Thursday, April 28, 2011

'Our' royals and theirs

Over the last year I've visited Tonga a couple of times and written occasionally about the place. When I've mentioned my interest in Tonga in conversations with fellow Kiwis, they've often responded by ridiculing that country's royal family. 'That King they have - he's a joke' and 'Those Tongan royals are parasites' are two of the more printable remarks which have come my way.

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?

16 Comments:

Blogger Timespanner said...

I love the mug. If I could afford it,I'd buy one.

8:33 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I like the cups too Lisa! I know the points in this post are pretty straightforward, and have been made many times by others, but I felt compelled to make them because of the extraordinarily uncritical attitude toward the monarchy I've discovered in recent weeks amongst even usually thoughtful Kiwis. Skyler amazed me the other night by expressing a desire to watch the whole bleedin' wedding/freak show on telly with her granny!

There's a lack of historical memory of the way the monarchy was used to destroy the most left-wing, pro-union, pro-Aboriginal government Australia has ever had, and a lack of awareness about the way the right to protest is being curtailed in Britain right now, in the name of this supposedly unpolitical wedding. The statement by the head of London's cops that it is 'not appropriate' for anti-monarchist protesters to assemble anywhere in London on April the
29th is astonishing in its hubris.
Since when did the cops get to decide what sort of political expression is 'appropriate' or inappropriate'?

12:23 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

"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."

Really? Just who are these people you talk to, Scott?

9:04 am  
Blogger maps said...

'Just who are these people you talk to, Scott?'

Friends, rellies/in laws, real estate agents, and of course my friggin' wife! Honestly, I think that support for the monarchy is quite embedded in both New Zealand and British society. A recent poll showed that only 13% of Brits favour a republic; I think the figure would be higher here, but not by all that much.

10:36 am  
Blogger GZ said...

In a real and minor way, the arrest of satirists proves that the state really does feel the need to prove its authority over and against disaffection.

1:23 pm  
Blogger Timespanner said...

I won't watch the royal wedding. Just not interested, actually. Simply another couple of celebrities to me, and not even ones I care about. I don't think there are any monarchies around which give me the urge to curtsey (as if I could!)

4:05 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Everyone I've spoken to who wasn't a Republican in my thirteen years in the country has essentially shrugged at the whole idea of the monarchy. They don't loathe them, but are simply too indifferent to get rid of them. Which I guess if you're not passionate about constitutional reform isn't an unreasonable position to take. Still, I've yet to come across anybody who will actually defend them, let alone praise them.

4:22 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

I don't support the monarchy and don't really care about the wedding but something does fascinate me - the whole pageantry of the thing maybe - the outfits? Who knows!! Will have to see if Maps lets me turn the TV on tonight!

5:16 pm  
Blogger hamshi said...

You say freakshow as if its a bad thing maps.

11:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ten suspicious things about Obama’s birth certificate
10. It’s headed “President Obama’s Birth Certificate”
9. The attending physician’s name is listed as “Dr. Demento”
8. The address given for Obama’s mother is actually that of Jack Lord’s house
7. It’s scratch-’n’-sniff
6. The street name, “Kalanianole,” is Hawaiian for “take this, combover boy!”
5. It’s printed on the back of an 8” X 10” of Tom Selleck
4. Curiously enough, both the doctor and local registrar were old poker buddies of Jack Ruby
3. His mother’s occupation is listed as “some kind of academic social-science bullsh*t”
2. It turns out that doctor died under mysterious circumstances last year at the age of 106
1. Obama’s father? Don Ho

10:39 am  
Anonymous Edward said...

There was a royal wedding? Seriously though, I'm probably in the indifferent group Giovanni mentioned. I think kings and queens are silly wastes of energy in the 21st century, and I resent the stratified heirarchy and pomp. If I were to fall off the fence I'm sitting on I would fall on the republican side. That said, it still remains important tradition for many NZers so I'm not incredibly fussed. It is a strange spectacle from the other side of the planet with little to no impact on us short of a sickening notion of inadequacy as 'commoners' and perhaps a restriction of constitutional growth. My concern would be what would a republic here look like? It's forming may be an excuse to abolish the treaty for example...

11:17 am  
Anonymous Martin Doutre said...

You are all sad, sick losers.

7:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Three anti-capitalist activists who were planning a mock execution of Prince Andrew with a guillotine to mark the royal wedding have been arrested and detained at Lewisham police station.

Officers arrested Professor Chris Knight, a leading member of the G20 Meltdown group, outside his home in Brockley, south east London at around 6.15pm, according to an eyewitness.

Also arrested were Knight's partner Camilla Power and Patrick Macroidan, who was dressed as an executioner, said fellow activist Mike Raddie, of north London, who was with them.

The three activists were preparing to drive their theatrical props, including a home-made guillotine and effigies, into central London when three police cars and two police vans drew up near Knight's home in Brockley, said Raddie.

"Chris was arrested first. He lay down on the pavement opposite his house to make the arrest difficult," said Raddie. "He was pulled up by four police officers and two bundled him into the back of a van.

"Camilla was put in the back of one of the police cars. Patrick was dressed up as an executioner when he was arrested."

Raddie said the police also seized a van containing the group's props, which included a wooden guillotine. "It's a working guillotine but it doesn't have a blade – just wood painted silver," he added.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said: "This evening, 28 April, officers arrested three people – two males aged 68 and 45, and a 60-year-old woman – in Wickham Road, SE4 on suspicion of conspiracy to cause public nuisance and breach of the peace.

"They are currently in custody at Lewisham police station."

The group has advertised the Zombie Wedding on its website and via Facebook. The event was billed as a "right royal orgy" with "rumpy pumpy and guillotines."

It also states: "PS govt of the DEAD disclaimer: this is a totally non-terrorist event and bears absolutely no resemblance to the Jacobin Terror of 1793-94."

The website said the event would start with a Zombie Wedding Breakfast in Soho Square at around 9.30-10am, after which participants would head to Westminster for mock executions.

Knight was sacked by the University of East London in 2009 over claims he incited violence at the G20 protests.

Raddie said the event was peaceful and the organisers did not expect to get near Westminster Abbey, where William and Kate are getting married. The plan was to join Republic's Not the Royal Wedding Street Party in Red Lion Square, Holborn, central London.

Also with the protesters at the time of their arrest was a Channel 4 film crew, filming for the Unofficial Royal Wedding, due to air at 7.10pm on Monday. Some of their equipment, which was in the activists' van, was also confiscated.

8:32 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Skyler - I was also fascinated by it all.

When Diana died I watched the funeral and it inspired a strange long poem I wrote.

That funeral was far more engrossing /entertaining (!!) than this wedding for me. But the wedding indeed had ceremony and dark red ritual.

For me I loved the deep evil and fatefully sepulchral voice & the really ornate language of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the rich biblical words the almost dreary English music & so on...and also I loved the uniforms of the various horses & soldiers and so forth so regal and beautiful in my Glorious England.

But William and Kate seem rather boring to me..Princess Diana was somehow tormented and tragic and Charles quite fatally flawed by history and waning blood.

Comrade Tiso is wrong - people are absolutely fasicnated by such thngs...Reality and Truth and philosophy (say of Memory) can go out the go-cart window...this is what people will always be drawn to...ceremony joy misery scandal and hierarchy. Hierarchy especailly. And Magic. Without magic there is nothing.

We are irredemiably hierchical beings. There will be no "progress" (as such) toward democracy or socialism (related to the above rant) even though I am in theory a socialist I don't want it to happen...

And women especially to weddings and the ceremony of them and to "love"...

Maps should relent and let you watch the wedding (or he should have).... but I know how harsh, obdurate, and kiwi manly he is...

4:28 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

Trying to-

4:44 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

Ah, the dreaded "sign up now for a google account & your very own blog page" seems to have gone away.

Tried 4 times to send this over the days since " 'Our' royals and theirs"-

as a proud ANZer, A Maori, and the patron of the (A)NZ Republican Movement, may I invite all interested to check out the site?

Up to date survey info, and good articles on Te Tiriti etc.
Cheers!

4:47 pm  

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