'Our' royals and theirs
Although I don't consider myself a fervent believer in the Tongan monarchy - the institution may have helped Tongans preserve their political and economic independence in the nineteenth century, but it has surely become a serious encumbrance to most of them now - I'm always amused by the contrast between the derision Pakeha New Zealanders direct at 'foreign' monarchs like the King of Tonga and the reverence they have for the occupants of Buckingham Palace.
When I ask the Pakeha who scoff at the pretensions of Tupou V whether they favour the abolition of the British well as the Tongan monarchy I'm treated to lectures on the 'democratic' and 'responsible' nature of Britain's royals, and on the undesirability of republicanism. The good old British Queen and her family, I am told again and again, are only 'figureheads', without any political interests or power. How can anyone compare them with Tonga's royals, who have the power to sack governments and pass laws?
Nobody could argue that modern British monarchs have exercised political power in a direct, day-to-day manner. Britain's peculiar political system is the product of a drawn-out and complicated compromise, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, between its aristocrats and its rising capitalist class. Unlike the French bourgeoisie, which liquidated its local aristocracy at the end of the eighteenth century, the British capitalists decided to allow their country's old feudal class to survive at the head of the state, where they wielded symbolic rather than real power, and in various subsections of the state like the House of Lords and the military.
The Industrial Revolution and imperial expansion made Britain the world's leading capitalist power in the nineteenth century, but the symbol of British power was Queen Victoria, the matriarch of a family which had ruled the country in feudal times. That unconventional Victorian Friedrich Engels summed up the relationship between Britain's bourgeoisie and its aristocracy:
The English bourgeoisie are so deeply penetrated by a sense of social inferiority that they keep up, at their own expense, an ornamental caste of drones to represent the nation at state functions; and consider themselves honored whenever one of themselves is found worthy of admission into this select and privileged body, manufactured, after all, by themselves.
But the lack of involvement of the British monarchy in the everyday politics of Britain, and for that matter New Zealand, hides the continuing importance of the institution.
Many of the old draconian powers of the monarchy have not disappeared but rather passed into the possession of modern British politicians. British Prime Ministers have inherited from their feudal predecessors the 'royal perogative' to declare war or sign treaties without the consent of parliament. Legal scholars use the term 'crown-in-parliament' to describe the way in which the modern British parliament, and by extension modern British governments, have inherited the vast powers which Henry VIII and Charles I wielded. In Britain and in New Zealand, no written constitution exists to protect human rights from abusive governments and parliaments. When New Zealand governments decided to suspend the right of free expression during World War Two and again during the Waterfront Lockout of 1951 they needed only a couple of quick votes in parliament to get their way.
And some ancient and crucial powers are still vested directly in the monarchy. In Britain and in many of its former settler-colonies, the Queen or her representative is charged with overseeing the formation of a government after an election. Usually this process is an uncomplicated, uncontroversial matter, as the leader of party which has won the largest number of seats in parliament is invited to become Prime Minister. As the British republican blogger James Bloodworth notes, though, the monarch or her representative is free to break from established patterns:
In 1975, the Queen’s representative in Australia, Governor-General John Kerr, sacked the reforming government on the pretext of its difficulties in getting its Budget approved by the upper house. Kerr installed the Tory opposition to rule instead. The Queen, or a future King William, could do the same here amid a political crisis...The Queen, not Parliament, chooses the Prime Minister. This gives the monarchy huge power. The ruling class keeps the monarchy out of ordinary politics the better to have it in reserve for extraordinary politics.
Long before John Kerr's legal coup d'etat, the anti-democratic nature of the British monarchy had been been on show in the antipodes. Alarmed by the agitation of the Chartists and other radical groups, the British government passed the Treason Felony Act of 1848 to outlaw all expressions of sympathy for republicanism. After the passage of the Act, hundreds of opponents of the monarchy were shipped to Australia in chains. Later in the nineteenth century, the Act and similar pieces of legislation were used to criminalise Irish nationalists and other critics of the British crown in both Australia and New Zealand.
The Treason Felony Act remains on the books in Britain. In 2000, the editor of the Guardian wrote to the British Attorney-General to explain that his paper was about to launch a campaign for a referendum on the monarchy, and to ask whether the government could assure him he would not be prosecuted for his actions. No such assurance was forthcoming, and a 2003 attempt to have the Act quashed also failed. Although the Treason Felony Act is rarely used, republicans complain that its continued existence has a 'chilling effect' on freedom of speech in Britain.
The lead-up to tomorrow's royal wedding has been marked by repeated attempts to circumscribe the political rights of Britons opposed to the monarchy. Many wedding-related street parties have been scheduled in different parts of Britain, but
when the pressure group Republic tried to organise a party under the banner 'Not the Royal Wedding!' in the London suburb of Camden they were denied permission to take to the streets. Earlier this week the head of London's police force told a journalist that it was 'not appropriate' for protests to occur anywhere on London on April 29th, and that any republican placards seen anywhere near the wedding ceremony will be confiscated.
Right-wing politicians and the tabloids have lately been full of claims that the Windsor family symbolises British 'freedom' and 'democracy' and, if my conversations are any guide, a large part of the public, in New Zealand as well as the mother country, appears to have fallen for this nonsense. The Republic outfit plans to hold a street party in Red Lion Square tomorrow, and protesters are expected to defy the police and gather near Westminster Abbey during the wedding ceremony. It is these dissidents, and not the British state and its in-bred first family, who truly represent democratic values. Footnote: as a tiny gesture of solidarity, I thought I'd post the British Republican flag, which was created in the middle of the nineteenth century and has occasionally been flown in protest at royal coronations and weddings. The Republican banner incorporates the sea-green colour that was popular amongst the Levellers, the seventeenth century communist sect, and was later also used by the Chartists. Did the British Republican banner inspire the vexillologists of the Republic of Hungary?