WHAT WOULD MY YOUNGER SELF have said to the person he had become on Saturday night (6/5/23) as the Coronation unfolded? Would he have upbraided the old man seated in front of the television, watching another old man being crowned king? Certainly, he would have reminded him of the day long ago, in the Student Union of Otago University, just days before Prince Charles was due to visit Dunedin, during a debate on the monarchy, when someone (it might have been Michael Laws) shouted “Long live the King!”, and Chris Trotter leapt to his feet and shouted “Long live Oliver Cromwell!” How did that radical young republican turn into a sentimental old monarchist?
A large part of the answer to that question is bound up with the fact that the event recalled was so long ago. Because, at the heart of the monarchical principle lies the brutal reality of time. The span of a human life and all of the experiences that are crammed into it is what a reign is all about. It is not what a presidential term is all about.
The difference between a reign and a term is of no small importance. In a constitutional monarchy such as ours the identity of the head of state is known years in advance. A king or queen accedes to the throne immediately upon the death of their predecessor. Barring some awful catastrophe, the next monarch will already be a known quantity and the succession will be seamless.
The contrast between a royal accession and a presidential election could hardly be starker. Inevitably, the elected head of state will be the product of political choices. Either, he or she will be nominated and confirmed by Parliament – as our Governors-General are now – or, the head of state will be the product of a vote. In the latter case, a number approaching half of the electorate (more if there are multiple contenders) cannot help feeling bitterly disappointed that their candidate failed to attract the requisite support.
If the republic is a healthy one, the losers of the presidential contest will look forward to the next opportunity to assert their will. If it is not, then the losers may refuse to concede defeat – throwing the legitimacy of the head of state into doubt. Presidential terms are, therefore, necessarily short – four to five years – if only to keep the losing sides’ spirits up. Any longer and the president’s opponents might be tempted to shorten his or her term … by other means.
With these potential problems in mind, some republics limit their heads of state to a single term. Providing the president’s role is largely ceremonial, as in the Republic of Ireland, such limitations are generally accepted without objection. In those republics where a president exercises executive power, however, as in the USA and France, the incumbent is generally given the opportunity to win a second term.
Time is as important to the constitution of republican leadership as it is to the subject’s experience of monarchy. In a republic, time becomes the ally of those who see the orderly rotation of political elites – and their chosen leaders – as vital to the health of the state. Republicans regard political permanence as tantamount to tyranny. From their perspective, power is best served up in relatively short periods of time.
As we New Zealanders say: “Three years is too short for a good government, and too long for a bad one.”
Everything changes, however, when the head of state is not only ceremonial, but hereditary. Historically-speaking, republics are an angry people’s political response to a sovereign who has ruled them badly. Oliver Cromwell famously “cut off the King’s head with the crown on it” because Charles Stuart had plunged Britain into a bloody civil war. King Louis XVI lost his head because the French people were no longer willing to starve while Versailles glittered. Once a monarchy has been tamed by its people, however, it becomes an invaluable instrument for isolating the role of head of state from the vicissitudes of politics.
More than that, a constitutional hereditary monarchy, being the enterprise of a single family, mirrors the experiences of the people over whom it reigns. My father was the subject of three kings and a queen. But, for most of my life, I have been the subject of just one monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. As such, I grew up contemporaneously with the sovereign’s children. Like them, I married and began a family. Like them I got older and, hopefully, wiser.
All the ups and downs of the Windsors have been tolerated by their subjects because they, too, have had their ups and downs. Charles is not the only man who married the wrong woman. Harry is not the only grandson to give his grandmother grief. Certainly, the Windsors’ wealth is immeasurably greater than all but a handful of their subjects, but that has never appeared to bother the vast majority of those who, for 70 years, referred to Elizabeth Windsor as, simply, “The Queen”. Monarchs are supposed to live in palaces and ride in golden carriages – that’s what it means to be “royal”. In all the life transitions that truly matter, however, their subjects saw the Windsors as people like themselves.
Crucial to this identification is the very strong sense that the Windsors’ subjects know them. People of my generation recall the Queen’s “royal visits”. We remember Charles and Diana and baby William playing with a Buzzy-Bee on the lawn of Government House. We all felt the shock of Diana’s tragic death. Younger Kiwis watched the marriage of William and Kate and counted-off their offspring. All of us have watched Charles grow older and older, and wondered how he endured his seemingly endless apprenticeship.
No elected president can possibly provide a nation with this sort of story, for that length of time. Nor can an elected head of state offer a backstory stretching back centuries, or an historical drama peopled with such a compelling cast of characters.
That’s why the older Chris Trotter could be found seated in front of the television on Saturday night, watching the man he had always known finally coming into his inheritance. Oliver Cromwell had no option but to behead Charles I. I am glad his revolution, and the French, and the Russian, drove home the lesson that, ultimately, kings and emperors, like presidents, are only entitled to rule with the consent of the governed.
“I come not to be served, but to serve”, said Charles Windsor.
And I said: “God save the King!”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 9 May 2023.