The Old Justice is Dead
The allure of the Crown: PNG & the Palace

The real virtues of constitutional monarchy

Britannia defends Law, Monarchy and Religion against Violation from the Great Political Libertine. Despite its many flaws, inequities and inequalities, a constitutional monarchy remains the least easily manipulated governance system humans have devised

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Death or Liberty! Cartoon by George Cruikshank, London, 1819


ADELAIDE - Raymond Sigimet's perfectly competent and informative article about the death of the Queen triggered a remarkable outpouring of venom about the monarchy from those who want to replace it with a republic.

There is no denying that the monarchy is an archaic and elitist institution. Also, there are plenty of examples of royals behaving badly.

However, the proposed alternative of republicanism is hardly a model for fiscal rectitude, high moral character and outstanding achievement.

Republics have offered up leaders of the worst character on many, many occasions.

A very long list of dissolute, venal, corrupt and incompetent presidents is easy to compile.

We have some splendid examples of this in our world today, perhaps headed up by Vladimir Putin, almost an archetype of everything that can go wrong with a republican model of government.

So, when the various sins of the British monarchy are laboriously listed by those who wish it gone, it is important to remember that republicanism has, in the relatively short time it has existed, compiled an impressive list of egregious failures and crimes to rival those of any monarchy you can name.

The central problem about the governance of nations is rarely constitutional structure. It is invariably the character, ideas and motivations of the people who rise to the top of whatever structure is in place.

A genuinely virtuous political leader is a vanishingly rare phenomenon.

Mostly, it is the flawed and eccentric characters who turn out to be the most effective leaders.

Although some, like Clement Attlee or, perhaps, Anthony Albanese, use their apparent ordinariness to disguise underlying reformist zeal.

These leaders will tend to emerge in a manner consistent with but largely independent of the constitutional governance structures. 

It is the underlying political structures that really matter.

In a democratic context, this usually means achieving mastery over, first, a major political party and, then, the parliament as a whole.

Putin did not achieve power because of the Russian constitutional arrangements but because he was able to first achieve control of the elected duma (parliament) through democratic means.

He then set about subverting the very institutions set up under that structure.

Republican models are vulnerable to this because, far too often, they allow comparatively easy changes to the constitution or 'primary law'.

This allows unscrupulous and ambitious politicians to either undermine or simply negate the democratic processes that should operate to prevent the over mighty gaining power.

I think that a constitutional monarchy, for all its many flaws, inequities and inequalities, remains the least easily manipulated governance system that we humans have devised.

The quaint formalities, sometimes almost bizarre rituals and elaborate pageantry embedded in such a system, mean that fundamentally emotionally based conceptions of how things should be run take a firm hold on the public.

Thus the customs, traditions and conventions that are part of the monarchical system are not easily changed, nor is it easy to convince people that they should be changed.

Constitutional monarchy has developed over many centuries and become deeply embedded in the culture and traditions of those nations which have adopted the system.

Even in multi-cultural countries like the UK, Australia and Canada, people from very diverse backgrounds and traditions will happily embrace the British monarchical system that, seemingly, has no personal or culture relevance for them.

Also, what most of us would regard as sophisticated and egalitarian nations like Sweden and Denmark happily maintain their antiquated monarchical systems.

Superficially at least, it would logical for them to have long ago replaced them with a republican model but there seems little public appetite for such a change.

It seems pretty clear that constitutional monarchies are surprisingly robust institutions and generally well supported by the public.

It is doubtless galling to committed republicans that a system based upon obviously antiquated ideas and traditions is so highly respected and admired by the public.

The displays of sentimentality and raw emotion now on display as the elaborate rituals and ceremonies surrounding the death of the Queen are playing out on TV screens across the world are testimony to the power of the monarchy to transcend and overwhelm that of mere politicians.

It seems a case where the sheer theatrics of monarchy effectively negate the problems inherent in a system based upon birth right, patronage and privilege.

For the reasons mentioned I think that Australia’s republicans will be very hard pressed to persuade the majority of Australians that any change to current constitutional arrangements is either necessary or justified.

The popular aphorism, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, is one that resonates powerfully with an instinctively conservative public who already are deeply sceptical about the sincerity, motivations and ambitions of the political class.

I would guess that the same will be true across most of the Commonwealth although some countries will doubtless choose to take their chances with a republican system in which history suggests that all too often it is a politician of no great merit or capacity who ends up as head of state.

'The Imperial Coronation'
'The Imperial Coronation' Thomas Rowlandson 1804 (Metropolitan Museum of Art,  USA). A satire on the coronation of Napoleon

Perhaps most compellingly, there is little evidence that changing to a republican system will somehow generate an enhanced sense of nationhood or self esteem. In fact, monarchy seems a much more successful model for doing this.

The truth is that people appear to like the feeling of being part of a history and traditions that, in the case of the British monarchy, date back 1,000 years.

Republicans do themselves a disservice when they fail to understand the utility, power and appeal of a monarchical system that they too often regard as self-evidently anachronistic and contemptible.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

There is an excellent and extended article on the ABC website about what the British monarchy represents.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I guess what the republicans are after is a symbolic person who represents their perception of what Australia means.

A problem arises when such a person takes it into their head that they are somehow significant, which is what John Kerr did in 1975.

One of the biggest attractions for the monarchists seems to be all the pomp and bilas, as you point out. That might also explain why we get military types as governors general.

I like your idea of abstaining during any referendum.

That said, I will vote yes for recognition of our indigenous people in the constitution.

Chris Overland

Thanks for your comments Phil.

For the record, I am entirely agnostic about whether Australia becomes a republic. I do not think it matters much.

My purpose was to point out that the monarchy has endured for so long for very good reasons, albeit not necessarily rational or sensible reasons from the perspective of republicans.

The real problem for them is coming up with a plausible method of electing or appointing a President, whose powers would necessarily have to be carefully defined, notably the power to dismiss a government.

I think the simplest option is to require the Federal Parliament in a joint sitting to by not less than a two thirds majority nominate a President whose role would be restricted to opening dog shows, making speeches on Anzac Day, handing out medals, etc.

The trouble is that the Great Australian Public want to elect someone to the position and that necessarily means we get a politician. He or she, once elected, might get the idea that they have a 'mandate' to do something or, worse still, reveal clearly partisan tendencies.

No suitably qualified and distinguished person would wish to submit themselves to a competitive electoral process the prize for which is five years of largely thankless glad handing of the masses.

Against any such argument the committed monarchists will run the usual line that the current system works beautifully and that whatever election or selection method is proposed we will end up with a member of our deeply distrusted political elite.

They will pose the question as to who would want to swap a bona fide Royal family full of interesting albeit sometimes irascible, snooty or even dodgy members for a superannuated politician?

A better question to ask is why we need a formally appointed Head of State at all when Scott Morrison has clearly demonstrated that it is in fact the Prime Minister who the true head of state.

His or her power is effectively limitless, constrained only by the ability to command a majority in the House of Representatives, the tolerance of his party colleagues and, ultimately, the ability to secure the support of the majority of the voting public.

I think that I will abstain from any plebiscite on the republic on the grounds that whatever I support it is bound to be the wrong decision.

William Dunlop

Ach nou Paul, It came cheap$0.99c on Kindle a few years ago.

Not in the same class as De Valera's favourite; Machiavelli's treatise. The Prince.

Just never got around to deleting it. Slantie

Philip Fitzpatrick

"The issue is how to effectively provide a system of checks and balances to try and ensure dictatorship and greed doesn't take over in running a nation."

You reckon that "greed" has nothing to do with a monarchy Paul?

The British royals have got more shiny baubles than the Vatican.

Paul Oates

Good Heavens Wullie. Fancy stooping to repeat that scurrilous gossip by someone who wanted to sell a cheap novel by making something up through innuendo.

The real problem is that through a conflation of jealously and implied simplicity, people can be misled. Many can be jealous of power and privilege and it's easy to see why. The yanks would secretly love to have what the UK has.

The issue is how to effectively provide a system of checks and balances to try and ensure dictatorship and greed doesn't take over in running a nation. It's taken over 1,000 years of experience and ritual to evolve what is a good example of a constitutional monarchy that doesn't actually have any political power yet provides some influence in steadying the high and mighty.

It isn't infallible however as we all know. Name one system that is? One only has to look recently at the US or many other governments at the moment.

Yet another aspect is that most humans like a certain amount of pomp and ceremony and the Brits know how to provide it in spades.

Husat inolaik sampla bilas a?

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think you might be defending the indefensible Chris.

Being a republic doesn’t make a country more prone to upheaval than being a monarchy. Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Italy and France, for instance, are pretty stable republics.

For all its faults, the US, a presidential republic, stands against autocracies like China and Russia, and is unlikely to turn into one itself anytime soon.

Australia’s attachment to the monarchy is predicated on its British origins. Modern multicultural Australian citizens hardly owe any allegiance to Britain.

The British monarchy epitomises the importance of class and wealth. The royal’s major preoccupation is maintaining that distinction.

An Australian republic could take many forms. We could simply retain our current system minus the monarchy or we could go the whole hog and have an elected president. I’m sure Twiggy Forrest or Gina Rinehart would love to buy themselves a presidency.

Hopefully we’ll have a mature debate on the matter in the near future.

William Dunlop

Have a wee read of Lady Colin Campbell's.

The untold Story of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.

The untold life of Queen Elizabeth, who became the Queen Mother.

And her Half Brother David.

The children of the Laird Bowes-Lyon and the family's French-born Cook Marguerite Podecere at ST Paul's Wooden Bury.

They were known within the Bowes Lyon Family as the Two Bengimens.

Recorded by Lady Campbell for Posterity.

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