Off With Her Head? – Queen’s Birthday Musings
New Zealand’s motley collection of Public Holidays tell a story about who we are as a people. New Year’s, Waitangi Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Anzac Day, Queen’s Birthday, Labour Day, Christmas. We’ve now got the brand-spanking new Matariki (Maori New Year) later in June too, which I think is a great idea. But it’s the Queen’s Birthday (first Monday of June) that really stands out as a curious relic – and not simply because it isn’t actually her real birthday, but rather a holiday inherited from her grandfather’s reign.
You see, I happen to be (on-paper) a small r-republican. Beneath the pageantry (much of it a nineteenth century invention) I am fully aware of the privilege, snobbery, and religious bigotry implicit in the monarchy. There is so much poisonous symbolism at work here. There is also something vaguely perverse about no New Zealander being allowed to be New Zealand’s Head of State. And yet, as I write this post on Queen’s Birthday itself, in the actual Jubilee Year, I find myself thinking that any Republic Referendum in the aftermath of the Queen’s death would be a profound failure… and I would not actually be particularly disappointed. My lack of disappointment would be rooted in the observation that the sort of people pushing for constitutional change in New Zealand are, in their own strange way, as loathsome as that which they oppose.
Pro-monarchists – those who revel in the nonsense of that collection of wealthy inbreds – are annoying, of course. John Key brought back knighthoods just so he could get one himself, while the journalists who think aforementioned inbreds (and their doings) constitute worthwhile reporting are wasting everyone’s time. All that is acknowledged. But the people who dream of rationalising and modernising our constitutional arrangements? They are invariably drawn from a professional and managerial class, giving effect to the desires of their own particular echo-chamber, rather than reflecting any hunger among the public. The public simply don’t care about the subject, except when some breathless journalist pins them down and asks them. Elite obsessions (and the monarchy is one) are alien obsessions.
(Which also makes the impending New Zealand culture-war over co-governance all the sillier – it is not something that has been driven via pressure from below, but is merely different factions of elite trying to mobilise the apathetic masses in their direction. Bloody tiresome).
Looking out beyond the university-educated and well-paid, I’d suggest that grand constitutional reform takes a backseat to more pragmatic concerns. You are talking people who just want a job, food on the table, a roof over their head, a good education for their children, a functional health system, and various back-ups in case something goes wrong. Peter Kropotkin had his share of flaws, but his observation that the People only care about Bread is a sound one. Quibbling about constitutions has always been a luxury item, one that concerns only a small section of society – unless, as was the case thirty years ago, with the change in voting system, constitutional changes are actually manifestations of wider discontent over less abstract issues. Short of the public deciding to spite hated monarchist politicians via the installation of a republic, I cannot see that happening here. If anything, the reverse (vote monarchy to spite republican politicians) seems more likely.
In fact, New Zealand has already had a snapshot of this with the 2015-2016 Flag Referendums. The thing turned into a glorified referendum on John Key because no-one actually cared about changing the flag. It’s not a great flag, of course, but it works, it’s ours, and we’ve got better things to do with our time. And the people who voted most overwhelmingly to keep the current flag in all its archaic Imperial glory? Maori voters. Treaty of Waitangi issues are not as major an obstacle to republicanism as people think (a statute replacing the word ‘Crown’ with ‘the Republic of New Zealand’ on all existing treaties and statutes would do the trick), but there is some very real symbolism in the Maori-Crown relationship, which complicates things. I would also suspect that, as with the Flag Referendum, the most ardent opponents of abolishing the monarchy in New Zealand would be the poor and the non-white. It’s not as if anyone follows the tabloids enough to care about the foibles of King Charles III.
So if I were confronted with such a referendum myself? I don’t like the monarchy. In fact, I despise it on principle. But at the same time, the sight of the constitutional theorists and well-paid politicians going on about the inevitability of a republic (despite what Marx and Fukuyama might tell you, very few things are inevitable until they happen), only to be thwarted by the contrarian instincts of the great unwashed masses? I can imagine finding that scenario vaguely amusing. If you want the peasants to back your rebellion against the system (as they did with the referendum over proportional representation thirty years ago), it’s best not to pose as the Establishment yourself. Otherwise, the rebellion might go in a quite different direction.