Is the monarchy more postmodern than the republic?

Mark’s post on Troppo re the ‘republican debate revived’ apparently because of the news of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles’s impending wedding, prompts me to put forward a few provocative thoughts of my own. The main one being that I think the optimum time for a republic has been and gone, and that the constitutional monarchy in fact is better suited to Australia, in these postmodern times, than ever.
Before you all fall down on top of me for being some kind of royal lap-dog, let me say this: I was born and bred in a republic, one of the world’s oldest and most emblematic republics, that of France. But like many migrants who have come from republics, I am much less starry-eyed than many Australian republicans about the reality of a republic and what it does for democracy and the ‘rule of the people.’

France, in fact, simply exchanged one kind of ruling upper class for another, and managed to combine–because this was an ideological kind of republic, which suffered greatly from the fact true reform was stifled by the Jacobins, who seized power in 1792–the worst features of the monarchy with the worst features of republicanism: hence, you got authoritarianism, instability (France suffered 22 changes of government since 1789, most of them turbulent ones, caused by coups of various sorts and constitutional crises), a parliament which is by and large nobbled; and an extraordinary sense of hierarchy which is backed up by instiutions such as the Ecole Normale Superieures, where nearly all French pollies have been. If you think the Labour Party here has become unrepresentative of the Australian electorate, with its candidates coming from certain professions or backgrounds only, I can tell you it’s much, much worse in France, where practically all pollies, and all important bureaucrats and technocrats have come out of the Ecole Nationale Superieure system–an old boys’ (and it mostly is old boys in France, you can count female pollies on the fingers of one hand!) network to beat all old boys’ networks. The result has been a democracy that is rather less than a true democracy, and that is much harder to fight against than a monarchy, because the entrenched privileges and networks of patronage are huge and spread very wide, not just into an aristocracy, but into the whole machinery of State and business. The corruption, secretiveness and arrogance that this system has bred has led to many French people becoming completely cynical about politics–or wanting to back people such as Jean-Marie le Pen, that consummate, opportunistic and manipulative politician, who is nevertheless an outsider to the system, can present himself as a victim of it, and thus reap the rewards of the huge ‘blowback’ of the system, which is that many French people feel quite disenfranchised. And no wonder–in one instance of an extremely high-handed rort, the deals done for instance with the Communist party–which claims about 2 or3 percent of the national vote–means that not only does it get a guaranteed quota of deputies in the Parliament (whereas Le Pen’s voters, at 15-20 percent, get not one deputy), but it was also able, through a secret deal, to get, since the end of the war, a certain levy on all electricity bills paid in France! (This last has been the source of a huge recent scandal). Add to that the fact that horrible stories of corruption, intimidation of judges (as in the Elf Aquitaine case) links to organised crime and even murder (as in a hideous sex and murder scandal involving deputies from both the Right and Left), surface from time to time, plus the fact that the President himself is not arrested for corruption simply because his high office prevents it(people joked that he only ran for President again because otherwise he’d be in the can)leads many French people to think that the Republic is just another name for the Mafia.
OK, you might say–we in Australia won’t get that sort of republic. We’re not that sort of country. Fair enough. Look at other republics–America’s, that other emblematic 18th century creation; or Ireland’s, created in the early 20th. Well, I admire both countries, but I don’t think we’re quite in the same circumstances. And I don’t think we need to graft either one on to our own polity. The US’ is a very democratic system, because it operates from the bottom up, from communities to regions and States to federal (whereas in France, you need permission from Paris before a village council can construct a toilet block in a village!). But it has its problems, which I don’t suppose I need to go on about here. As to Ireland, I sort of prefer that system–but, and this is a big but–the Irish fought a long, long war with the British over the very fact of their identity, sovereignty, and land. Their enthusiasm for republicanism is bound up with their nationalism, which was under direct threat from Britain, and had been so for centuries. Though the Republic was proclaimed in the 1920’s, it is really a product of 19th century enthusiasm for nationalism, which saw Italy and Germany too both become nation-states. That nationalism also had a strong dose of xenophobia, incidentally, both overseas and here (just read what 19th century republican nationalists thought about ‘yellow hordes’ and foreigners in general, for instance.)
What is the real reason for a change here? What urgency drives us? We missed the 18th century boat–the boat of independence from old things, old traditions. We missed the 19th and early 20th century boat–that of nationalism, tinged with xenophobia. We’ve even missed the boat of worrying about identity, in my opinion–the worry about identity that led Australians till about the 70s or so, to distinguish themselves as absolutely Australian, in opposition to the ‘mother country’. In a multicultural, postmodern Australia–an Australia where migrants are actually taken into the fold(and who have no hang-ups about Britain, incidentally), when it’s thought that to be Australian is to be many diverse things, the constitutional monarchy, with its mixture of origins, its muddle-through, chequered history, its distance too(someone once described the system here as being ‘like a school where the headmaster’s on permanent long-service leave!)seems much more like a fit–albeit an imperfect fit ,than a republic on which no-one can agree. As that Democrats person pointed out, we are a republic in all but name–the monarchy interferes not a whit, and all it provides is a bit of harmless titillation and celebrity gossip. So what if the Windsors are dysfunctional? Please, no hypocrisy on this. Don’t you think that the Chiracs, the Bushes and so on of this world have things to hide, and personal embarassments to overcome? So what if it’s an inherited thing, as long as they don’t have any real power? Many republics, both democratic and not, have featured dynasties–India, the US, Syria, and more. And they have REAL power. Look at the other constitutional monarchies, not only ones under the British Crown such as Canada and New Zealand, but others, such as Japan, Thailand, Denmark, the Netherlands, and more. Pretty stable and admirable, wouldn’t you say? Sure, an absolutist monarchy like Saudi Arabia or an interfering one like Nepal’s are bad; but then ditto for the same kind of republic.
Frankly, most Australians don’t care about getting a republic. It doesn’t mean they’re all monarchists(though a surprising number are); it just means that they’ve seen the options and don’t want to bother with changing a perhaps imperfect system–symbolically, mostly–for something that might well make things worse. And they are strong enough in their identity as Australians–which does not mean defining yourself by the Government you have, but on something quite other–not to be taken in by blatant appeals to crude nationalism and sometimes xenophobia per se(we don’t want a nasty foreigner as our head of State!) I was horrified to hear some of the nonsense that was trotted out at the time of the referendum, and to see the insult to intelligence and even common sense that was the ARM’s manifesto sent to every home–whilst the monarchists worked hard at that document, with pages and pages of exhaustive detail on what would change, the ARM provided just a few pages of emotional nationalist blather(which I think of as ‘bunyip’ nationalism) and slogans which obviously showed that they thought most Aussies were stupid and so TV-stupefied that they would react, Pavlov’s dog style, to appeals to ‘come on, Aussie, come on!’ for something that would affect people for generations to come.
And also people are suspicious of many of the kinds of public figures who fronted up to the republican cause last time, some of whom gave the impression that the only thing really wrong with the monarchy, in their opinion, was that they couldn’t be kings themselves! The late 20th and early 21st century is not a good time for the ‘visions’ of self-aggrandising public figures; the ‘masses’ have really come onto the scene in their own right, and whilst many intellectuals might lament their view of life, and of their country, as petty and banal and without a sense of ‘vision’, it’s actually about self-preservation. No longer can 18th century ideologues harangue the mob and then just seize matters into their own hands, precipitating civil wars; no longer can 19th and 20th century nationalists fire up crowds with sometimes destructive visions of national destiny; ordinary people now want peace, security, order–and not too many pollies. Certainly not another layer of pollies and bureaucrats; and certainly not a change which is hastily thought through, if at all, but which would have long-term knock-on effects. Great for lawyers, maybe–but, with all due respect to Ken and other lawyers on Troppo, that is not a recommendation for the population at large. And any amount of bitching about the monarchy and the personal behaviour of its members is going to stop that.. No, if republicans want to promote their cause, they’re going to have to think a great deal more clearly, with a great deal more lateral-minded solutions, than just appealing to a national identity that simply doesn’t need reinforcing. And they maybe need to come to terms with the fact that the monarchy, that flexible institution that has changed many times over the centuries, holds perhaps more winning cards than you might imagine, in this day and age.

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Alan
Alan
2022 years ago

The Thai monarchy did not prevent 3 generations of fairly bloody dictatorship, I am not sure the Japanese monarchy did much to commend itself during the 1930s and 40s (especially in the area of foreign relations) and the weird and elitist political arrangements in France evolved during a period when France shifted from monarchy to empire to republic with astonishing rapidity.

By your argument the monarchy and empire should have preserved France from those developments. For the record there is no Communist quota in the French assembly. It’s elected by single member districts in almost exactly the same manner as our house of representatives. The supposed institutional links between monarchy and the open society are just not there.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

I don’t disagree Sophie. In my view, it’s the constitutional practice that matters, far more than the arrangements themselves. I think a Republic would be better, largely because the notion of an hereditary head of state is simply anachronistic – particularly when the Head of State is culturally and geographically, half a world away from modern Australia. Being “born to rule” is a pretty clunky notion unless you’re a Packer, a Murdoch or Mungo McCallum.

Much of the residual nostalgia for the monarchy is tied up with the fact that the Queen has been thus for over 50 years. A kind of reassuringly enduring and dutiful offstage symbol against which the constitutional life of the nation continues: importantly – largely in her absence. But I think that this comfort zone continuum would evaporate instantly if the Queen’s reign came to an end. I don’t think there’s any regard for her heir other than that incarnate in eccentric celebrity and it’s pretty much inconceivable to picture him in a King of Australia context.

What about a “Best of Both Worlds” scenario? I’d be happy with a republic that segued seamlessly into current practice. In essence, a benevolent, non-controversial, apolitical, appointed Head of State with the minimum powers requisite for smooth operation of the Australian State. We should bury the silly, posturing Ninian Stephen vision of some self-important People’s Viceroy “reflecting us back to ourselves.” The requirements are: broad, cross-sector respect, intelligence, moral probity, an understanding of the constitution, extraordinary facility for small talk, an enormous capacity for celebrating Good Works and – the hard bit – a complete absence of overweening ego. In fact, anyone who is the direct antithesis of Richard Butler would obviously be perfect.

Paul Kidd
2022 years ago

You nominating yourself, Geoff?

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

I think you have to be married – not to mention listening to elderly people banging on endlessly about they’ve played the organ at St Vitus’ Coonabarabran for 500 years. I’ll put in a good word for you.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Sounds like a pretty fair analysis to me Sophie, but I just hope a bit of deconstruction of the text, doesn’t reveal some underlying powerful attraction, for certain articles in certain magazines at the hairdressers. I give you fair warning, that I’m right into any power relationships behind text at the moment.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I agree with Sophie that the time for a republic has probably passed. I say that with some regret because I am a republican, in a mild, waffly kind of a way. It would have been nice to have become a republic in 2001, marking national adulthood after a century of maturation. But the angry, acrimonious nature of the public debate put paid to any chance of that happening.

If we do get one, it’s not going to be based on the ringing tones of ‘The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man’ or the Constitution of the United States, but on some grey, inoffensive, uninspiring formula devised by bureaucrats It will be a weasel republic from the beginning, I suspect.

Despite being a republican, I voted No at the 1999 referendum. I thought the media coverage was so biased in favour of the Yes camp and so unfair to the other side that the choice was not fairly put to the people. I remember some footage on the day of the ballot that showed a young man angrily looking back at the ABC TV crew that pursued him into the polling booth and saying, ‘I think we’ve been bullied into this’.

That was it exactly. The commentariat tried to bully Australia into voting for a republican model they knew the people did not want. It was a huge miscalculation and has probably soured the general public on the idea to the extent that a generation will have to pass before it’s viable to try again.

Geoff Robinson
2022 years ago

I wish people would stop using ‘postmodern’ as meaning ‘good’ or ‘bad’. 22 changes of government is a misleading statement. Since 1870 there has been one: the fifth republic (Vichy was externally imposed). You understate the Communist vote and it wins seats because its vote is regionally concentrated and it is in coalition with the main left party, just like the Nationals in Australia and the Liberals. If the Greens and Democrats were in coalition with the ALP they would win lower house seats. The FN like One Nation suffers from being excluded by the mainstream right. But I share your dislike of bunyip nationalism and the pseudo-monarchical republicanism of the US and France, however we have a de facto president in the Prime Minister. A largely ceremonial directly elected President might be a good counterbalance to a monarchical PM. Distinguishing true and false democracies is a very slippery slope, like those who dismiss the Iraqi elections as not being truly democratic. As for the UK monarch: Edward VIII in 1939-40 is a frightening thought.

Down and Out in Sai Gon
2022 years ago

Wonderful analysis. Bravo. One of the reason for my sceptism about republicanism was France’s version of the same. But it sounds like the real problem is not the republic itself, but the centralization in the system.

As for the U.S., I have mixed feelings about their republicanism, where the head of state and head of government are the same person. That’s too much power, I think, including the power of Cabinet appointments. At its best, you can choose from a larger pool of people than available from a parliamentary system. At its worst, the appointments are a grab-bag of hacks, cronies and sycophants. Congress may filter out the dead ducks, but can it tell in advance who they are? (I’m thinking of Robert S. MacNamara.)

Sophie
Sophie
2022 years ago

Thank you all for your comments, very interesting indeed…
Totally agree re the ‘debate’ in the 99 referendum, and the bullying and unpleasant tone of it. In this household, both my husband David and I voted No in the referendum–me because I think the constitutional monarchy is a good system and has served us well; David because although he’s a republican (note–despite being English born and bred!) he could not stand the bullying, the unfairness of the media coverage–with the monarchists only featured if they said dumb things–and the positive arrogance of all those public figures who just knew what was good for us! Plus he thought the ARM model was crap.
He reckons the monarchists should have floated the idea of electing the Governor-General; what do people think of that, I wonder?

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Sophie, I was actually going to vote Yes until about 10 days before the ballot. Then I watched that joint ABC/BBC ‘debate’ which had Geoffrey Robertson thumping the tub abut how racist and seist the monarchy was, and Bob Hawke and Bill Hayden slanging off at each other….

I just thought, ‘Sod it. I’m not voting for *your* bloody republic’.

Down and Out in Saigon
2022 years ago

Even after the referendum, some of the ARMers want to “maintain the rage”. Or so I judge, given a short encounter with a Dutch sympathizer on a Whitsunday boat cruise. “Hectoring”? Yep. “Angry”? Definitely. “Contemptuous”? Of course. But I suspect a lot of her anger came from her attitude towards her own native royal family. She thought they cut and ran during WWII, and thus beyond contempt.

Did she hate all royalty everywhere? Well, she gave some very, very grudging praise for the Danish royalty (who stayed put in the 40s). A little bit like pulling teeth.

Nic White
2022 years ago

The republic question was so badly written at the reffurendum and so confusing that even I would have voted no. When it is proposed again, it really needs to be a simple question of “Do you want an Australian Head of State instead of the Queen?” It would basically be a matter of electing or appointing a president to perform the same function as the GG, or just change the current GG’s title and make him no longer responsible to the Queen.

If they had proposed that back at the last vote, there would have been an overwhelming Yes vote. The main problem people had with it, as show in the “We’ll vote No in Novemeber” campagin was that the government really had no idea where we were going after the monarchy was scrapped, so we shouldnt take the risk of voting yes. If it was a simple question and there was no element of risk presented to voters, such a reservation would not exist and the result would be yes.

AlanDownunder
AlanDownunder
2022 years ago

or just change the current GG’s title and make him no longer responsible to the Queen

He isn’t responsible now. QEII said so back in 1975. Yes the Constitution says differently, but there’s no such horse as the PM in the Constitution either.

Maybe we could put HM in rotation with other OS titular heads on a time-share basis to better reflect our evolved ethnicity and correct some OneNation-type misconceptions about national identity.

Meanwhile, since our PM converted from Methodism to Anglicanism, I trust he’s taking the appropriate Baldwinesque line on the upcoming nuptials. I’d hate to think he wasn’t actually seeing the light when he converted but just greasing up to the big end of town.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

In a weird way we have the best of all possible worlds. We think we have a monarch but they have simply forgotten us, as if we live outside the walls of Gormenghast.

Her madge may be able to find us on a map, but only because she has an old one with bright red bits on it. Chuck is too busy putting the “Great” back into “Great Britain” and representing British engineering interests, possibly against Australian companies.

Unfortunately for this theory, 1975 showed us the consequences. We don’t need a head of state in any realistic terms until the Government goes pear shaped and decides to tear up the Constitution. When the dismissal came, the Windsors didn’t want to know.

I don’t want us to go haring off over the rights and wrongs of this particular event; let it serve as a marker for what could happen.

The monarchy won’t survive Chuck. It may not survive him in the UK, leaving us with the fantastic possibility that he is the King of us but not the kind of them. In which case he will get off the plane at Canberra airport with the crown jools in his carry-on bag and do a perish trying to find the terminal while we stand around studiously avoiding his increasingly pathetic circular stumbles.

If they skip a generation I don’t believe young Willie will get into the ceremonial crap required to Royal it around Australia in an open-topped Austin with a pair of tiny flags.

At the moment we are all living on the memory of standing in some racecourse waiting for a glimpse of the royal wave. As that fades, and a new monarch takes over, there will simply be no mechanism whatsoever for the Windysors to connect to us.

It is actually a full time job in the UK to read those cabinet documents and kiss those babies and open those toilets in Scunthorpe, just to maintain the legitimacy of the Royal brand in that market.

They just won’t do the work to hack it over here. Maybe, like all the other grand old Australian brands, they will end up bought by Americans in some lightning raid on the stock exchange. Then plaster replicas of William will model Speedos and Ugg boots in Hong Kong malls.

Maybe that would be justice.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

The absentee principal is a delightful analogy and a true!

We already do govern ourselves. Does it really matter what we call our system? And as Sophie says it could seem that the times have already changed. Republics are not the ideals for self-realisation they once were. Australia has an elegant system. We are peaceful and stable. I do dare say ‘if it ain’t broke…… right into a post-modern post-colonial absentee monarchy.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

Of course the Monarchy’s more pomo. In fact it’s the world’s longest running reality TV show and now it’s getting down and dirty. I doubt a ‘Outback Jack’ scriptwriter coud have come up with that ‘tampon’ riff. Champagne comedy.

Just cut ’em off the civil list, find a good agent to set up alternative revenue streams across a range of media platforms and sit back and enjoy the show. Coming up in future eps, ‘The Prince, the Paparazzi and the Honeymoon!’, ‘Harry’s real father revealed!’, ‘Willy and the Starletl’ and the blockbuster season finale, ‘Death of a Queen!’. Pass the popcorn, thanks.

And I’d like to see a ‘democracy’ where
“… the entrenched privileges and networks of patronage are huge and spread very wide, not just into an aristocracy, but into the whole machinery of State and business.”
is not happening in one significant way or another.

Tried sued Kerry Packer, demanding accountability from New Labour or running for US President lately?

Giles
2022 years ago

cant see why the ozzies dont take Harry to be their head of state when Elizabeth dies and leave the UK to William. This is the way they used to do in the 17th century so might be suitably pre modern as well.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

true enough–Harry’s got a larrikin streak that would go down well. And if he married an Aussie wife..
but I think problem is that wouldn;t work till William has a child–otherwise Harry would be next in line and that could pose problems if Wulliam died. Though it could be funny if the King of Australia actually became the King of UK!

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

There’s an interesting sense in which the monarchy is postmodern (apart from the sense, following Guy Debord, in which it’s a key node in the “Society of the Spectacle”) – in that it’s basically a pre-modern institution. The French sociologist Bruno Latour argues that there’s a certain squaring of the circle from pre-modernity to postmodernity in “Why We Have Never Been Modern” (though I’m drastically simplifying his argument) and there’s been another stream of commentary on “refeudalisation” and the “new Medievalism” referrring to things like blurred borders, globalisation and the revival of symbolism rather than rational representation. Tom Nairn is the best writer on the cultural and political significane of the English Monarchy, particularly in sundry New Left Review articles and his 1988 polemic “Enchanted Glass”.

http://tomnairn.cgpublisher.com/

This is an interesting theme, and probably warrants a post sometime. Certainly symbolism as the political figure of pre-modernity and postmodernity rather than the rational representation of modernity is reflected in the revived preference for monarchy.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

I’ll probably vote republican next time like I did last time. But with a heavy heavy heart. I dislike the republican side nearly as much as the monarchists I’m afraid – for some of the reasons set out in comments above. The idea of a minimalist republic was OK with me, but the model actually wasn’t minimalist at all. At its centre was a change in process designed to entrench the pomposity of the head of state. Whereas now the Govt effectively appoints the GG, so that a government can appoint their own person, the republican model ensured that we’d have a pompous worthy who had the confidence of 2/3rds of the Parliament. In its inimitably self-parodic way, the Austrlaian monarchy is the antithisis of pomposity. With the exception of the well intentioned and worthy Deane, GGs in my lifetimes have been screwballs like Kerr and Hayden or pompous clapped out types like Hasluck, Zelman (or was that Zelig?) Cowen, and Ninian Stephen.

Who were they representing? A foreigner from a family who are a complete laughing stock – someone who cannot open their mouth without reminding one of Gerry Connolly. Sounds pretty ‘Australian’ to me – irreverent and compulsively ironic.

Its a matter of some pain to me that all of our Parliamentarians with the possible exception of Paul Keating lacked either the sense of humour or the courage to Australianise the whole thing and refer to the Queen as “her madge”, not in the corridors of power, but in its chambers.

Bernard Marmotte
Bernard Marmotte
2022 years ago

Actually, most of France’s “political elite” (ENS) does NOT come from the

trackback
2022 years ago

Crown Prince Frederik, Australia’s next monarch…

Despite Britain’s resident toff greeny organic fox-hunting loon deciding to marry the woman he should have married 30 years ago, the lack of enthusiasm for the nitwit Australia’s is palpable. It’s enough to make those smug monarchists nervous for the lo

trackback
2022 years ago

what do you do when you see a royalist?

Spinstartshere has found a subject large enough for its collective snark. Tim Dunlop is frothing at the mouth, while Sophie at Troppo is being a sensible monarchist in long paragraphs. I can’t resist narcissistically stealing my own comment back from…