Thursday, October 21, 2004
Chapter 37 from: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974
In Defence of Monarchy
By T. D. ALLMAN
JUST AS QUEEN VICTORIA would not have been, so I, too, was not amused at the cheeky presumption of the upstart military junta in Athens to abolish the Greek monarchy and declare a republic. Like all leftwing, communist-sympathising, radical and subversive newspaper columnists, I gradually have come around to the opinion that what the world needs now is not fewer, but more kings and queens.
As things stand now, there is not a single hereditary monarchy at the moment in the whole of North and South America --unless one counts places like Canada and the Netherlands Antilles, where a European sovereign is technically chief of state. There only are two or three kingdoms left in Africa, a mere handful remaining in Europe, with not very many more in Asia, even when one counts all those tiny Persian gulf emirates.
Practically every year another monarchy is overthrown, or abolished. This year it is Greece. Before that it was Cambodia, before that Libya, and before that it was Burundi. Just in the years since world war two, monarchies have been done away with in countries stretching from Italy to Zanzibar. Have conditions improved in those countries, as the result of these intemperate and impulsive constitutional changes? No, of course not.
Greece, the birthplace of Western democracy, now languishes in throes of dictatorship. Cambodia is ravaged by war. Colonel Khadafi, no more than King Idris, has been able to make the Libyan desert bloom; but he has banned cold beer- which at least used to make it bearable. Burundi is rent by terrible tribal massacres.
Italy last year went through dozens of expensive and time consuming ballots in an unedifying constitutional crisis over the election of a figurehead president. Had the figurehead Italian monarchy not been abolished in 1946, the cost and bother would not have been necessary. In Zanzibar, there is a permanent reign of terror, the likes of which was never seen while the sultan was on his throne and all was right with the clove trade.
Many years ago, the late King Farouk of Egypt remarked that in fifty years there only would be five kings left-- the king of spades, the king of hearts, the king of diamonds, the king of clubs and the King of England. In my opinion two other countries-- Japan and Thailand-- also will have the courage and good sense to preserve their monarchical institutions in the face of the worldwide, lemminglike fad for wasting time and money, and obscuring the real issues, by firing kings and queens.
This disturbing, anti-monarchical trend in world affairs might not be so depressing if kings were replaced by something worthwhile. Instead they tend to be replaced by colonels, or when a touch of glamour is required, by generals. Instead of King Constantine of Greece-- a presentable, industrious and pleasant young man, who once won a medal in the Olympics-- we now have some mustachioed, semi-literate Greek colonel as chief of state, who not only is a power-hungry autocrat, but a bore as well.
In Libya, we have Colonel Khadafi. There is a colonel ruling in Burundi as well, who is responsible for the massacre of at least fifty thousand of his countrymen. A colonel --named Nasser-- also succeeded King Farouk in Egypt.
As these random samples indicate, colonels are like the rest of us. They can be boring, eccentric, wicked or even rather clever. But since colonels are just like the rest of us, I fail to see why, therefore, the Divine Right of Kings should be replaced by the Divine Right of Colonels.
All over the world, but especially in places like Vietnam and Washington DC, one runs into many colonels. As a rule, they have about as much sense of state as does a canister of napalm. On the other hand, most of the kings one runs across are persons of above average experience and intelligence. The king of Thailand, like King Constantine, is a skilled yachtsman, King Birendra of Nepal went to Harvard. The King of Sweden is a trained archeologist. The Emperor of Japan is very knowledgeable about seashells.
The advantage of kings over colonels was definitively demonstrated not too long ago when the Shah of Iran gave a dinner party at Persepolis, to which all the crowned heads of the world were invited. The event provoked intense curiosity and enthusiasm all around the world, and I do not know a single person -- however strong his or her pretentions towards inverse snobbism --who would have rejected an invitation had it been offered. But would anybody bother to travel all the way to Persepolis just to have dinner with twenty-five or thirty colonels?
It is interesting that the monarchies most likely to survive are precisely those in which the monarch no longer wields political power. In Japan, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the Low Countries and Scandinavia everyone wants the monarch to go on reigning, because he or she no longer rules. There are other countries -- Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Morocco, Jordan --where the kingship remains not only the highest, but also the most politically powerful office. But these are precisely the parts of the world, I venture to predict, where we sooner or later shall see the face of some dreadful colonel staring out at us from the postage stamps and national currency.
The reason, of course, is obvious: the combination of hereditary kingship and absolute power is too much for any one man to wield all by himself for a lifetime. Were prime ministers of Australia, or presidents of the U.S.A. absolute monarchs for life, instead of just for a few years, they all eventually would be overthrown by guerilla warfare or coups d'etat. As things stand, we grow sick enough of them in a few years anyway.
This does not mean, however, that just because a king is politically powerless he is unimportant, or a mere cipher or constitutional convenience. Far from it. The indispensability of a successful monarch lies precisely in the fact that he provides a non political identity for his country and people, that he does not owe his office to any group or faction, that he imbues the state with an ethos transcending political issues, that he influences events by example rather than command.
The function of the ideal monarch is not to be a great man, but to be a good Englishman, Swede or Japanese; that he personify, rather than direct, the state. To the extent that he performs all these tasks well, the monarch can and should be a much more important national figure than any colonel or politician.
Being a native of a republic, I was inculcated in my youth with the belief that kings were bad, undemocratic things, like walking sticks and spats. But, since putting away childish things, I have lived all but a few months of my adult life in kingdoms: Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Britain. And while the monarchies and royal families of these various countries were not always the types of people with whom one would wish to share a railway carriage, in all cases they were of much more use to their countries than the local politicians and colonels.
Once, while visiting an upcountry fair in Thailand, I happened upon one of the more spectacular diversions offered there, which I thought well demonstrated the value of the kingship. It was a round wooden cylinder some twenty feet high and a similar distance in diameter. One paid the equivalent of ten cents to climb up a flight of outside steps to a balcony which surrounded the top of this large, open cylinder.
Front that vantage point, one could watch several Thai motor-cyclists start their machines and then, extracting their livelihood from the principle of centrifugal force, drive the vehicles at great speed around and around the inside of the cylinder, defying gravity, until the motorcycles circled some twenty feet straight up to the top of the cylinder.
Having edified the customers with this daredevil exploit, the motorcyclists then returned to the base of the cylinder, there to bide their time until sufficient new members of the public paid enough prices of admission to make the display once again profitable.
Above the ticket window of this diversion, respectfully garlanded with flowers, was a photograph of the King of Thailand, in a white dress uniforrn, mounting the same stairs the customers did, in order to view the same display. Although the King of Thailand is politically powerless, he is a person of such exalted status that his presence is considered nearly divine. Protocol commands that he never smile in public and that the slightest familiarity never be directed towards him.
Thus the King was shown in the photograph mounting the wooden cylinder with the same impassive dignity with which he habitually receives foreign ambassadors or news of the latest coup d'etat. The effect was to impart upon this lowly, but harmless economic activity of some of his most humble subjects a certain dignity, to incorporate them -- in an act of state magic --into the cosmological total of the Thai state and national identity.
The King of Thailand occupies many hours each day in the diligent fulfilment of state duties. I am sure that the majority of Thailand's thirty-eight million people at one time or another personally have seen the king, and that his contribution to perpetuating Thailand's national stability and sense of self respect has been far greater than that of any Thai colonel or politician.
I think the secret of the success of the British royal family is that they, too, appreciate the importance of the trivial duties diligently performed. For a long time, I considered the Queen a dull woman, before realising that her dullness was her greatest virtue.
One does not want an arbiter of fashion, a movie star or an intellectual leader to open a primary school or hand out OBEs. One does not want the speech from the throne read with feeling. The Queen's job is neither to direct the British nor to dazzle them, but to be always there, cutting the ribbon, inspecting the new wing of the hospital, lending a degree of non-political dignity and national recognition to the everyday events that are much more important, in their cumulative weight, in the life of the nation than who wins the next election, or whether the pound floats or sinks.
It is not necessary that the Queen be famous for her witty repartee, only that she not run out of small talk in the reception line. The Queen thoroughly realises this-- and the result is something wonderful and unique. Though she is charismatic as a brocaded tortoise after twenty years of bland and unremitting performance of her duty (Britain doubtless would be far better off today if the country's wildcat strikers and sex-obsessed cabinet ministers had followed her example), the Queen not only is a more popular figure, she is a more interesting and more indispensable one than either Mr Wilson or Mr Heath.
The Queen undoubtedly will be remembered as the greatest and best loved British leader since Queen Victoria, and for the same reason; she does a tedious job diligently and well; that of being a powerless, hereditary constitutional monarch.
In America, on the other hand, there long has existed exactly the opposite kind of office, and it has failed abysmally. The president is an all-powerful, elected, absolute monarch. The president can treat Congress, the public, the rest of the government with an unchecked arrogance that has not been possible in Britain since the days of Magna Carta, or at least since the beheading of Charles I.
Yet at the same time, the president is expected to he as far above politics as the King of the Belgians is above the squabbles between the Walloons and Flemings; to be a virtually divine figure, like the Emperor of Japan.
The inevitable results of perpetuating this ridiculous office of the American presidency not only have been disasters like Watergate and Vietnam, but the cloaking of such abysmal crimes in an ethos of royal inviolability that at once preserves the particular scoundrel holding the office from punishmont, and which at the same time cheapens and degrades the presidency's symbolic personification of the American state.
In consequence, America currently is ensnared in the worst of all possible situations: Richard Nixon cannot be sent packing by a vote of no-confidence like some normal, mortal prime minister. At the same time, the United States is deprived of the reassuring alternative to its politicians' sleaziness that, for example, the engagement annnouncement of Princess Anne has provided to the British callgirl scandal involving several ministers in the Heath government.
As an American, I would be quite prepared to exercise my franchise in favour of the establishment of a constitutional, hereditary American monarchy. Had one of the sons of Franklin D. Roosevelt --the only really successful American president this century-- been permitted to inherit the presidency upon his father's death in 1945, the excessive political powers presently being unconstitutionally abused by the White House long ago would have declined to those presently enjoyed by the royal families of Norway or Malaysia.
The present American crisis of confidence could be best resolved if the Pentagon computers discovered and identified the legitimate heir, according to Salic Law, of George Washington, and he then were crowned King of the United States.
Some bland, aristocratic, well mannered, unpretentious and slightly inbred old Virginia family is exactly the alternative America now requires to our present royal family, which has been sullied by King Richard's myriad malfeasances of office, the ineffably lower middle class origins of his wife, and by the bright-young-reactionary-housewife-next-door demeanor of his two daughters, whose only advantages are that they are less grotesque, parvenu and uninspiring than America's two previous princesses royal --Luci Baines and Lynda Bird.
As the foregoing suggests, it is not merely enough that the monarch be preserved in the few places where it still exists. Keeping the colonels and politicians out of the royal palace in Tonga is not going to set things right in Brazil, where a perfectly decent, efficient and hardworking imperial family was needlessly pensioned off at the end of the last century, just so some general could enjoy a twenty-one gun salute and have his profile immortalised on the coins of the realm. Wherever and whenever the circumstances arise, monarchies instead must be re-established, and even implanted in those countries never privileged to have enjoyed that form of government.
This article originally appeared in "Nation Review", 29 June 1973, p. 1143, under the title 'Every country needs a queen'.