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Posted on 25 Aug 2022 in Non-Fiction |

DENNIS ALTMAN God Save the Queen: The strange persistence of monarchies. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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Dennis Altman’s new book isn’t a hatchet job on the Queen but a captivating and reasoned analysis of monarchical systems around the world.

Distinguished professorial fellow Dennis Altman is quick to declare his republican sympathies in his introduction, describing monarchy as ‘a relic of a previous world’ that has ‘no place in a democratic society’; it is an ‘absurdity’ for Australia to have ‘a head of state who is sovereign of a foreign country’, and the institution is anachronistic and ‘antithetic to democratic principles’. But as he also says, he was ‘intrigued by the possibility that constitutional monarchy might be a bulwark against the worst sort of populist authoritarianism’. Thus, the key question is that suggested by his subtitle – why more than 40 countries have retained monarchies in the twenty-first century.

Arguments between republicans and monarchists (or at least those who support the status quo) in Australia generally founder because of ignorance about alternative presidential and monarchical systems. As Altman argues: ‘Looking at constitutional monarchies across the world gives us a new perspective on our all-too-familiar picture of the British monarchy.’

It might seem that investigating such a topic would require a heavy tome replete with scholarly academic footnotes. Instead, we are presented with 18 short chapters covering constitutional monarchies, monarchies and colonialism, royals as celebrities, balancing ceremonial and legislative functions, the oversized British monarchy’s claim on the public purse, the failed Australian republican movement, European and Asian monarchies (including the absolutist regimes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) in easy to read, marvellously compressed prose. Indeed, so compressed that the main text runs to a mere 143 pages.

So, what do we learn?

Defining constitutional monarchy is a good place to start and it may come as a surprise to discover that among the countries with that form of government are those of Scandinavia and the Benelux group (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), which are regarded as among the most democratic and egalitarian societies.

Altman writes that, ‘in broad terms, a constitutional monarchy is one where the monarch is head of state while effective power is in the hands of a government responsible to a freely elected parliament’. However, the definition can be rubbery, particularly in Asia (Thailand, Cambodia), where the governments (often military juntas) are increasingly repressive. Europe has also provided other examples in modern times: King Juan Carlos of Spain playing a crucial role in negotiations in the post-Franco years that led to free elections and a new constitution; and in Greece after the Second World War, when the monarchy was abolished and restored several times until 1974. Methods of succession vary. While some maintain male primogeniture, most constitutional monarchies allow the throne to pass to the eldest child, regardless of gender, while still others follow election processes (in Cambodia, for life; in Malaysia, five-year terms). Monarchs also keep close links with official religion: in Britain and Denmark as nominal head of the established church; in Morocco and Malaysia as head of Islam; and in Thailand as a protector of Buddhism.

Monarchies were frequently a tool of European colonial ambitions. The British Raj in India was happy to maintain ‘a patchwork of subordinate states in which the traditional rulers followed the advice of a British resident’, and 565 princely states were officially recognised until the time of Indian and Pakistani independence. It is therefore not surprising, as Altman points out, that ‘anti-colonial movements meant the repudiation of European monarchies’ and traditional rulers such as Prince Sihanouk (Cambodia) and Morocco’s King Mohammed V were key figures in their countries’ struggles for independence. Among many ironies, one is that while most of the 53 British Commonwealth countries are republics, the Queen remains head of state in 16, including the dominions of Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

In a chapter titled ‘Royals as celebrities’, Altman argues that ‘monarchies are part of celebrity culture’, ‘familiar characters in national soap operas’ who ‘fulfil a need beyond their constitutional role’. However, there are enormous differences in costs. While the British family costs tax payers £82 million, those of Spain and Sweden make do on less than a tenth of that amount. In a further chapter, ‘Royal puffery’, Altman writes of a ludicrous situation:

In one sense, Britain is not a constitutional monarchy, for it has no written constitution, and all government is conducted as if it were at the pleasure of the monarch. Britons remain defined as subjects rather than citizens [which leads] to the paradox that were members of the parliament elected to parliament on the pledge to abolish the monarchy, they would first need to promise allegiance to her when sworn in.

The argument for the retention of the British monarchy (despite its expense) on the grounds that it pays its way is flawed.

… a British republic could still trade off nostalgia for its imperial past, as any number of historical dramas illustrate. It does not require a living monarch to draw tourists to palaces such as Versailles or St Petersburg’s Winter Palace.

The role of the British monarch as Australia’s head of state remains contentious and Altman says he is persuaded by historian Jenny Hocking’s argument that Buckingham Palace raised no objections to former Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s use of ‘reserve powers’ in dismissing the Whitlam Government in 1975 when it ‘went beyond anything the Queen herself has relied upon in Britain’.

In Australia the 1999 referendum for a republic was lost because of division over presidential models rather than support for the monarchy. Every Australian governor-general since 1965 has been born here and performs all the roles of a constitutional head of state with greater powers than the Queen exercises in Britain. A fresh clamour for a republic appears logical, but living in a post-Trump, post-Johnson world has caused former ardent republican (and Keating speechwriter) Don Watson to write recently of the British monarchy as representing ‘a sort of anti-tyranny’, and former High Court Justice Michael Kirby to state that change was not a priority.

In his conclusion Altman summarises his position:

It seems counterintuitive to look to a hereditary monarchy to defend egalitarianism, yet there seems to be some evidence to suggest this is the case. I would certainly argue strongly for the advantages of a nonpartisan and largely ceremonial head of state, although this can be achieved without assuming a hereditary succession.

God Save the Queen is a book which deserves a wide readership. It would certainly be a superb secondary school text for social studies or Australian history. It would benefit anyone who cares about how our country is governed and certainly enliven debate in dinner party conversations. And (let us hope) it is read by enough intelligent MPs on both sides of politics who are willing to support constitutional change.

Dennis Altman God Save the Queen: The strange persistence of monarchies Scribe 2021 PB 160pp $27.99

Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book (co-authored with Robert O’Shannassy) is Adelaide University Cricket Club: A History.

You can buy God Save the Queen from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

Or check if this book is available from Newtown Library.

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