Monday 4 June 2012

Long Live The Republic!

Sixty Glorious Years: But Elizabeth Windsor was not born to be Queen. Indeed had her wicked uncle, Edward VIII, been just a little cleverer (and a lot wickeder) England may well have been burdened with a royal fascist dictator. Such are the fatal vagaries of the hereditary principle. Heads-of-state should be chosen by more rational - and democratic - means.

A LOATHING OF MONARCHY is one of the many benefits of living with an avid student of Tudor history. You learn about the huge political, economic and social costs of hereditary rule. How utterly dependent society becomes upon the health and fecundity of royal fathers and mothers. Of the dangers posed to political and social order by physically and mentally deficient monarchs. And, most especially, of the horrors and injustices to which royal personages and their families are exposed on account of the constitutional principle of hereditary succession.

To which all you monarchists out there will smugly reply: “Just as well, then, that our Queen is a constitutional monarch.” Well, if you want to comfort yourself with that notion, feel free. But if you believe the “conventions” of constitutional monarchy offer us the slightest political protection, then you are quite mistaken.

Take our present sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II. When she was born very few people believed she would inherit the throne. Her uncle, Edward, Prince of Wales, was heir apparent and was duly proclaimed King-Emperor upon the death of his father, King George V, in 1936. We are all extremely lucky that Edward VIII was nowhere near as clever as he was selfish, vain and irresponsible. Had he been as smart as his youngest brother, George, the Duke of Kent, he could well have turned the constitutional crisis arising out of his determination to marry Mrs Wallis Simpson into an opportunity to establish a fascist monarchical dictatorship. He would certainly have been able to count on a great deal of public support, not to mention the solemn oaths of loyalty sworn to his person by the armed forces and the police.

Democracy’s stocks were not very high in 1936, and the Windsor’s connections with Hitler’s Nazis were much stronger than they now care to admit. The Duke of Kent, in particular, moved freely in the highest Nazi circles. He was convinced that the British Empire could not survive another war with Germany. had he ever been in a position to do so, he would have guarded Germany’s back while she demolished the Soviet Union, and thereafter remained confident of her support against the economic ambitions of the USA. It is not difficult to understand why the German Ambassador to Great Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop, kept in such close touch with both the Duke of Kent and Mrs Simpson.

Dangerous Liaisons: Wallis Simpson and the former King Edward VIII are welcomed to Germany by Adolf Hitler.

Had King George VI named Lord Halifax, and not Winston Churchill, prime minister in 1940, exactly the same calculations that made life for the surviving members of the Plantagenet dynasty so precarious during the reign of Henry Tudor would have been made about both himself and the little princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. For there is no disputing the fact that, in the first six months of the war, a substantial “fifth column”, committed to making peace with the Nazis, florished in Britain – especially among the aristocracy. A negotiated peace with Germany could very easily have seen Edward VIII restored to the throne – leaving the erstwhile King George and his family to the tender mercies of a triumphant Adolf Hitler.

So, we are, indeed, extremely fortunate that Edward VIII was not equal to the many political opportunities that came his way. And, by “we” I certainly refer to New Zealand. Because you may be absolutely sure that if Great Britain had signed a peace treaty with Germany in mid-1940, our own government, and the governments of Canada, Australia, and South Africa, would have ceased hostilities immediately. And if, in a fit of madness, Peter Fraser had attempted to carry on the fight (counting, perhaps, on help from the United States) then it is certain that the new King-Emperor’s representative in New Zealand, the Governor-General, Viscount Galway GCMG DSO OBE PC, would have dismissed the Labour Government from office and invited the National Party leader, Adam Hamilton, to form a new ministry.

This is, of course, a very long way from the version of constitutional monarchy peddled by Dr Sean Palmer, Chair of Monarchy New Zealand, who shills for the hereditary principle on the grounds that it offers a much more stable foundation than popular election when determining a nation’s head-of-state.

His argument boils down to a recitation of those mostly European countries whose heads of state are kings and queens. Do you see how stable and non-threatening Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are? asks Dr Palmer. That has nothing to do with the democratic character of their politics, the homogeneity of their populations, or the pluralistic nature of their societies. No, no, no! It’s because their heads-of-state were raised to that office not by virtue of their talent, their courage, their generosity or their contribution to their fellow human-beings, but because they were clever enough to choose royal parents.

This is the same Dr Palmer who told Radio New Zealand’s Queen’s Birthday host, Richard Langston, that his homeland, Canada, and New Zealand had very similar constitutional arrangements. I suppose you could make out a case for that proposition – providing, of course, you set aside the fact that Canada has a written constitution, a bi-cameral parliament and a federal system of provincial governments. Apart from these small and inconsequential constitutional differences, Canada and New Zealand are practically identical!

We are, however, alike in being ruled over by a Governor-General (when Her Majesty isn’t going walkabout) and so I would have expected a constitutional expert, like Dr Palmer, to have had something intelligent to say about the Canadian Governor-General, Michaelle Jean’s, egregious failure to uphold the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.

Egregious Failure: Canada's unparliamentary sovereign, Governor General, Michaelle Jean.

Her 2009 decision to prorogue the Canadian House of Commons, thereby preventing it from debating a No Confidence motion in the Conservative Government of Stephen Harper, was made in defiance of the near unanimous opinion of Canada’s leading constitutional experts. Like the Australian Governor-General, John Kerr’s, decision to dismiss the Whitlam Labour Government in 1975, Jean’s abrogation of democratic norms lays bare not the stability, but the capriciousness, of “constitutional” monarchies, and demonstrates how extremely vulnerable their “subjects” are to the anti-democratic proclivities of these unelected heads-of-state.

All constitutional questions turn on the direction in which one believes power ought to flow: from the top to the bottom; or from the bottom to the top? It is quite impossible to cast monarchical institutions as anything other than top-down and, hence, profoundly undemocratic.

The “honours” announced to mark the sixtieth anniversary of Elizabeth Windsor’s coronation, provide stark proof of just how corrupting service to such monarchical institutions can be. In addition to a union-buster and a neoliberal hatchet-woman, Prime Minister Key has announced that the Duke of Edinburgh, Phillip Mountbatten, the man the late Chris Hitchens memorably described as “a dingy fascist”, has been made a member of the Order of New Zealand. Worse than this, however, was the news that Dr Michael Cullen, the man who taught me about the Levellers and the Diggers, Oliver Cromwell and the Putney Debates, has accepted a knighthood.

I felt a great wave of shame wash over me on his behalf. Could this be the same man whose university office once boasted a full-size poster depicting humanity’s putative parents above the revolutionary slogan of the English Peasants Revolt of 1381?

May my vanity and pride never play me so false, Dr Cullen. Rather, let me invoke on this, Queen's Birthday holiday weekend, the spirit of Oliver Cromwell’s plain, russet-coated troopers; whose contribution to human liberty a younger Michael Cullen once kept fresh; and cry out again, with a great voice:

“Long live the Republic!”

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Anonymous said...

I have to disagree on your point about the Canadian Governor-General's ruling. Since Harper had not lost a vote of no-confidence when he made his request to prorogue, the GG was obliged to follow his advice. Refusing his request would be a case of the Crown acting independently of a Prime Minister's advice (which truly is Gough Whitlam territory, and something the Canadians went through in 1926). Imagine if the GG had refused Harper, insisted on letting Parliament vote, and the vote of no-confidence had failed?

Anonymous said...

I far prefer that God saves the Queen than the elected Heads of State around the world, the vast number of whom can't hold a candle to her life of service to Britain and the Commonwealth.

Pete said...

I want New Zealand to become a republic, but not at all costs. I want any NZ president to be directly elected by New Zealanders and I would want a president to have the genuine power that goes with being the head of the executive. I fear Parliament would want to retain all the power and just have a figure even more neutered than the current monarchy.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, genocidal fellows are found as presidents of republics no less than they may have a royal crown.
We forget that German was the language of the British court, that Battenburgs became Mountbattens, and that the British aristocracy could never rule without Scots, Irish and Welsh foot soldiers.
If George VIII had returned to rule a fascist kingdom, there would simply have been civil war and an eventual American invasion.

peterpeasant said...

I was not listening too closely to the Palmer interview but I did wince when he reckoned Canada and NZ were similar and Langston let him off.

Palmer's exaltation of European monarchies is irrelevant. Our monarchy is half a planet away.

European monarchies are indigenous.
Palmer never offered any reasons why those same monarchies would be worse off if they were republics.

NZ monarchists still suffer from colonial cringe.

Rodel said...

I share your disappointment in Michael Cullen

Don Franks said...

Ode to the Queen's consort

The highest honour the state can bestow -

to whom should such a treasure go?

Shall a standout planter of spuds or cotton

be lionised and not forgotten?

No, such a choice would not quite do

the machinery would not ring true

a capitalist list needs symbolism

representing the future of capitalism

a mad old dried up parasite

gorged on workers blood and full of shite

is the obvious ticket to fit this bill,

hold your nose,

and pass the gong to Phil.

Brendon said...

I want a republic but not an elected president (sorry Pete). There will be constant battle between parliament, the prime minister and the president if we add an elected president to our current political system. I believe New Zealand needs a neutral authority to take over in those rare but critical constitutional crisis turning points. If the president was appointed by unanimous vote from parliament it would provide a neutral `referee´ that would improve our democracy. We could start this improvement now with the appointment of the next governor general.

Alex said...

@ Brendon - A unanimous vote of Parliament? Are your mental? The only way to do it properly would be to elect a President, but give them very little real power on a day to day level, just as the GG has now.

Graeme Edgeler said...

Anonymous 1 - in New Zealand (and it was argued, in Canada as well) there does not need to be a vote of no confidence for confidence to be lost. If it is clear that confidence has been lost, the government should operate on the caretaker principle, and not give advice to the GG that doesn't have majority parliamentary support.

The New Zealand GG has made clear that the instruction of the PM to, for example, call an early election, must be given by a PM who has confidence (whether a formal vote has been held or not). If the PM doesn't have confidence, any decision to call an election or prorogue is an exercise of a reserve power.

Anonymous said...

You can't really have an honours system when the people dispensing them have no sense of what is honourable.

I feel for those people who were awarded honours for putting in hard work to serve the community for little reward, but who were overshadowed by rugby players, television psychologists and multimillionaires.

Shallow society is shallo

guerilla surgeon said...

Elect a president with all the politicking and expense? If we have to have a 'head of state' appoint a nonentity and pay them the average wage. Or use the ancient Greek system and give it to 'em as don't want it!

Stephen L said...

Monarchy may not be perfect, but given the debate over alternatives, none of which stack up, monarchy seems the best of a bad bunch. Going through the alternatives posted:
1)An elected president with power. Inevitably then causes conflict between parliament and the president.
2) An elected president with similar power to the current GG. Close, but in the event of a constitutional crisis, what decisions does the president make? What training, history, legal basis does he/she use?
3) A Pres appointed unanimously by parliament. What if they cannot agree? Rules it out immediately. Even if not, see problems under 2)
4) A Pres appointed by parliament majority. Obvious conflicts of interest. Also problems under 2)

So the monarchy, with the added benefit in our case of more of a neutral referee about the foreign element, seems still the best option. And it doesn't cost us much. Unless there's a number 5 that hasn't been explained. The cultural cringe I actually think is with the Republicans.

R said...

Dear Chris,
I too an old Otago chap, and marched next to Cullen against the Employment Contracts Act in 1989 in Wellington.........cannot credit him taking a toff's gong. Hypocritical cant. But adapting the old adage "you can take a boy out of the country.. etc' to "You can take a boy out of Christ's College but you cannot take Christ's College out of the boy."

Anonymous said...

Graeme, the problem with that argument is that it defeats the purpose of a no-confidence motion (and indeed is arguably an attack on Parliamentary power itself - it is second-guessing what Parliament will do, rather than what Parliament has done. Press releases are not votes).

On the early election point, in 1926 the Canadian Prime Minister asked the GG for an election. The GG thought the Opposition had the numbers to form a Government, so declined the Prime Minister's request. It turned out that the Opposition lacked the numbers to form a Government after all, an early election was held, and the initial Prime Minister returned. Very embarrassing for the GG.

Paulus said...

I am worried that in making New Zealand a Republic, which I do not oppose, what would happen to the Treaty of Waitangi, which is an agreement between the Crown (extinguished by the Republic)and Maori ?.
It would cease to exist.

Victor said...

A few quick points

Firstly, the governors general of New Zealand, Canada and Australia are chosen by methods broadly similar to those used for selecting the presidents of many parliamentary republics. So, simply getting rid of the monarchy would not, in itself, prevent the sort of abuses mentioned in this piece.

Secondly, it's genuinely hard to say whether the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and the like have been able to retain their monarchies because they are free, pluralist societies or whether they are free, pluralist societies because they've retained their monarchies. Which is the chicken and which the egg? Perhaps it's a bit of both.

Thirdly, the countries of North West Europe are no longer ethnically homogeneous. The Netherlands hasn't been so since the 1940s, when large numbers of folks who didn't greatly resemble Rembrandt's models, started arriving in the country from its erstwhile empire. And, since then, there have been arrivals galore from all over the developing world and the rest of the EU.

Sweden remained homogeneous for much longer but is so no longer. I believe that something like 10% of its population were born elsewhere.And that figure doesn't include their Swedish born children.

As for Belgium, it's notoriously split down the middle twixt Flemings and Walloons, even before you start considering those who are less indigenous.

I would suggest that one of the plusses of Monarchy is its ability to provide a fulcrum for national identity that's personal rather than cultural or racial. That might actually help heterogeneous populations to cohere as a whole.

Whether New Zealand should remain a kingdom is another matter.

There's little point in having a monarchy that isn't cherished, that isn't tied up with a sense of national identity and that has no magic. And I don't get the impression that New Zealanders do cherish this institution.

But, as Paulus points, if we abandon the Monarchy, we'll have to make up our minds whether we want a fully democratic republic or one with ethnic weighting. In the meantime, the Crown allows us to fudge the issue reasonably successfully.

markus said...

Edward VIII: When last in UK in 2009, I saw an interesting BBC 4 documentary 'A Very British Coup' (available to watch on internet). Used never-before-seen documents/dairies/letters to argue he was so popular, modern, unorthodox and progressive in his sympathies for Britain's unemployed/poor that the establishment (Court/Church/Press Barons/Aristocracy/Cabinet) loathed him and leapt on the Wallis Simpson affair as the perfect pretext to depose him.

Winston Churchill was actually a very loyal supporter of Edward's.

Baldwin portrayed as a key plotter who feared the new king's mass appeal and dislike of rank/tradition/snobbishness. Baldwin apparently lied to Edward when he suggested the 5 dominion leaders all opposed morganatic marriage. In fact, Ireland and Canada neutral and New Zealand's Michael Joseph Savage strongly supported it and passionate plea for Edward to stay on the throne (British Cabinet Secretary carefully doctored Savage's comments in Cabinet minutes).

"Neo-Liberal hatchet-woman": Bazley - absolute shocker. So many honours seem to go to people who've given life-long service to their own bank account/career. (I think one Charles Dickens' characters says something not too dissimilar).

"News that Dr Michael Cullen...has accepted a knighthood": Something of a hypocrite.
My gandmother turned down a queens honour in the 1950s (being a socialist and republican - grandmother, not the queen).

Victor said...

Hi markus

A few more thoughts provoked both by Chris's piece and your own post.

As you know, in the 1930s, "progressive" and fascist were not always seen as antonyms, particularly in socially privileged circles.

If you had a posh accent and cash to spare, were scared of the 'Bolshevik Menace', believed in 'progressive' doctrines like eugenics, wanted to do something about the plight of the unemployed and liked fast cars and planes, you might just have ordered your tailor to rustle up a well-cut black shirt or two.

And you'd view with disdain your father's generation, with their stuffy Victorian values, their winged shirt collars and their vaunted commitment to liberal capitalism and international law.

Yes, Baldwin was a wily old b...... But his fascistoid characteristics were minimal and he had behind him a massive parliamentary majority.

And, during the abdication crisis, it was Baldwin who spoke for non-fascistoid 'respectable' political opinion (i.e. not rapscallions like Churchill, Lloyd George or Beaverbrook and certainly not Mosley).

So, ultimately, the abdication crisis vindicated the sovereignty of a democratically-elected parliament, as, of course, did the crisis of May 1940, which injected Churchill into No.10.

Churchill's erstwhile support for the former king was one of the reasons why George VI (by all accounts, a traditional, non-fascistic Tory) would have preferred Halifax as Prime Minister. The fact that Halifax was (so wholly unlike Churchill)a deft, suave, low key and eminently clubbable individual, would also probably have influenced the shy and awkward monarch.

But the choice wasn't up to the king. Parliament and, above all, the Labour Party, wanted Churchill.

And yet, less than a decade earlier, Halifax had been a highly liberal Viceroy of India, whilst Churchill was wasting his already tattered credibility in a hyper-Imperialist crusade against self government for the Raj. History has its ironies.

An interesting question is whether George VI and his formidable consort were involved in Halifax's subsequent intrigues aimed at a compromise peace with Germany and Italy?

There's no real evidence pointing in this direction. But, even had they been, these intrigues were defeated by a consensus of elected politicians inside the War Cabinet. So, again, parliamentary sovereignty was vindicated.

By the way, in facing down Halifax, Churchill's most significant support seems to have come from Neville Chamberlain, no longer in office but still the official leader of the Conservative Party, which still had a huge majority in the Commons.

So, put all this together and it's hard to see the monarchy as a channel through which, as Chris seems to suggest, Fascism or a pro-Nazi regime could have been established in Britain in defiance of the will of parliament.

This awful fate could, of course, have come about if the Luftwaffe had destroyed the RAF, German paratroopers were landing in Hertfordshire and E Boats were motoring up the Thames.

But, in those circumstances, the decisive factor would not have been the constitutional powers of the British Crown but the military power of the German Reich.

And this would also have been true, had a compromise peace, as favoured by Halifax, allowed Britain to retain its empire and its nominal independence, but within the framework of Hitler's New Order in Europe.

......more to come

Victor said...

...concuding previous post

Ribbentrop, as Chris rightly points out, was a firm believer in the influence of the monarch, of the aristocracy and of the clearly fascistic elements within the latter. But he had a rather skewed view of how Britain worked, which is one of the reasons he should have stuck to selling Champagne substitute. Rudolf Hess made a similar categorical error and ended up in Spandau.

By the way, in the latter years of World War Two, my old dad, may he rest in peace, had the good fortune to be stationed in the Bahamas with the RAF.

They were ostensibly there to help protect the Atlantic convoys. But, as my father pointed out, there were rather a lot of men there (including some Kiwis), considering how few planes were involved.

It seems not unreasonable to conclude that a large detachment of allied personnel may have been on the islands as a precaution against an Otto Skorzeny style raid, to lift Edward out of his governor's mansion and deliver him to Berlin.

As the scapegrace Duke's taste in whisky was getting the better of him, it's open to question how useful he would have been to his Nazi pals.