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Vivat Regina

10 June 2012

This article appears in the latest issue of Spectator Australia. We thought that CoffeeHousers would like to read it.

The trick to monarchy is not queening it. In The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth’s great novel of the Habsburg twilight, the Emperor Franz Joseph has it down to a tee: 

‘At times he feigned ignorance and was delighted when someone gave him a longwinded explanation about things he knew thoroughly… He was delighted at their vanity in proving to themselves that they were smarter than he …for it does not behoove an emperor to be as smart as his advisers.’ 

At dinner in Melbourne and Sydney, as in Toronto and Montreal, I have sat next to clever, dazzling politicians — the coming men of the coming republic — mimicking Her Majesty’s absurd voice and mocking her dreary stolidity. ‘If people smirked behind his back, he pretended not to know about it,’ wrote Roth of Franz Joseph. ‘It does not behoove an emperor to compete with wags and sophisticates.’ And a year or three later the coming men have come and gone, and there’s the Queen, opening a hospital, touring a school.

Franz Joseph died in 1916, and his empire shortly thereafter. To Elizabeth II it has fallen to preside over a six-decade imperial sunset. Nobody wants to dwell on the only other Diamond Jubilee, back in 1897, when 46,000 troops from every corner of the Queen-Empress’s dominions marched down the Mall led by Field Marshal Lord Roberts on the same steed that had carried him from Kabul to Kandahar in the Second Afghan War.

One hundred and fifteen Junes later, for the jubilee of Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter, there are no Bengal Lancers, Cypriot mounted zapitehs or dayak headhunters from Borneo, and, although British, Canadian and Australian troops are still on the road from Kabul to Kandahar, nobody’s very keen to bring up Afghanistan. The Queen will make do with a jubilee pop parade featuring Sir Cliff Richard, Sir Paul McCartney, Dame Shirley Bassey and (leading the Commonwealth caterwaulers) Dame-to-be Kylie Minogue. In lieu of baggy-pantalooned hausas from the Gold Coast, there will be the tightly-trousered Sir Tom Jones from the rhinestone lounges of Vegas; in place of the white kepis of the British Guiana Police, the ceremonial hairweave of Sir Elton John. It is not difficult to see the Royal house’s two jubilees as bracketing a grim, remorseless, century-long decline.

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And yet, and yet… the horseshoes along the Mall echo still. In the 2012 Heritage Foundation rankings of global economic freedom, eight of the top ten nations are current or former realms of the Crown, including the top four: Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand. So are about half of the 20 economies with the highest GDP per capita, and for large countries with populations over 20 million the top three is an Anglosphere sweep: Australia, Canada, the United States. Three-sevenths of the G7 are nations of British descent, and so are two-fifths of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Of course, no record is unblemished, and in the fringes and fag-ends of empire lurk Gaza, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. 

Nevertheless, from South Africa to India, today the key regional powers in almost every corner of the globe are British-derived — and, even among the lesser players, as a general rule you’re better off for having been exposed to British rule than not: Why is Haiti Haiti and Barbados Barbados?

The Queen could say this, in one almighty blow-out Christmas message to remember, but it’s not her style.

Is the monarchy anything to do with the unrivaled record of the Britannic inheritance? Working for the Free French in London during the war, Simone Weil found herself pondering why, among the European powers, only England had maintained ‘a centuries-old tradition of liberty’. She was struck by the paradox of the Westminster system — that ultimate power is vested in one who cannot wield it in any practical sense. Endowing the sovereignty of the nation in an absentee monarch — as Australia does — is an even more exquisite refinement of the Weil theory: vesting power in its literal rather than merely political absence. 

What Malcolm Turnbull objects to most — she doesn’t live here! — is what I find most appealing. A minimalist monarchy is perhaps the most benign form of government one could devise — except that no hyper-rationalist would ever ‘devise’ such a thing at all.

And in the end the Queen gets something basic that most of her ministers, in their pursuit of modish fictions, don’t. A couple of months back, someone sent me a photograph taken at an IPA event in Melbourne: yours truly with Tony Abbott, leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition in Canberra, and Daniel Hannan, leader of the far lonelier opposition to Eutopian fantasies in the European parliament. (I thought of releasing the photo with the headline ‘Abbott Announces Surprise Rehuffle’, but didn’t want to jinx the next election.) 

Dan Hannan was very taken by the painting we were standing in front of: the work of H. Septimus Power, it showed the men of the 6th Division of the Second Australian Imperial Force marching off to war in 1940. Understandably for a chap whose day job involves sitting in a legislature with members of the true Finns Party and the Bulgarian Attack Party, Dan is wont to wax rhapsodic about the Commonwealth and can occasionally sound as if he’s one gin sling from putting on his sola topee and singing ‘The Road to Mandalay’. 

But he’s not wrong. Technically, he, I and Mr Abbott are respectively subjects of Her Britannic Majesty, Her Canadian Majesty and Her Australian Majesty, who are, according to the constitutionalists, three entirely separate ‘legal personalities’. But, after all these years, all the chipping away, they’re not that separate. Abbott, Hannan and I are not foreign to each other, not in the way that Dan’s fellow Euro-MPs from, say, the Slovak National Party are foreign to their Hungarian ‘colleagues’. (Not so long ago, the Slovak party leader urged, ‘let’s all get in tanks and go and flatten Budapest.’)

Australians, Canadians and Britons are different but not foreign. Maybe one day we will be, and the world will be poorer for it. But for now, despite all the chipping away, something endures, and so our octogenarian sovereign carries on, waving a white-gloved hand at young befuddled subjects who’ve never known any other monarch and couldn’t reliably explain the point of her.

As Joseph Roth wrote of the aged emperor, ‘He allowed people their errors, and he believed less in the permanence of the world than did the wags who told jokes about him in his vast empire.’ One day we will miss the Queen, and mourn the impermanence of the virtues she embodied. Vivat Regina.

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  • Brendan

    Mark, Thank you for a very fine article. I thought your comparison to Franz Joseph was an excellent one, and while the late Emperor’s virtues would probably have put the Queen’s in the shade, the point is exactly true: people want to have someone to look up to and revere. In today’s pop culture, that usually just means athletes and movie stars, but there is a nobility of spirit in each of us that craves more.

    I am an Australian of Irish Catholic ancestry and no one in my upbringing encouraged me to be particularly respectful of the Queen. The reality is ,however, that I grew up with an innate respect for her. I, for one, hope she dies before my fellow Aussies decide to make Australia a republic. Having said that, I will conclude by paradoxically repeating with you – vivat Regina!

  • David Heath

    Written over three months ago and still sets the heart aflutter.

    • benny the devil dog

      Well I with the arrogance of excellence say I DO and I AM.At Parris Island boys and girls arrive to depart as Nobles, not for self but Pro Deo et Patria, something the other branches of the armed forces could emulate along the line of the oil spot plan of action.

      Yes it is a heavy burden, but as the Marine Proverb tells us “Many hands make a burden light” so it is less a matter of Kings and Queens but inspiring self confidence to say I Can, the discipline to support our leaders but not be sheep who blindly obey every order and to mentor each other to evolve into better humans.

      In closing I do know where the proverb originated, in 1937-8 Marine Officer Evans Carlson was an observer in China with Mao’s forces and wrote of People’s War being born, but was ignored by most. Conventional wisdom saying “We are technologically superior, and have no need to know”. Perhaps while many read Sun Tzu few comprehend the meaning of Know the enemy and know yourself” We Marines do.
      For God and Country
      Semper FIdelis

      • Niall from Winnipeg


        I was reminded of a ’90’s TTC subway announcement on the overhead ‘speakers’: all just clicks and buzzes

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