Monday, June 25, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“OUR QUEEN” by Robert Hardman (Arrow Books/Random House, $NZ 29:99)
            No, I have not had a nervous breakdown and gone soft in the head, although you may think so when you note that this week’s “Something New” is a worshipful book about the Queen written by the populist-conservative Daily Mail’s chief royal watcher.

            Our Queen – first published last year and now “updated” with new material for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee - is the work of Robert Hardman, who has made his career scripting television documentaries and writing regular columns about royalty. It is a book of what I would call the higher fandom. Publicity material gushes that it “contains the first author interview with the Duke of Cambridge” [i.e. Wills]. Surely this is material for the blue rinse set and readers of the Women’s Weekly and New Idea rather than for this respectable blog? The impression is reinforced by the bright royal publicity photos that accompany the text.

            My purpose is simple, though. Given that this is 354 pages of detailed, sourced and well-indexed prose, I wanted to see how good a case it could make for the monarchy and whether there is anything here that would modify my own views on the matter.
            Let’s call reading Our Queen an experiment.

            Hardman has not written a biography or a book arranged in chronological order. His technique is to take various typical events in the Queen’s regular routine and build chapters around them to illustrate what the Queen’s duties are and how they (and perceptions of her) have changed over sixty years.

            Nearly all chapters have titles beginning with the word “Her”.

            Chapter 4, “Her People”, is typical of Hardman’s approach. He begins with a particular event (in this case the state visit to the Queen by President Zuma of South Africa) and uses it as the occasion to talk about the royal household and how it is run. Thus there are details on household protocols, the ranks of servants, how the kitchens are run at Windsor and Buckingham Palace, and so forth. I was interested to note from Hardman’s account that HM’s chefs are now all British (for a couple of centuries they were mainly French) but the dishes they serve still have French names, maybe a compliment to a nation with a better culinary tradition. I was also amused at the way Hardman is at pains to point out (truthfully enough) that the Queen is not responsible for who her house guests are. She has had to play host to dictators and other dodgy characters in her time.

            Her recorded royal reaction to the genocidal Mobutu of Zaire is particularly amusing:

             Mobutu’s penchant for… executing  his opponents in front of large crowds must have made the small talk challenging. But what made the queen angrier than some had ever seen her was learning that Mrs Mobutu had smuggled a small dog through customs. Worse, Mrs Mobutu was ordering it steak through the royal kitchens.” (Pg.137)

            Clearly the Queen is a woman with well-ordered priorities.

            The proprietary nature of that possessive pronoun “Her” really irritates me in  Chapter 5, “Her Politicians”. Surely politicians are the people we elect and (disappointing though they often are) they represent us more than they do her. But then this is the chapter on the constitutional order, and how a constitutional monarchy functions. Everybody from HM’s Private Secretary to past and present British (David Cameron, Tony Blair) and Commonwealth prime ministers give the Queen positive references for her assiduous work and clear knowledge of how things are run in each dominion. Hardman had access to them.

            The chapter that should have been the most sociologically interesting is  “Her Image”. After all, image is what counts for most in a system based on mystique. But Hardman, for all his detail, doesn’t get much beyond saying how much royalty has modernised, become accessible and has the common touch. It is quite unlike the days when nobody but the titled got beyond the palace gates and journalists were banned if they published even the mildest of criticisms.

            What Hardman does not tackle is the devaluation of the royal image in an age when royalty’s natural home is the gossip column and the women’s magazine. Royal British personages are now, in effect, part of the same “cast of characters” as movie and soap-opera stars. Hardman’s observations on royalty’s changed image are true as far as they go, but fail to analyse the context in which royalty exists. Hardman does honestly admit, however, that British royalty is more the obsession of a few English-speaking countries than of anywhere else. Apparently when an official royal website was set up, it attracted mainly English and American visitors, with little interest shown by people of other nations.

            It is the author’s asides that most show his true colours. He excoriates all those horrible people who criticised HM for not paying taxes, arguing that she inherited a financial system and didn’t create it. Dutifully he expresses complete embarrassment over the asinine attempts of younger member of the royal family to be popular in the 1980s. (Remember the awful episode of It’s a Royal Knockout?) Dutifully he passes over in silence the three-in-a-bed nature of the first marriage of Charles, future Supreme Governor of the Church of England. He takes HM’s part in all matters pertaining to Lady Di, basically depicting dippy Di as a troublesome person who somehow managed to trump the Queen’s own PR machine.

            This is a book determined to present the Queen and her immediate brood in the best possible light. In this respect, the single most woeful chapter is ”Her Strength and Stay” where we’re told what a sterling chap the Duke of Edinburgh is and how unfair it is that he’s known too much for his gaffes. Philip’s worst gaffes are, of course, not mentioned.

            I am not pretending that I am surprised by any of this. The introduction alerted me to some obvious biases. Quotations from the introduction include:

            Only one other monarch [Queen Victoria] has marked sixty years on the throne” (Pg.2) [This is true only if you ignore the fact that the loony King George III was just a few months shy of 60 years on the throne when he died.]

            Having inherited an Edwardian… institution in 1952, she has not merely kept it going. She has put it through the most vigorous reforms of modern times.” (Pg.11). [Really? Did she really put it through these changes or were they proposed by others and imposed upon her?]

            It is her devotion to the Church of England which endears her to so many of Britain’s minority faiths as they, like her, deal with an increasingly secular world” (Pg.14) [Hmmm. Given that actively-practising Anglicans now make up only a minority of actively-practising Christians in England itself – let alone the rest of Britain – I wonder what many British Catholics, Presbyterians and others would have to say about this. Not to mention British Jews, Muslims etc.]

            The introduction also includes a standard, many-question-begging royalist argument when it contrasts Watergate with the scandal over British MPs’ expenses. With approval, it quotes Stephen Jay: “We can have a terrible political scandal but not end up despising the state because it’s the monarchy, not the government, which links nation and state.” (Pg.18). I would counter-argue that the illusion of monarchical stability in such cases makes the British public too accepting and non-critical of the deficiencies of their state. They are infantilised and don’t kick up the stink they should.

            As I read Our Queen, I was naturally on the lookout for any references to New Zealand. Whether I like it or not, the Queen is officially New Zealand’s Head of State, and many of the negative things I think about monarchy have to do with this fact.

            A couple of hundred people are thanked in Hardman’s opening acknowledgements, in which the author remarks “No study of any constitutional monarch would be complete without recourse to that monarch’s prime ministers.” He thanks the British ones who granted him interviews, then adds “I would like to thank in particular John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Malcolm Fraser, former Prime Minister of Australia, for their time in relation to this book.” [Does this mean the Daily Mail’s man isn’t as happy interviewing non-Tory Commonwealth MPs, or wouldn’t they speak to him?]

            We are told (Pg.164) that Westminster studies New Zealand’s manual on what to do if there is a hung parliament. We are also informed that “in 2002, the then New Zealand premier Helen Clark turned up for a state banquet in a trouser suit. The queen, dressed in ball gown and tiara, merely stared and said nothing.” (Pg.167)

            The second-to-last chapter, “Heads and Tails”, weighs up the Queen’s reputation in the Commonwealth and mentions republican feeling in Australia and New Zealand. Hardman is honest enough to admit that the notorious 1999 Australian referendum on a republic was rigged by John Howard’s conservative government. It proposed as the only alternative to the status quo a republican system with the president appointed by politicians. Nobody – including republicans - wanted this system and it was duly defeated. What was really interesting was how strong the republican vote still was. When he turns to New Zealand, Hardman leans heavily on what John Key told him, and gives a sunny PR account of Prince William’s visit after the Christchurch earthquakes.

            How do I sum up Our Queen?

            This is the book of a privileged (almost “embedded”) journalist who has been allowed access to leading palace and political figures (not HM herself, of course) and who has interviewed them. He believes what they say. The book amounts to a series of references for the Queen, interspersed with Hardman’s editorialising. The image presented is of the Queen as a dutiful, hardworking, dedicated person who faces a formidable round of appointments every year, who has the best interests of her people at heart, and who has worked hard to modernize the monarchy while avoiding the type of populist vulgarity to which some of her offspring have stooped.

            I’m not being contradictory when I say that I can accept this portrait. I am sure that Lizzie Windsor herself is a very pleasant and sincere person. But – as royalists have to be reminded – this is not the issue. The issue is whether an hereditary, non-elected person should really be the head of anybody’s state.

            I’m not being nasty to a nice old lady when I say that, even after reading this book, I still don’t think so.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“WAR OF THE WINDSORS – A Century of Unconstitutional Monarchy” by Lynn Picknett, Clive Prince and Stephen Prior (first published 2002)

            It’s my usual practice to devote “Something Old” either to an older book that is really worth reading, or to an older book which reveals something interesting about attitudes at the time it was written.

            This week, I’m devoting the space to something fairly worthless and not particularly revealing. But there’s method in my madness.

            When you’re opposed to something on principle, it’s important to note what arguments are valid and what arguments are invalid, even if they appear to give ammunition to your cause. To me, War of the Windsors seems a case of an invalid argument in support of a good cause.

            This year, toadying books have been published to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – sixty years on the throne. Ten years ago, toadying books were published for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee – fifty year on the throne. It was as a sort of anti-Golden Jubilee book that a trio of “independent researchers” produced their iconoclastic War of the Windsors.

            It presents the story of the modern British royal family as per Lynn Picknett, Clive Prince and Stephen Prior.

            This is how their story goes.

            A bunch of Germans, whose proper dynastic name was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, changed their name to Windsor in the middle of the First World War as a propaganda exercise to disguise their German-ness and pretend to Englishness. They were a devious and self-interested bunch. The pushiest of the lot – and the book’s star villain – was the German princeling Louis Battenberg, who changed his name to Mountbatten.

            A promiscuous homosexual, congenital liar and military incompetent, “Dickie” Mountbatten was behind most of the royal wheezes and scams for more than half a century. He was also the chief formative influence on the neurotic and unstable Prince Charles whose own father, the Greek-German Duke of Edinburgh, was completely uninterested in parenting.

            Edward VIII (later Duke of Windsor) copped some flak for his well authenticated approval of Hitler and Nazism. But, says War of the Windsors, he wasn’t the only member of the royal family to go down that road. Probably worse was George VI’s other brother, the Duke of Kent, who died mysteriously during the war. Incidentally, the Duke of Kent was a sexually promiscuous homosexual.

            Elderly members of the royal family, such as George V and the late Queen Mother, have routinely been subjected to involuntary euthanasia, so that their deaths wouldn’t inconvenience royal timetables. As the king’s death neared in 1935, the royal medical bulletin said that George V was “moving peacefully towards his end”. In fact the royal surgeon finished him off by injecting an overdose of morphine, to ensure that the king’s death would first be reported in respectable morning papers like The Times rather than in lower-browed evening news-sheets.

            Not that we should weep too many tears for these individuals because, on inspection, all of them prove to be self-interested, devious, underhanded people.

            As for Queen Elizabeth II herself – she’s a cold-hearted crook. Along with other members of the royal family, she pays income tax only because she has been absolutely forced to. Members of the royal family regularly divert money from charities into their own private coffers.

            Spiced up with considerably more royal sex scandals and personal gaffes than I have noted here, the book is, I repeat, the version of the royal family as given by Picknett, Prince and Prior.

            As a non-dogmatic republican, I quite enjoy reading things that dish the dirt on British royalty. I wallowed with some amusement in much of War of the Windsors and I have no doubt that some of the scandals and dodgy things it narrates are perfectly true.

            But at a certain point my conscience got the better of me. Obsessed with conspiracy theories, this team of authors is so determined to hate the Windsors that they put the worst possible construction on their every action and utterance. While the tone tends to be sober and un-hysterical, it still adds up to completely unbalanced reporting, not helped by the authors’ constant complaint that vital research materials were withheld from them. My credence in this book was not entirely promoted by the knowledge that the authors had previously written books about the Turin Shroud, the Knights Templar and various historical conspiracies. Oh dear.

            So what do I mean by an invalid argument in support of a good cause?

            The good cause, as I see it, is revealing the flaws of monarchy as a system, showing how much members of the royal family are exempt from norms that bind the rest of us and how much the system itself functions to promote untenable social snobberies. The genuine sins of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha brood would provide excellent evidence of the flaws in monarchy, especially if the scandal of tax evasion were given more prominence, and the dubious nature of the royal honours system scrutinised. These things are more important than muddy, half-authenticated, and in most cases fairly trivial, sex scandals.

            The invalid argument is the purely ad hominem nature of War of the Windsors. It is like reading a series of tabloid exposes. In the end, one has to admit that it proves only the weaknesses of human nature. A series of similar petty scandals could be dragged up from the private lives of quite respectable republican leaders. It is the inherited and unearned nature of royalty that is the real scandal.

            So, while admitting its prurient appeal, I turn away from War of the Windsors with a firm cry of “Non tali auxilio!” I don’t applaud any old rope just because it happens to be anti-monarchist.

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.