In this week of change and continuity across
Her, His Majesty's Dominions, several readers have asked me to re-publish this National Post column from long ago:
It is almost a quarter-century since Australian republicans lost their referendum on the monarchy. Alone among the planet's pundits, I chanced to be dining at Buckingham Palace on the eve of the big vote - which informed my musings on constitutional arrangements Royal and republican.
Then as now, there are a lot of lazy republicans out there - people for whom it is a reflex, the obvious progressive thing; it's "rational" and, what's more, inevitable, so let's get on with it. The great Australian polymath Clive James was a subtler chap. Because he was a man of the left in his newspaper (The Observer, The Guardian) and broadcast (BBC) outlets, his audience was often surprised to discover a robust opposition to many of their assumptions - on climate change, for example, but also on the monarchy:
Australia should remain a constitutional monarchy and not become a republic, author and well known television presenter Clive James told a probably somewhat surprised audience at the Melbourne Writers' Festival last night. In its issue of 25 August, 2007, the Melbourne newspaper The Age said that Mr. James was responding to a question from the audience after delivering the festival's keynote speech at the Melbourne Town Hall. He declared himself a "cultural conservative" who valued and believed in the current constitutional system. "You ask when are you going to be free of the British monarchy. You are free under the British monarchy. What you have to guarantee is that you are free under the next system. I think it's a very advantageous political system to Australia, to have a connection with the old British monarchy...
"I know I must be seen as impossibly conservative, but you can be quite on the left, which I am, and still be culturally conservative." Referring to the republic referendum in 1999, he recently said that "there is a danger in Australia constantly of the consensus of the commentariat separating too far from the opinion of the people, to the point where the commentariat becomes contemptuous of the people."
That's certainly become rather more obvious - in Oz, Britain, North America, Europe - since he said it a decade or so back. Incidentally, unlike many of Her Majesty's fairweather friends, who accept knighthoods from the Queen and then argue that the republic is an idea "whose time has come", I believe Clive James turned down such an honor.
Anyway, here I am twenty-three years ago, dining at Buckingham Palace on the eve of the Australian republican referendum:
As readers of Monday's Comment page may have noted, I passed a jolly evening last week at the Elks Lodge in Littleton, New Hampshire, in the company of George W Bush. Immediately afterwards, I flew to London for dinner at Buckingham Palace.
"Wow! That's quite a week," said my assistant. "One minute, you're with America's next head of state. The next, you're with Britain's and Canada's head of state."
"Or look at it another way," I said. "One minute, I'm at the Elks Lodge in Littleton. The next, I'm at Buckingham Palace."
It would be invidious for me to disclose the reasons for the Palace's call, if only because the Financial Post's Linda McQuaig has already complained that I sound more like something from Monarchy than a Canadian newspaper column. Hey, sorry about that, Linda. But, as the only national columnist who isn't a member of the same Toronto health club as Adrienne Clarkson, I have to find my namedrops where I can. So, at the risk of breaching the confidence of a private occasion, here's an exchange that deserves to make it into the public prints:
One of my fellow guests, remarking on the lack of agricultural workers in Britain, said that he now brought in young Australians and South Africans, who were able to make £90 to £100 a day (about $60,000 a year) picking onions.
"Crying all the way to the bank?" said the Duke of Edinburgh.
The next day, Australians went to the polls for their referendum on whether to dump the monarchy. The Queen won. Australia, we'd been told, wanted an elected head of state, and now it's got one. Yet, rather than respect the people's verdict, the proponents of a republic flew into a rage. Aussies are wont to refer to the English as "whinging Poms," but you've never seen anyone whinge like the sore losers on the republican side when the electorate declined to agree with them.
The overwhelmingly republican press took defeat particularly hard: It seems Australians do resent a remote autocratic foreigner from thousands of miles away running the place and lording it over them. Unfortunately, it turned out to be Rupert Murdoch rather than Elizabeth Windsor. The media mogul overplayed his hand by declaring that he'd lived under three different systems (Aussie, UK, American) and republics were best. John Howard, the prime minister, reminded Mr Murdoch that he was a US citizen and, in an unguarded moment, apparently suggested that he "f**k off."
Even after the republican side had conceded, the Murdoch press seemed reluctant to accept the actual result: "Queen Hurt By No Vote Despite Win" was the headline on The Sunday Times of London. Mr Murdoch's poodle, anxious to please, began his report as follows:
The Queen was hurt and disappointed by the strength of republican feeling in Australia...
Come again? Her Majesty was "hurt and disappointed"? How does the Times hack know? He was down the pub with her? She'd called him at home, choked up with tears, to confide her innermost feelings? As the only journalist on the planet present at Buckingham Palace on the eve of the big vote, I think I can speak with complete authority on this matter when I say I haven't a clue as to the Royal Family's state of mind and private thoughts. I kept trying to slip Australia into the conversation, right up to the end when, as the Duke of Edinburgh was showing me the door and my carriage was about to turn back into a pumpkin, I opined that I thought the 1901 Australian constitution was rather better than the 1867 Canadian one. "Hmm," he said, and made some sharp observations about the differences between the two forms of federalism. But, as to how they feel about losing their antipodean throne, who knows?
Still, if I had to guess, "crying all the way to the bank" isn't a bad way to put it. Like Liberace, the Queen may have been "hurt" by some of the beastly things that have been said about her; but, on the big day, she came through: Her electoral validation may be a long way from the divine right of kings, but it's also useful ammunition against lazy post-monarchists in her realms. The snubbed Australian media keep harping on about the electoral divide — between young upscale educated urban republicans and old poor rube hick monarchists — but the interesting aspect of the royalist victory is how widespread it was: On Tuesday; it emerged that, as votes continued to be counted, the sole pro-republican state — Victoria — had tipped back to the Queen's side. The only two large polling centres to plump for the republican cause were the national capital Canberra (like Ottawa, a company town where the company happens to be big government) and London, England, where 60 per cent of expats are supposed to have voted to dump the Crown. If the Republic of Oz needs the votes of Earl's Court bedsits, it's in bigger trouble than it knows.
For Canadian republicans, the Australian referendum has several lessons. First, it's a rebuke to the "inevitabilist" theory of history. Secondly, it's a telling defeat for the "minimalist" republic — the idea that you simply change the governor-general's title to president, and life goes on as before. The defeated republican forces now say that next time the question should simply ask whether Australians favour a republic per se and leave it until later to work out whether it's going to be the Václav Havel model or the Saddam Hussein model. The devil is in the details — and to demand that the electorate reject an actual specific monarchy in favour of a vague, unspecified republic is as absurd as asking them to vote for a monarchy and reassuring them you'll let 'em know afterwards whether they'll be getting Elizabeth II, Emperor Bokassa or Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria.
Some republicans who support a directly elected president recognised this and joined forces with monarchists to defeat the system on offer: a republic whose head of state would be decided by the politicians. The official republican movement mocked their more principled colleagues for forming an "incoherent" and "contradictory" alliance with Good Queen Bess' diehard forelock-tuggers. In fact, there's nothing incoherent and contradictory about it. This was an important victory for western society's real silent majority: those people who dissent from the notion that career politicians should carve up all the most visible offices of state for themselves. Some of this silent majority are monarchists; some believe in a directly elected president; a large proportion are just average contented folks who aren't obsessed about politics. But they have far more to bind them to each other than they do to the establishment republicans who believe that the presidency should be just one more gift in the ruling party's box of baubles. If Australian voters tell us anything, it's that a political state isn't enough. At heart, most of us are romantic enough to demand more — either the mystique of monarchy or the rawer form of democratic politics in which a man must embark on his campaign to win the presidency by pressing the flesh in the Elks Lodge. Constitutional monarchy and a US-style presidency don't have much in common — except insofar as, either way, you find yourself sitting next to me come early November — but both speak to something larger in a nation's sense of itself.
For my own part, I'd argue that the Royal Family comes into contact with a far wider range of ordinary Canadians than the Liberal cabinet does. By "wide range of ordinary Canadians," I mean, of course, me: I've been to dinner at the Palace, whereas that deadbeat at Sussex Drive has never once invited me over. His grudging defence of the Crown was typical. What's extraordinary about the Australian vote was that Her Majesty won not just against the avowed republicans but also against her supposed defenders, a far more slippery crowd. For decades, M Chrétien and his Commonwealth confrères have been republicanising their countries by stealth — here, a Royal crest off a mailbox; there, a forgotten politician to replace her on a banknote — until the visible symbols of the monarchy are removed from daily life. Her Majesty should take courage from her victory in Australia and decline to let herself be inched off the throne by the governing elite: There would be no better time for the Queen to embark on a campaign to bypass the Trojan Horses in her various viceregal branch offices and connect directly with ordinary people throughout her realms. She won down under, she could win here, and she should let Jean Chrétien know that she knows. To paraphrase Tony Blair, she is the People's Queen now.
~from The National Post, November 11th 1999
Time rolls on. But in Australia the republican ructions still rankle - and I regret to say that, as reported here (about halfway down), I played a minor role in in one such spasm by Malcolm Turnbull (now himself de-throned).
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