(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 8.)
I can think of few things that excite me less than a royal romance, so I was unmoved by the announcement that Prince William was to wed his long-term girlfriend, Kate Middleton.
Of course the engagement triggered a feeding frenzy among the trashy women’s magazines and the hypocritical British tabloids. There’s only one story that thrills them more than the announcement of an impending royal marriage, and that’s the breakup of a royal marriage. The very same publications that gushed over the royal engagement would feast gratefully on any rumours that the relationship was coming unstuck.
In New Zealand, the announcement brought a predictably low-key, phlegmatic response. We no longer display the demonstrative enthusiasm for royalty that characterised previous generations.
My guess is that most New Zealanders would quietly approve of the match between William and Kate, because both seem basically likeable people without any black marks against their names, but that’s about as far as it goes. I don’t think the talkback lines were running hot with excitement when the marriage was confirmed, and I certainly didn’t see any joyous outbursts of flag-waving patriotism.
Does this apparently lukewarm response imply that support for the monarchy in New Zealand is flagging? I certainly wouldn’t make that assumption.
New Zealanders are perfectly capable of making a clear differentiation between a purely sentimental attachment to the royal family and a pragmatic appreciation of the monarchy’s constitutional role. They are two quite distinct things.
The sentimental attachment has certainly waned over the years. There is still a lot of respect and admiration for the Queen, but the highly publicised antics of her immediate offspring have shattered any public delusions about royalty.
These days only the most naïve, diehard royalist places the House of Windsor on a pedestal. They have been exposed as flawed human beings like the rest of us – and none more so than Prince Charles, who seems increasingly likely to be bypassed in favour of his son as the next king.
Yet the place of the monarchy in our constitutional arrangements appears to remain secure, despite a tireless campaign by a noisy (if small) republican movement.
This is because most New Zealanders are smart enough to recognise that the monarchy as an institution is much bigger than, and separate from, the personalities of the royal family.
Former Australian prime minister John Howard had a perfect rejoinder when Kim Hill, in an interview on Radio New Zealand recently, imperiously demanded to know why Australia hadn’t become a republic. Howard could have pointed out that Australians had voted against republicanism in a 1999 referendum (something you’d expect Hill to know), but he had an even better answer. The current system works. End of story.
It works well for us, too, and for Canada. We all retain the British monarch as head of state not because of some anachronistic sentimental attachment, but because it’s an arrangement that suits us.
Whatever its origins, it is now a pragmatic arrangement rather than an emotional one. It gives us a head of state who is above politics and it leaves us free to determine our own policies and directions in accordance with whatever our elected government determines to be in the national interest.
To me, that’s the beauty of the monarchy: it gives us an apolitical head of state who has what are called reserve constitutional powers that are only vaguely defined and that everyone expects will rarely, if ever, be used. In some ways it’s a constitutionally fragile setup, based on conventions and understandings - nods and winks, almost - rather than a formal, prescriptive document; yet it’s remarkably robust at the same time.
It has served us well, and most people are rightly wary of any republican alternative that could place yet more power in the hands of the political elite by way of an elected president. No matter how that president was to be elected, it would be a political position; there’s no getting around it. And we should have learned from bitter experience that, given the chance, the politicians will shaft us every time.
I have to laugh when republicans portray their opponents as swooning royalists held captive by sentiment and by grovelling loyalty to the “Mother Country”. Because invariably, the arguments the republicans themselves fall back on are sentimental rather than rational.
Most often, they make an emotional appeal to our desire to “govern ourselves” rather than be ruled by a distant head of state who may deign to visit us once every few years. But in every respect we do govern ourselves. Can the republicans point out any occasion in recent decades when our autonomy was compromised, or when the Queen interfered in matters of state?
Australians can cite the Governor-General’s sacking of the Whitlam government in 1975, but even with that experience – and with their convict heritage, which gives them far more reason than us to resist any hint of subjugation by the British – our Aussie cousins still choose to have the Queen as head of state in preference to someone put forward by the political class.
As for New Zealand, I’ve racked my brains and can’t think of any time when we were forced into any decision inimical to our interests simply because the Queen was our head of state.
It’s true than until the 1980s the government frequently deferred to the Brits in matters of trade and foreign relations, most notably when Sir Robert Muldoon gave indirect support to Britain during the Falklands War; but that had nothing do with influence or pressure from Buckingham Palace. Those were judgments made by our elected leaders in accordance with their perception of where our political interests lay at the time, in the same way as a more recent government made a contentious decision to send troops to Afghanistan.
The truth is that in most respects we function as a republic already, with the obvious difference that we have no president. Political rhetoric about having an elected New Zealander as head of state may have a shallow emotional appeal, but a republican New Zealand wouldn’t be any more independent or autonomous than it is now – and to suggest otherwise is dishonest.