Why I’m a monarchist
This op ed by comrade Peter Slezak sold me on monarchism.
Let’s Keep The Monarchy – It’s Our Clowning Glory
Peter Slezak * Dr Peter Slezak Lectures And Technology Studies At The University of Nsw.
1 November 1999
Sydney Morning Herald
God save the Queen, for without her we would be a nation of jingoistic, sentimental flag-wavers.
THE republicans claim the monarchists are dishonest because they rarely even mention the monarchy, let alone mount any sort of argument for retaining it. I am happy to take up the challenge, even though I am demographically a typical republican and an implausible advocate for British royalty.
The republicans, too, are dishonest, for example, when they tell us we need to become independent from the British monarchy to become a mature, modern nation. This is an affront to Australians who have no reason to regard themselves as lacking in maturity, sophistication or independence.
Public apathy about the referendum may merely be evidence of a healthy, commonsense scepticism, unpersuaded by fatuous slogans and sophistries. Australians appear to have a robust resistance to nationalism and flag-waving sentimentality. And it may be the very irrelevance of royalty which has helped protect us from excesses of patriotic fervour.
Ironically, a significant argument for maintaining the monarchy derives precisely from the fact that it is a “relic of our colonial past”, to use Malcolm Turnbull’s apt phrase.
The issue is not whether we have symbols or not, but rather which symbols we choose, and their likely effects. The very anachronism of our British heritage, and a faintly ridiculous royalty, serves a vital social function which has been overlooked. Our dull past as a convict colony and outpost of British imperialism has saved us from narcissistic nationalism. Where Americans glorify their war of independence, civil war and other momentous events which have forged their nation, Australians have a tedious history of explorers crossing deserts, mountains and rivers. Getting lost in the desert is an unlikely source of romanticised national pride.
Americans have a cloying sentimentality about their history, their flag, their president and their system. But it is inconceivable that Australian children would daily recite allegiance to the flag, or that any politician would end a speech earnestly declaring “God bless Australia”.
Arguably, the monarchy has inoculated Australians against virulent nationalism. As republicans triumphantly assert, nobody has taken the monarchy seriously for at least two generations – but this is precisely its great value. The theatricality of a Gilbert and Sullivan royalty has an important ceremonial function, which is not to say that it is without profound consequences.
A constitutional monarchy diverts certain emotional needs away from those who have real power, and it confers the mystical qualities of high office upon someone who is harmless. In sociologists’ jargon, the unintended or “latent function” of such an institution is distinct from its “manifest function”. The latent function of the monarchy for Australia is to help preclude the bearers of real power from revered, heroic status. Thus, Australians could never take seriously the American practice of standing solemnly to the strains of Hail to the Chief whenever Prime Minister John Howard enters a room. The US system has conflated ceremonial and political functions, allowing a disgraced Richard Nixon to protest that he was saving the office of the presidency when he was really saving his own neck from impeachment.
The republican arguments rebound to undercut their case. We need the Queen to open the Olympic Games but not because it is an important role to which Australians must be allowed to aspire.
Among the more dishonest republican absurdities is the suggestion that having a British head of state limits the possibilities of Australian citizens. Evidently republicans would prefer that we emulate the cruel American myth that every US citizen may become president – except, of course, the vast majority who are poor and underprivileged.
We need the Queen just as a university needs a chancellor – dressed in ridiculous, medieval priestly attire – to confer degrees at graduation ceremonies. The chancellor’s garb is hardly practical but it adds to the theatricality of the occasion and is to be understood as a symbolic affirmation of certain traditions and values. It is no argument against the pompous academic procession of funny hats and gowns to complain that it is an irrelevant symbolic relic of an ancient past. That is precisely its point.
Those who have been most passionate about the need to sever purely symbolic ties to Britain have shown no interest in other ties which are arguably more consequential. The fact that a phone call from the US President has been sufficient to embroil Australia in military interventions around the world has not been seen as evidence of a tie deserving question.
Our intimate military and economic ties with Indonesia contributed directly to the catastrophe in East Timor but have not been of a concern comparable with that for our merely symbolic links to Britain. The moral values implicit in such judgments are revealing.
In the vast commentary on the referendum, no concern is voiced about the dark side of chauvinism. However, even if invoking the spectre of Nazism on constitutional grounds has been misguided, there remain notorious causes for concern about the jingoism upon which republicanism is being founded.
Australians recognise that the spirit of the nation is captured not in contrived nationalistic zeal, but in the jolly swagman’s irreverence for symbols of authority and privilege. Such a larrikin, critical attitude is at the heart of liberal democracies because it reflects independent thought rather than slavish conformity.
The swagman of Waltzing Matilda is Australia’s version of a venerable, dissident mentality exemplified in the Western tradition by Socrates, who was executed for challenging the official gods of the state.
The philosopher J. S. Mill described this in his classic essay On Liberty as an example of dreadful mistakes which horrify posterity, brought about not by bad people but by those who shared in “somewhat more than a full measure, the religious, moral and patriotic feelings of their time and people”.
As a symbolic “relic of our colonial past”, the monarchy helps prevent us taking ourselves too seriously. In particular, it may temper enthusiasm for the symbols of patriotism which have been destructive wherever they have flourished. Since, on the republicans’ own account, nothing more than symbols are at stake, the choice is clear.