Think again, Australia!

by ammophila

            We regret the tardy appearance of this item which is partly a result of its being a collaboration between Monty Skew and Berthold Featherstonehaugh-Cheems

As the tide of trust in the constitutional excellence of hereditary monarchy slowly and sadly recedes around the world (despite the efforts in Korea and some third world countries to pump the water up the beach again) it is high time to ask why on earth any country fortunate enough to be so ruled should think of abandoning this exceptionally successful constitutional arrangement, Australia being the latest in the benighted queue.   I should acknowledge that I am not going to object to the generally accepted assumption that in these times a hereditary monarchy will be a constitutional monarchy, although the two notions are theoretically quite distinct. Although it cannot be denied that certain families have not handled their hereditary tasks with the surpassing skill and exemplary dignity shown throughout her long life by the present Queen of England, a swift conspectus of the countries of the world shows that a nation with a hereditary monarchy is far more likely to be broadly speaking unified and at peace with itself than those with elected heads of state. However keen bloggers, second-rank journalists, and tweeters may be to launch cheap shots against easy targets so that their friends can applaud their ‘brave’ blows for democracy, the empirical evidence is plainly overwhelming. There is in any case absolutely no incompatibility between hereditary monarchy and democracy if an elected government is handling the ordinary business of the state; if you seek an instance of incompatibility with democracy, just cast your eyes on the banks and multinational businesses. Opposition to hereditary monarchy is objectionable in principle, and often disastrous in practice. The thing which makes the hereditary aspect so valuable is the enormously greater independence, from the pressures and influences affecting others in public life, of a head of state who is installed for life, by birth.

If there is one constitutional move even more misguided and frankly destructive than abandoning hereditary monarchy it is to take up as an alternative an elected presidency. Again I have to acknowledge my provisional acceptance of a general assumption that is not rationally justified, namely that election is for a limited term. An elected president, unbalanced by accession to the highest office for which he (or in principle she, but there seem to have been no such instances yet) was neither born nor trained may feel an urge to ‘serve’ his country for the rest of his life. This has in fact been observed in a few, but curiously only a few, heads of state in the third world; the derangement seems not to afflict those who do not bother with elections in the first place. Subsequent events consistently show this as a very undesirable progression, even if those who aim to stay on for life go through a mummery of election from time to time. There is also another assumption not strictly justified, that there is a distinction between appointment and election; clearly the two overlap, and depend on the number of the qualified electors. And yet one more factor needs to be taken into account, the eligibility of the would-be heads of state. This gets relatively little attention (except in Iran) against a background of belief in ‘universal suffrage’. This superficially simple expression covers all manner of tricky pitfalls. Eighteen-year-olds? Prisoners in gaol? Those convicted of financial fraud? (Cf the French view). In America, those who cannot produce a driving licence with a photograph? And remember, after all many countries only allowed women into the electoral universe within living memory.

All this could make one despair (as of course one should) of election, turning instead to a system widely used elsewhere – competitive examination. How absurd it is that nowadays when you need to enclose original and photocopy of your Master’s degree in Domestic Utensil Cleansing in application for the meanest post in a fast food restaurant there is no course of studies nor any appropriate certificate for the position of Head of State. Lady W (known to many of our readers) has expressed herself willing to devise a suitable examination. This would plainly have to cover a fairly broad range of subjects including geography (I myself have come across a Crown Prince who could not identify Africa on a map of the world), physical exercise with special reference to facial muscles, and to upper body musculature (for the waving and hand-shaking), gastronomy (the least problematic filler of conversational gaps at banquets) and elocution (for the speeches). Animal husbandry with probably a concentration on the horse also suggests itself as a suitable topic. And we should not forget that a common trouble with elected presidents is that they are clever enough, certainly, but simply not honest. So we are going to need an interview as well; the ideal panel would consist of people with a proven record of ability in assessing the characters of their interlocutors and should therefore be made up of experienced confidence tricksters.

Anthropologists tell us that in the past some unusual societies have experimented with even more unorthodox approaches, notably to establish the office of Head of State but to have nobody actually in it; we can surmise that this idea was inspired by certain courts in ancient times which found it inconvenient to let subjects know that their monarch was dead. He thus remained as a sovereign legally alive but with no longer any taste for public speeches, nor for royal walkabouts (and cf the last weeks of Churchill as prime minister). No court seemed able to keep such a ruler for long but with a bit of efficiency, some imagination and a lot of claims about the need for security it should have been possible to keep the business going for centuries. Bulletins on royal activities could have been issued just as in these days, if a team of trustworthy scriptwriters could have been found. But the trouble with that option is the failure of the monarch to interact socially either with the people or with visiting dignitaries. However, modern technology could now overcome that by creating the virtual head of state for any republic where the politicians decided they did not want the trouble of elections. By combining holograms, voice synthesis and the latest results from neural network research it would be possible to construct a head of state able to make speeches (at least the sort of speeches that politicians want to hear), wave from balconies, and attend weddings of foreign princesses, and maybe even to go on skiing holidays in two different places at the same time if the public relations boys thought this could be managed safely. Even more adventurously, at this moment in a secret laboratory somewhere in, perhaps, Central Asia scientists may be plotting computer software to make it possible for citizens watching their screens at home each to see the sort of ruler they want – feminists would of course see and hear a queen, social democrats a cyclist in jeans, adolescent girls a tall dark handsome mesomorph, and so on. There is, however, a crucial flaw in their plans, and that is the ever increasing incidence of hacking and computer viruses; one can imagine the horrifying effect on national morale if, for example, in the middle of opening a museum one’s virtual head of state was transformed, with a background of, perhaps, the Ride of the Valkyries, into an image of Hitler making a speech calling for Britain to enter the EU and pledge one thousand years of allegiance to Germany.