Support for a republic fades as people better understand the role of the Crown in upholding democracy and good governance, argues author and mathematician Nigel Greenwood.
During eight years researching my book on the Crown and its reserve powers, I spent a lot of time in libraries in Oxford, London, and Brisbane examining the monarch’s responsibilities as ultimate guarantor of constitutional government. The experience made me a confirmed supporter of the Australian Crown. At a time of great upheaval, this article aims to explain why. At the death of Queen Elizabeth II public commentary has revealed misunderstandings about the monarchy, often from people who ought to know better. Reflecting on her life and legacy involves explaining more deeply what her position entails. Before sketching the foreground for the modern monarchy in Britain and Australia, some historical background needs to be drawn.
The Westminster monarchy is not some feudal relic, but a post-republic institution. It is often forgotten that 140 years before the storming of the Bastille, England had its own version of the French Revolution. In 1649, with the elected House of Commons purged of all opponents to the King’s execution, Charles I was taken onto a scaffold in London and beheaded. The monarchy and House of Lords were abolished. England became a republic, the Commonwealth of England.
This was first governed by a group of parliamentarians until 1653, when they were accused of corrupt maladministration and overthrown by another politician, Oliver Cromwell, who became Lord Protector and gradually a military dictator. His ultimate instrument of administration, the Parliamentary Army, grew increasingly politicised and faction-ridden, while the civil populace grew resentful and restless. General Monck, an eminent commander of the Parliamentary Army, realised this was untenable and England was disintegrating. He entered into secret dialogue with the exiled heir to the throne now living abroad, Charles II, and eventually staged the Restoration in 1660, restoring a ‘limited monarchy’ and other parliamentary institutions.
As part of this, King Charles II confirmed he would be bound by parliament and English doctrines of ministerial responsibility, re-establishing a stable constitution. After Charles’ death in 1685 his younger brother James had no such restraint; his political excesses precipitated the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, and the monarchy of William and Mary. These events gave rise to English and Scottish political philosophies involving constitutional contract between the monarchy, Parliament, and the People, the appropriate role of the armed forces, and protection of civil liberties. Many of these were drafted by disillusioned republicans, who looked to a reconstituted Crown to solve problems exposed by republican government.
The first responsibility of the monarch is to provide leadership beyond party politics.
Consequently these 17th century Whig ex-republicans and their Tory opponents re-worked the concept of monarchy: the mortality of office of elected parliamentarians was counterbalanced by the closest approximation to an immortal office possible, a hereditary but limited monarchy bound by ministerial responsibility and legal contracts, most obviously the Bill of Rights of 1689. Provided the constitution survives, so does the Monarch’s own position; but if the constitution collapses, so does his future. Active political power of the kind sought by politicians represents a poisoned chalice; his best security is the successful and peaceful renewal of elected parliaments.
As a result of this extraordinary upheaval, England became the crucible of modern parliamentary democracy and ‘limited monarchy’. These institutions have continued to co-evolve across the subsequent three centuries, with the dominance of the House of Commons, the emergence of the office of prime minister, and further constraints on the Crown.
The monarch and his representatives are the ultimate guarantors of constitutional government for each Commonwealth realm.
The next thing to understand is that King Charles III, like Elizabeth II, is monarch in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the other Commonwealth realms separately to the United Kingdom, although they use a shared Law of Succession that requires the consent of all of the Commonwealth realms to change. (One of Gough Whitlam’s most preposterous claims was that he made Elizabeth II the Queen of Australia. He did nothing of the sort—she was separately named Queen of Australia at her Coronation and in legislation, itself simply a formal acknowledgement of the constitutional reality of “the Crown, separate and divisible” that had been established in the early 1930s. All Whitlam did was expunge references to the United Kingdom when he revised the legislation in 1973.)
When acting as King of Australia, Charles III takes advice from his Australian ministers, not his British ones. Elizabeth conspicuously did the Canadian equivalent for the second Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, held in Ottawa in 1973. British Prime Minister Edward Heath, who despised the Commonwealth, advised the Queen not to attend, despite the fact that essential diplomatic business would be transacted there. She ignored him and attended as Queen of Canada, operating during the conference under the formal advice of the Canadian Prime Minister.
Because the monarch’s dominant responsibility pertains to the United Kingdom, he is represented in other Commonwealth realms by the national Governors-General. The phrase ‘Head of State’ is poorly defined and loosely used, and has proved controversial in the Australian republican debate. But the Governors-General are supposed to be used diplomatically as distinctive national figures. Buckingham Palace had been urging realms to use their Governors-General for global diplomacy for most of the 20th century, and has formally stipulated that they “should be received by foreign host governments as the head of their country, and with all the proper marks of respect due to a visiting Head of State”—although Australia only began doing this in 1971 and has continued to neglect the role badly. The January 1989 coronation of Emperor Akihito of Japan elegantly demonstrated recognition of the proper protocol. After his coronation the new Emperor of Japan granted audiences to all visiting Heads of State and their representatives, with a key distinction: actual Heads of State each received a private audience, while all representatives had to make do with a collective audience. The Governors-General of Australia and Canada each received private audiences, as visiting Heads of State in their own right.
And now, for the foreground: what is it that the monarch and their representatives do in the modern world? He or she has three key responsibilities, and a fourth that Elizabeth II essentially created herself.
The first, dating back to General Monck and the Restoration of 1660, is to provide leadership beyond party politics—most pragmatically, an alternative focus for the allegiance of the armed forces and other essential institutions of State, beyond the disquiet of factional affiliations.
This leads to the second responsibility, the monarch as a public diplomatic figure representing Britain and the Commonwealth to the external world, and representing aspects of these communities and their governments to themselves and one another. Unlike politicians, the monarch and his viceregal representatives are not there to chase votes, but to mark times of high solemnity, joyful celebrations, mundane openings and tragic disasters, and to build community and social cohesion beyond party-political affiliation. This is a public role severely circumscribed by protocol.
The third responsibility is that the monarch and her viceregal representatives are formally the ultimate guarantors of constitutional government for each of the Commonwealth realms, including the United Kingdom. This usually occurs in an intensely private way, as potent witnesses of the legislative and executive governance being done by the politicians. Theirs are the final signatures that convert parliamentary Bills into law, and enable executive orders-in-council to come into effect. Here, the Australian Governor-General does this on behalf of the Crown.
This is manifested in the regular meetings with the prime minister and the Privy Council or Executive Council, and the red boxes: weekly boxes of briefing documents. The workload is analogous to that of a senior cabinet minister, but it is permanent. Every British monarch since Queen Victoria has taken this role very seriously, with the net effect that over their years of office they become permanent experts in the business of government, more so than any prime minister or civil servant.
One of the striking things about the accounts of the Commonwealth prime ministers across the many decades of the Queen’s reign was the consistency of their accounts of her valuable counsel, and the depth of her work in understanding the political difficulties of the day. When British Prime Minister Harold Wilson (1916-1995) had his first weekly meeting with her, he was embarrassed to discover she understood the current political issues confronting him better than he did, partly because she always diligently worked through the briefings in his and prior governments across her reign. He vowed never to go unprepared to another meeting with her.
The Queen also championed the Commonwealth’s interests, including Australia’s, across the decades when British prime ministers were obsessed with Europe. The fact that the Commonwealth still exists and has recovered from its 1970s nadir is largely a testament to her advocacy, and this is the fourth role that Elizabeth II herself largely created: as a permanent senior diplomat, operating internationally to keep a global community together. The public almost never saw this in plain view, but it is why eminent figures across the globe have paid tribute to her enormous work ethic, untiring commitment, and substantive contributions to governance in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.
Given ignorant commentary to the contrary, it is important to note that she actively supported the transition to self-government of Black majority governments in Africa: “As in, forget just decolonising the discourse; the woman decolonised the actual colonies,” in British journalist Hugo Rifkind’s words. Although circumscribed by protocol, she repeatedly signalled her personal support for decolonisation. She also tried her hardest to prevent the White (illegal) republic of Rhodesia from executing Black dissidents. This included trying to exercise her prerogative of mercy, given that she was still formally Queen of Rhodesia after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence. The eventual peaceful transition from the republic of Rhodesia to that of Black-majority Zimbabwe in 1980 involved her brief restoration as Queen and close cooperation with Zambia’s President Kaunda.
Nelson Mandela was a close personal friend of hers, and one of the very few outside her family who simply called her “Elizabeth”.
Rest In Peace, your Majesty. God Save the Queen.
Nigel Greenwood’s research in politics, constitutional law, and history has included time as a visiting scholar at Merton College, Oxford, resulting in a book, For the Sovereignty of the People: A Conversation with Niccolo’s Ghost, and a Defence of the Crown in the Westminster System (Australian Academic Press, 1999). He is also a mathematician working in Artificial Intelligence.