Tuesday 15 April 2014

A Matter of Time: Reflections Of A Waning Republican

Time Lords: The historical transition of the Monarchy: from that which rules, to those who reign, was a remarkable constitutional innovation. Neither a true monarchy, nor yet a full republic, Britain’s constitutional monarchy offered its subjects something unique. "[A] constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time.”
I’M A REPUBLICAN. At least, I used to be. Now, I’m not so sure. And, yes, this reassessment is, indeed, the result of the just completed visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George.
So, what has changed? What’s become of that young university debater who, way back in 1981, when the royalist team called for “Three cheers for Her Majesty, the Queen!” leapt to his feet and called for “Three cheers for Oliver Cromwell!”?
The answer, I’m afraid, is “Time”.
Two years on from that fiery debate in the Otago University Union, the Prince and Princess of Wales were seated on the lawn at Old Government House and their little son, William, was hot in pursuit of a Buzzy Bee.
And now, impossibly, that little boy has a little boy of his own. Through all the happy and farcical, inspiring and tragic events that have shaped both his life and my own over the  intervening 30 years, a connection – something more than mere sentiment – has grown. It was not there in my republican youth, but it has sprouted as my youth faded: watered by the storms of experience; growing stronger with each circuit of the sun.
And now, impossibly, that little boy has a little boy of his own.
I understand now what I could only smile at in my youth – my late mother’s undying affection for the Queen. I realise now that she, too, had memories to measure her own life by. Of a serious little girl staring warily at the newsreel cameras in the last years of peace before the outbreak of the Second World War. Of that little girl, grown now into a young woman, on the arm of her new husband. Of that same young woman, now a mother, proudly displaying her first-born son to the world.
That connection again: through war and marriage and motherhood; always there, always growing and subtly binding this super-family – half German, half Scot – to that vast commonwealth of families who, growing older, had learned to recognise the signposts of their own maturity in the unfolding history of this strange and exalted reflection of themselves.
The Royal Family - a strange and exalted reflection of our own.
Time has also taught me to recognise the true identity of the forces I railed against in my youth. In opposing monarchy I was, in fact, opposing the exercise of unelected and unaccountable authority: the arbitrary and violent intervention of state power into the lives of the powerless and the innocent.
But if that is the measure, then the government of Oliver Cromwell does not merit even one cheer. He and his “plain, russet-coated troopers” were nothing less than Christian mujahedeen. England during the Interregnum became a ruthless military theocracy. Cromwell’s New Model Army, for a brief moment the crucible of democratic debate, would emerge, finally, as the Taliban in breastplates.
And was the Monarchy really so politically unaccountable? When the Cromwellian regime collapsed, and the Stuart dynasty was restored in 1660, the executed King Charles I’s son landed at Dover. And all the way to London, a distance of 75 miles, the road was lined with his cheering subjects. Had it been put to a vote, Charles II would have been elected in a landslide.
What Cromwell did do, however, was prove that monarchs could not rule, indefinitely, without the people’s consent. This radical notion was reconfirmed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Henceforth kings and queens would reign – but they would not rule. Our monarchs thus ceased to be creatures of politics and became creatures of time. For what else is a “reign” but the temporal measure of the monarch’s tenure on the throne?
This historical transition of the Monarchy: from that which rules, to those who reign, was a remarkable constitutional innovation. Neither a true monarchy, nor yet a full republic, Britain’s constitutional monarchy offered its subjects something unique. In the words of the man who understood the innovation best, Edmund Burke:
“[I]t is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time.”
And this, of course, is the great distinction, between a royal family and an individual head-of-state elected for a short term of office. A family embodies a relationship with time that is quite distinct from that of the individual. The hereditary principle itself is meaningless without the reality of those who have come before – and those who will come after.
And that is what we see when William and Kate and George step off the plane. Not just themselves, but all who have come before them, and all who shall succeed them. It is an image embodying not just the Royal Family, but our own.
And that is something we shall never be able to elect.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 April 2014.


Glenn Webster said...

Well written thou aging firebrand.

Davo Stevens said...

I too was of a republican bent when I was younger. But I grew out of it too.

Do we really want the stupidity of a US style pressie election? Do we want someone like Sleazy Steve Joyce as our pressie? Or Johnny Boy? Or, heaven forbid, Trevor Mallard?

No, having a Governor appointed by the Parliament is a much better option for us.

Willie and Kate are a refreshing change to the staid and old-fashioned Royal family.

Liz has only another 3 years to go to be the longest reigning monarch of Britain. Vic ruled for 64 years and Liz has done so for 62 years.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

That's funny, I was a monarchist when I was younger, thinking that it was cheaper than presidential style elections. Now I'm a small r republican :-). I'm quite happy to have someone appointed by Parliament, but in spite of the fact that the young Royals might be nice people they're not New Zealanders. They don't know much about the place and they don't give a fuck about us. So let's have a local figurehead instead of a foreign one. I particularly resent the idea of having a British dole bludger as our head of State though. The Royals are just beneficiaries without the bashing.

Don Franks said...

Good oh there Chris, sane stuff

Boo to the Irish and a jolly good pat on the back for Harry as he heads off to take out some more towel heads

Anonymous said...

For goodness sake, since when have New Zealand republicans promoted Oliver Cromwell as someone to be admired and emulated? I certainly don't; the guy was a military dictator who committed genocide in Ireland.

The argument against the monarchy is one of symbolism, not substance. I resent my head of state being (by definition) a Non-New Zealander, and (again, by definition) someone who presides over sectarian religious bigotry. It is truly farcical that New Zealand's head of state cannot be a Catholic.

Also, while I do have fondness for Liz, the thing about monarchies is that for every Liz, there's an Edward VIII (remember him? The Queen's Nazi sympathising uncle?). You don't get a choice: it's all down to the barbarism of genetics.

Kat said...

Beneficial fund raising beneficiaries and made to look good on the biscuit tins. Evolution shall have its day. Will & Kate appear to be aware of that,and I like them.

Refreshing as they may be I am a chip off the Blarney stone so the past is still sliding into the future.

Tiger Mountain said...

Bruce Jesson will be spinning in his grave reading this utterance.

The Royals are just celebs to many don’t know, don’t wanna know kiwis. It might as well be Beyonce trotting around the place. You know the ones; from the BBQ pit that proclaimed NZ “is middle Earth” while a scabby march organised by Lord Jacksons mate Richard Taylor, was held on Labour Day. They are the target market.

They seem to have omitted the Far North and West Auckland off the itinerary too. This irishman has news for monarchists and it is still all bad.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"for every Liz, there's an Edward VIII "

Or a Prince Phillip. Bigoted old bastard.

Jan said...

The problem for me mainly lies with the alternative. John Key as head of state? - eeek!
I think it may be something in our psyche which makes us want to cling to royalty - a sense of history, an example, something akin to the phenomenon of religion perhaps - or maybe some kind of guarantee that when we have a government who really worries us (like the present one for me) it's some kind of security against the possibility of a dictatorship developing.
There can't be very many countries our size which are completely independent and coping - it requires a level of political maturity I just don't think we have, frankly.

Davo Stevens said...

Liz is hardly a beneficiary Surgeon. Yes, the dysfunctional family gets some funding from the state but they also have vast estates to draw on. One could argue about the legitimacy of that ownership though.

She also owns a sizeable chunk of the shares in BP and Shell as well as some others.

She is the only Brit that doesn't have to register her vehicles either.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

All the Royals are beneficiaries to the extent that they cling on to the public tit.
And what have these Royals done since they got here? Not that I've really been following it but I can remember a few things.

They had some "private time".

They went for a jet boat ride.

They went for a ride on yachts.

They played some cricket.

They watched some rugby.

Aside from the first, all of these are things I have to pay for. And I am paying for the damned things out of my taxes. I wouldn't mind quite so much if they opened a supermarket or two. So I'm paying for them to have fun, because they're related to our head of state. If we chose one, like we do the Governor general, then no doubt HIS/HER relations would pay for their own damned fun. Or I'd want to know the reason why :-).

With all the fuss about beneficiaries going overseas, not a peep about the Royals taking a holiday on a benefit :-).

DeepRed said...

A President of NZ would be OK, as long as the role is that of a German-style figurehead instead of a US-style sovereign. Just like the current role of Governor-General.

Jigsaw said...

We all pay for things out of our taxes that we don't want to pay for. I think that the monarchy are a much better idea that having some ex-politician as president that at least half the population would hate. Most of the time the royals are elsewhere anyway. Well written Chris. Why bring Oliver Cromwell into this - a thoroughly nasty man!

Davo Stevens said...

Well Surgeon they were our guests albeit invited by Johnny begood Key.

When you invite guests to your home do you expect them to pay for everything?

Like Jigsaw says, there are many things that our taxes pay for that we disagree with but that is the way of the world.

And as Jan so eloquently out it, the purpose of the system we have is to stop a dictatorship from developing. We already choose our own Guv.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Of course there are many things I pay for out of my taxes that I don't agree with. But many if not most of them are for the public good. I can't see what giving two young people and their kid a holiday does for the public good. I guess it gives the woman's weekly something to do.

Victor said...

Chris, you’ve proved yet again that us Social Democrats are the best Burkeians around. Neo-liberals who claim to be conservative (Hi Brendan) have nothing on us social capital guys.

On the whole, I tend to approve of constitutional monarchy as a system of government. But, despite your own conversion from hard-line Jacobinism and John Rougham’s equally startling abandonment of Girondism in the Herald, I doubt whether the recent royal visit will long deflect New Zealand from a long term trajectory towards republican status.

So why, generically, do I favour constitutional monarchy?

Firstly, Chris, you’ve given me a brand new reason in your delicious notion of royalty as Time Lords. Burke’s mighty shade notwithstanding, this strikes me as a genuinely original thought and there are few enough of those around. So congratulations. Even so, I feel a mite cheated that Wills, Kate and the kid didn’t turn up here in a Tardis.

Secondly, I agree that the way this dynasty has got entwined around our psyches gives it an otherwise unwarranted personal significance for many of us.

A survey back in the 1960s famously revealed that a majority of Brits dreamed about the Queen coming for tea. Moreover, I can recall my parents’ shock when they saw a photo of George VI, about a month prior to his death in 1952.

“The poor man looks so ill. It’s all the fault of that brother of his,” said my mother, no doubt echoing the thoughts of many.

Thirdly, I suspect that this intertwining reflects a recurrent human tendency to relate to power and glory in cosy, familial terms (c.f. global publicity for Chelsea Clinton’s expectant status).

I’m also reminded somewhat of the scene in Godfather III, in which those star-crossed lovers, Michael Corleone’s daughter and nephew, pay a visit to “the old neighbourhood” and find themselves surrounded by elderly, sentimental, female well-wishers.

Perhaps dynasticism is hard-wired into our beings. If so, constitutional monarchy performs the neat trick of indulging dynasticism in all its warm, fuzzy mushiness, whilst leaving real power in the hands of elected officials. Would that the same was true of the Corleone empire’s off-screen models! And would it was also true of North Korea or Syria!

Fourthly, and perhaps most crucially, constitutional monarchies (of which there have actually been very few) tend to be amongst the world’s best governed, most free and most humane societies, even though two I can think of (the UK and New Zealand) have fallen rather below their own best standards of recent decades.

More specifically, last time I tried counting,, I could only name 13 countries that (apart from periods of enemy occupation) had enjoyed more than a century of uninterrupted constitutional, representative government. Of this small number, 10 were constitutional monarchies.

....more to come

Victor said...

....continuing previous post

It’s not clear to me whether there’s a causal relationship here or just a serendipity of other recurrent factors or just plain fate. Either way, I would certainly hesitate to throw out the bath water, just in case the baby went with it.

Fifthly, there are a number of significant countries that have certainly NOT enjoyed a hundred years of uninterrupted constitutional representative government but in which the monarchy has latterly performed an important role in the establishment of democratic institutions. In their very different ways, both Japan and Spain fit this bill.

Sixthly, royalty (even at its most absurd) tends to cut the pretensions of politicians down to size. This must be good for We the Governed and it’s also probably good for the politicos themselves.

Seventhly, politicians, by their nature, are aspirational and tend to view power as something of a career goal. In contrast, a constitutional monarch will tend to view such limited powers as he or she possesses as a (normally un-asked for) inherited trust. Regular exposure to this vastly different perspective certainly can’t do a prime minister any harm, particularly if it’s buttressed by many decades of experience, as in the case of QE2.

I suspect, though, that the hyper-aspirational likes of Thatcher and Blair pushed the royal equanimity to its limits.

Eighthly, there’s a good object lesson and, perhaps, an example for the rest of us in the very irrationality of injecting someone into the top slot by reason of birth and then requiring him or her to perform to a high standard at tasks not of their choosing and for which they may not possess any natural aptitude.

Neo-liberals and Libertarians mentally inhabit a world of infinite possibility, in which we all have the ability (nay, the duty) to realise and express our full and supposedly unique potential. Most of us, however, recognise this for the bunkum it is. Our lives, our loyalties and our responsibilities are bounded and defined by contingency and circumstance. The measure of each of us is how we deal with these.

So why, given my generic belief in the virtues of constitutional monarchy, am I unsure about whether New Zealand will remain one? There are, essentially, two reasons. The first is physical distance and the second emotional distance.

The argument about physical distance is pretty obvious. The argument about emotional distance is more complex and, I confess, based on my own experiences and reflections as a non Anglo-Celtic Brit by birth, who’s lived in New Zealand for 30 years but who also lived in a few far less Britain-like places before shipping up here.

.....a bit more to come

Victor said...

concluding previous post.....

When I first arrived, the intense Britishness of New Zealand kept striking me. There was the emotional stringency, the preference for keeping your nose out of other people’s business, the distrust of intellectuals, a dry, downbeat sense of humour, an obsession with owning and developing real estate , a sense that sport represented some sort of superior moral category, a taste for tea, meat pies and fish ‘n chips etc. etc.

And, of course, there was the institutional heritage of a Westminster-style parliament, equality before the law, habeus corpus, freedom of speech and an attenuated sense of personal social responsibility (most of us pay our taxes).

But all around me I heard a discourse suggesting that all these attributes and characteristics were, somehow or other, quintessentially Kiwi. It was as if New Zealand’s obviously weighty British cultural, institutional and even gastronomic inheritances were only acceptable if they could be presented as home-grown.

At the time, New Zealanders seemed to me to be in denial about who they were. But, on reflection, they weren’t wholly in denial. They’d domesticated all these one-time British traits, adapted them and moved on. Moreover, they’ve moved on a lot further during the last three decades, as a result of globalisation and demographic change.

And so, although Wills and Kate and baby George were obviously very welcome guests here, I doubt whether it had all that much to do with any future institutional role they might have. It’s more because they’re such an obviously nice young family, are global super- stars/ style icons and, in the case of Kate, quite seriously beautiful.

Moreover, as one of the visiting press corps asked, if the Cambridges are meant to be the future King and Queen of New Zealand, how comes that everyone's waving British flags at them?

So, on the whole, I wouldn’t expect any monarchist bounce in the polls on such matters to be particularly long-lasting.But I could be wrong.

Fern said...

Chris, I’m glad you have finally seen the light! Seriously though, I have long thought that here in Aotearoa we are incredibly fortunate in our constitutional arrangements. In this uncertain world we have the certainty of knowing who will be our head of state for the next 100 years, barring accidents. We know he will have a decent upbringing, an excellent, well-rounded education, and will acquire a clear understanding of his future role.
Furthermore, he will only drop by occasionally for a brief visit, bringing a welcome bit of glamour and colour to divert us.
An elected president would move permanently into the spare bedroom, would cost a great deal more, and would be sorely tempted to wield real political influence.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

We'll also know that the next king will be a child of privilege who leaves his servants to pick his clothes up off the floor, and who got a gentleman's C minus from whichever elite university he went to. And to describe Charles and his wife as bringing a touch of glamour – God help us the man's ears alone are less than glamorous. Not to mention that they all use homoeopathy. Doesn't say much for their well rounded education as far as science goes. Luckily that bigoted old bastard Philip is not in the line of succession. His only skill seems to be driving a coach and horses. Really useful in today's society.

Fern said...

Agreed, GS. They’re a weird mob in some respects. But with our constitutional monarchy you take what you get, while the real power resides with Parliament. Suits me.
As for ‘bringing a touch of glamour’, I’m sure you realised I had William and Catherine in mind when I wrote that.
And if Charles’ servants have trained him to make themselves indispensable, well, more fool him.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Wills and Kate are not going to be the next king and queen though Fern :-).

sagenz said...

You are becoming more conservative in your old age Chris. I recommend Roger Scruton to go further down the conservative philosophical path. Burke is right. It works because it changes slowly and with the will of the people. If Charles remains politically active when he gains the throne that will be the quickest path to republicanism.