It is still news to some that Honi Soit is named after – or in spite of – royalty. As Edward III’s cousin fumbled to pull up her sweaty stockings during a courtly dance seven centuries ago, the king indignantly snapped “honi soit qui mal y pense” to quell the sniggers. (‘Shame be upon him who thinks evil of it’.) Just over six decades ago, that monarchy reigned over a colossal empire, bringing tea, Debrett’s, and the word “ghastly” to a quarter of the planet.
One Diamond Jubilee later, Britain possesses a smattering of windswept Atlantic islands, some Caribbean pirate bases, a macaque-infested slice of Spain and a 30m-wide granite outcrop imaginatively christened Rockall. It periodically disappears at high tide so, sallying forth one last time, the Royal Navy had to dispatch a helicopter to plant the flag. It is not without a touch of nostalgia, then, that our postcolonial Queen will partake in festivities this weekend to mark the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne.
She will proceed in a thousand-boat flotilla down the River Thames, rocking to the tune of Handel. Australia has made a small contribution, sending a squad of Surf Life Savers to show the anaemic Motherland a real tan – and to rescue Prince Philip, who by then will no doubt be plied with brandy.
The palaces of London will echo with the clicking of boots and punctuation of 21-gun salutes. And a million Britons will line the streets to sing the evocative, if musically bland, national anthem.
Australia, by contrast, has a tepid relationship with royalty. The United Kingdom brings its capital to a standstill for the jubilee; our Governor-General barely musters a congratulatory paragraph.
We entertain some interest during royal weddings and tours, but treat the Queen as a historical curio rather than our Head of State. More often, Australia is apathetic to the idea of royalty, verging on outright hostility. Fifty years of latent republicanism has hardwired us to view Anglo-Australian relations with apprehension, incomprehension, and resentment. We suffer that perennial compulsion to “prove ourselves” as a nation.
One problem is that monarchism here has been relatively disorganised, meeting waves of intense republicanism sporadically and without focus. Yet with each new wave, the legitimacy and value of the status quo has been progressively eroded. No one buys the cultural appeal anymore, and Australian monarchism rides instead on tenuous, desperate arguments about political instability.
Where monarchist movements do coalesce into grandiose “leagues”, they make the fatal mistake of conflating monarchism with partisan social conservatism. The Australians for Constitutional Monarchy website is peppered with op-eds railing against the prosecution of Australian soldiers for war crimes and the mining tax. The executive director, Jai Martinkovits, happens to run the Community Action Network; it protects “traditional values” from the depredations of gay marriage, asylum rights, poker reform, and racial vilification laws.
The problem with this conservativism is the dilution of the monarchist message and that it alienates half the political spectrum. It also alienates the majority of Australians who still, quite reasonably, conceive of monarchists as pasty-white etiquette-pedants with starched collars. Parochial and irrelevant, these lobbies have long outlived their usefulness.
In any case, the debate has now passed the event horizon: it is easy to persuade people to support a republic, but nigh impossible to convince them the other way.
All we can do is caution against expecting too much from what Stephen Fry famously likened to a ‘constitutional nose job’. A republic will not reinvent the nation. Revolution by referendum is not really revolution, nor is it a cathartic and inspiring addition to our national narrative. The president would be neither powerful nor mobilising in the French-American fashion. Instead, our Head of State would resemble, say, Italy – a retired public servant appointed behind closed senate doors, to drift into historical obscurity at their term’s end.
Which brings us back to the Jubilee. Our Head of State is irrefutably awesome, whatever your political persuasion. We need not compile a hagiography here of her qualities and commitment, but they certainly surpass that of any minister or president. Beyond the sheer thrill of her pageantry and pomp, she anchors us to a timeless, international tradition: of culture, history and politics.
We should embrace the story of Britishness as part of the fabric of Australia, rather than rejecting, forgetting, or effacing it. But for this insecure, adolescent preconception of nationhood-by-repudiation, there is no reason that we cannot develop distinctively, confidently and with different aspirations under the reign of an overseas monarch and her endearingly dysfunctional family.
And this weekend, whatever your race, creed, gender, or taxable income, we are all a little British.
Ben Brooks is a known monarchist.