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Platinum Jubilee: The view from the balcony

27 May 2022

Paul Oestreicher examines the contract between the monarch and the public in the UK and the Commonwealth


The royal family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in 2012

The royal family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in 2012

THE Firm needs a balcony from which to wave, and a people to return the compliment, and maybe even cheer. The sun may shine.

From the unthinkable moment when the longest and most popular reign in British history comes to a peaceful end, King Charles, if he chooses to, and his consort will reign — but not rule. That is of the essence of our polity. The citizens, no longer subjects, will peacefully go their own way and think their own thoughts. Some may even wonder: how long will this circus survive?

Public DomainThe Treaty of Waitangi, 1840

Come the next reign, which may still be quite some way off, one thing is clear: revolution is not in the air. My guess is that the next monarch may choose to continue to share his private passions and convictions with the people. That will neither frighten the royal horses nor destabilise the status quo. It may simply add some spice to life at the Palace. Changes are as natural as the hitherto moderate climate of these isles.

These reflections are clearly no more than my uncertain predictions. Nothing beyond the present moment is ever certain.

I have said all this with equanimity, even though my much-respected training vicar, Stanley Evans, long since promoted to higher realms, would be angry — very angry.

A leading light in the Christian Socialism of the East End of London, he would say: “It is none of your business to reflect on what will be. You must state in no uncertain terms what should and shall be. The inherited privilege of the few is wrong, wrong, wrong. Challenge it!”

I have to confess that, even while I was his curate, Stanley was right never to quite trust me. Marxist fundamentalism is as foreign to me as are its Christian varieties. Nevertheless, he was right in siding with Wat Tyler’s priest, John Ball, proclaiming to the peasants on Blackheath in June 1381, before they marched on Westminster, that “Under God, all shall be equal.”

That is why the economy, the just distribution of our common wealth, matters more than our mode of national management. For challenging the rich, Tyler and Ball were hanged, drawn, and quartered. The Archbishop concurred (but then, the rebels had beheaded his predecessor).

WITH a New Zealand degree in politics, two books on Christian-Marxist dialogue, and a lifetime as a church diplomat based in England but ministering far beyond, I was always on the frontiers of non-party politics.

My first seven years were lived in Nazi Germany. New Zealand then gave my family refuge. Europe, Western and Eastern, of which England (Brexit be damned) will always be a part, became my workshop. At 90, I am back in the South Pacific. My three passports sit lightly together.

These are my credentials for this reflection on what good governance might look like in years to come.

So, back to my start. Ceremonial does matter. The English love it — even our flag. But never, never, “My country right or wrong.” That’s pernicious. Traditions go deep. The kings and queens of this sceptred isle, to whom Shakespeare gave character and meaning, frame our history. Yet the people made it.

Charles and Camilla will need a new framework. To crown them surrounded by the hierarchy of the Church of England would be an anachronism, faintly ridiculous, far away from where the great majority of the people are.

Solemnity, yes, given our history; even Christian solemnity, with the assurance of freedom of religion and conscience for all. Goodbye to “protecting the Protestant Religion” of Elizabeth l. Welcome to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Jews, Muslims, and those of other faiths should be made to feel part of this realm, as well as those whose faith is known to God alone.

The post-Elizabethan age, when it arrives, will trigger a debate. Do we really want a monarchy? The question needs to be asked, although I shudder at one more referendum. The issue might well engender massive heat and division at the expense of what really matters: the maintenance of a just and open society — the very thing that is in the process of being lost, both in the barely United Kingdom and in the rest of Europe.

LET me explain by using the example of the erstwhile British colony of New Zealand, which is gradually adopting its much more poetic Maori name of Aotearoa: Land of the Long White Cloud. It has kept the Union flag beside the Southern Cross on its flag, and this by popular choice. There was no need, given the almost universal love of the Queen, to put the monarchy question to the people. Post-Elizabeth, that is very likely to happen.

As things now stand, the Queen, still symbolically the head of state, her head on the coinage, is represented in Aotearoa by the Governor-General. She or he is a widely respected citizen from outside party politics. The post is held for a fixed term, when another deputy for the Queen is appointed.

Should the people of New Zealand choose to become a republic, there would very likely be hardly any change. The Governor-General would — thinking of the Irish and the German constitutions, which work remarkably well — simply become an elected President for a limited period.

The President would sign into law what Parliament dictates, and help to embody the spirit of the nation’s life. New Zealand would remain the independent nation that it has long been. It was the first nation to give women the vote. With or without the Queen, life will go on as before.

Another thing that will go on as before will be the essential debate about the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, made between the Crown and 500 Maori chiefs. Did the indigenous people, or did they not, sign away their rights to the land of their ancestors?

As we have seen in the West Indies in recent months, the imperial legacy of slavery, which blights the former Crown possessions around the globe, will prompt a distancing from the British monarchy, and endure beyond it.

Only if New Zealand should choose a presidential system based on, say, an American or French model, where an elected president has substantial political power, would it be a game-changer — and not, in my opinion, a good one.

CONSIDERING the future probabilities in the UK, given the inherently conservative nature of the British people, a continuing monarchy seems very likely, but necessarily with a changing lifestyle. The Scandinavians, who long ago peopled Britain, might provide some ideas. Rolls-Royces (now in hands as German as the Windsors) could give way to more environmentally friendly vehicles — or, for the younger set, maybe a bicycle or a motorbike. (The best, the police say, is a BMW; as it happens, a relative of mine helps to design them.) May the royal stables continue to waft the divine scents of the noble beasts.

Such light-heartedness aside, have I made my point? The mechanics of governance are secondary to the workings of the political machine. Any system, even with the best possible constitutional safeguards, can land the nation with a loss of its freedom, its basic humanity. It has happened. It is happening, step by step.

Take Westminster. Who would have thought that the Conservative Party could throw out the most stalwart defenders of its traditions, and that the Labour Party would point us to — nowhere much?

Fascism, A Warning (2018) is today a must-read. Its author, Madeleine Albright, who died only weeks ago, was a refugee child from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. She fled with her family to the United States, and eventually became its foreign minister, the Secretary of State. In the book, she writes: “Trump is the first anti-democratic president in modern U.S. history. . . If transplanted to a country with fewer democratic safeguards, he would audition for dictator, because that is where his instincts lead.

“This frightening fact has consequences. The herd mentality is powerful in international affairs . . . and today the herd is moving in a Fascist direction.”

Albright’s warning is addressed to her adopted nation. It is in every way applicable to the UK — and to much of the European Union, and around the globe. The pendulum is swinging dangerously to the extreme Right. Strong men (men!) are again celebrated. Come back, Napoleon, and many a recent self-assured populist. We need not look even as far as Russia.

DANGEROUS sources of disinformation are blinding the people. The stranglehold of neo-liberal ideology rids us of genuine choices. The mega-rich (find them in Mayfair) are not all Russians. They corrupt the world economy and make the poor even poorer. The Murdochs can make or break governments.

Good law, a good constitution, can make a difference, and help to guard against the worst. That is why Britain badly needs a written constitution. Tradition, good practice alone, will not save us.

Under Hitler, the Reichstag abolished all political parties save his. So, in Parliament, could a British Prime Minister. No law forbids it.

Just laws, as watertight as possible, administered by judges who are not politically appointed, would help. The only ultimate fallback is the people, although they, too, can be disastrously wrong.

Plato knew that, and didn’t trust the citizens. Hitler had the votes. So had Trump, and might have them again. Based on lies, so did Brexit’s propagandists, just. Nor does academic excellence necessarily prevent disastrous political allegiances.

A better, classless education system, training young minds to be critical and aware, is the safest insurance policy that I can think of. Young minds hold the world’s future. I will not despair of them.

Of course, there is hope, locally, nationally, globally. Each one of us, if we care enough, can make a difference. Hats off to today’s disturbers of our spiritual slumbers — prayers for friends and enemies alike; and good luck to Her Majesty and to the next to occupy the balcony.

May they, taking an example from our Queen, remember noblesse oblige: status comes with high demands.

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