the succession of Catholics? At the very least, the C. of E. is long overdue for disestablishment and the monarch’s relationship with it is long overdue for radical revision. I would further argue that the identification of a church with a national head of state creates an ersatz nationalist religion which is certainly not Christianity.

            Finally, there is the separate matter of the Queen being Queen of New Zealand.

            I know there is the problem of Maori and the Treaty of Waitangi, which creates a relationship between Maori and the British crown rather than between Maori and the New Zealand government. It would require quite some adjustment to translate the Treaty of Waitangi into republican terms – although it should be noted that it is only in the last forty years or so – and on the back of legislation passed by New Zealand’s parliament – that the treaty has had any real force.

            Quite apart from this, however, I believe continuing to accept a distant, non-resident person as head of state creates a sense of dependency and national immaturity. As things stand at the moment, we have a Governor-General who is appointed to be the Queen’s representative and who carries out all the Queen’s figurehead functions in New Zealand. This representative is already selected by New Zealanders. (Long gone are the days when aristocratic British nobodies were imposed on us.)

            When the issue of a republic is raised, royalists make a fuss about how difficult it would be to revise our constitutional arrangements. Actually it would be simplicity itself. Have the appointed figurehead (approved across political parties) called President rather than Governor-General; cancel legal appeals to the Privy Council (which are just invitations for New Zealand law courts not to do their work properly); change the rubric of statutes from “the Crown” to “the Republic” and endorse all existing legislation under this rubric; and you have a republic. Although some Anglicans have delusions about the matter, New Zealand has never had an “established” church, so that is not an issue. It is sheer sophistry to pretend that creating a New Zealand republic would be a difficult matter. Membership of the Commonwealth (of which many republics are members) is optional.

            After all this, I note my bottom line is that the British monarchy is usually a harmless enough institution. The matter of the monarchy does not keep me awake at night and I do not obsessively weigh up the merits of monarchies and republics. To me, the most important thing is whether democracy is actually functioning, regardless of whether its ceremonial figurehead is hereditary or not. But I still see something vaguely redundant, and certainly infantilising, about monarchy. A piece of corny American folk wisdom (most often deployed by conservatives with an interest in the status quo)  says “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The monarchy is partly broke – at least in its relationship with New Zealand. 

1 comment:

  1. Now is not a good time to be a republican. Last year's wedding was popular the world over. This was true even in countries such as Germany and China. Give it a few years and we will be back. QEII still has mystery surrounding her and you have rightly pointed out that she appears to be above the fray. Her son is not popular and has dirtied his hands by meddling in politics. People such as yourself are very important in keeping republicanism on the agenda even when it is not popular. Our time will come.