And why King Charles III may be a cause for concern.
Walter Bagehot, an august nineteenth century English newspaper editor and essayist, famously said that ‘The monarchy’s mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.’ Queen Elizabeth II certainly exuded magic. Her aura of self-sacrifice and steadfast dedication to duty underwrote the United Kingdom’s support both for her and for monarchy itself. The legitimacy of an inherited monarchy within a democracy, which the UK likes to think it is, depends on scrupulous neutrality on all political questions. Queen Elizabeth did a fine job of convincing people that she was. But was she really?
Her best known slip was before the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, when she said to then Prime Minister, David Cameron, that she hoped people would think very carefully. Well she might: her frequent and often lengthy stays at Balmoral would sit oddly were Scotland no longer part of the UK. It wouldn’t have done much for her place in history either, when you think about it, to be the first monarch in over two centuries to lose a kingdom. One can only speculate on whether and how much her words might have influenced the outcome. A much less talked about instance of political partisanship – even meddling – had real constitutional consequences. In 1972, following 23 years of conservative rule, Australia elected, by a landslide, a Labour government, led by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who had known republican tendencies.
Seeking to bring down the government in any way it could, the conservative opposition used its majority in the Senate to block passage of the government’s budget, known as the Supply Bill. The then Governor General, appointed by the Prime Minister in 1974 as the Queen’s constitutional representative in Australia, used this impasse as a pretext to dismiss the government. This much has been public knowledge since those events occurred. But hidden from the public was correspondence between the Governor General and the UK Monarchy, which came to light only after determined legal action by Jenny Hocking, emeritus professor at Monash University, to gain access to the Palace Papers, unearthed in 2016 as part of the Panama Papers.
One of the more than 100 letters was from the Queen’s private secretary, confirming that the Governor General had told Prince Charles in September 1975 that he might have to dismiss the Government, even though it held a majority in the House of Representatives, and that this had been discussed with both the Queen and her secretary. In an October 1975 letter from Prince Charles to the Governor General, the Prince reported that, should Whitlam seek his recall, ‘… the Queen would take most unkindly to it’. The elected Whitlam Government was thus dismissed on 11 November 1975, illegally and illegitimately, in the name of the Monarch.
The Queen failed to carry out two critical duties as Australia’s head of state. The first was to point out to the Governor Gernment. The second was to ask the him if he had informed the Prime Minister of his concern and to seek the latter’s guidance. In failing to do either, the Queen not only acted illegally, but in allowing a democratically elected government to be dismissed in her name, subverted the very democracy she is supposed to support, thereby undermining her own legitimacy as head of state. Not only that: she had made known her political preferences pre-emptively. It is hard to imagine that that action did not encourage the Governor General and the opposition to cook up and carry out their plan.
Keeping daylight out of the monarchy necessarily entails a lot of secrecy. While some secrecy is indispensable in matters of national security, for example, covering up things that citizens have a right to know about, is unambiguously bad for democracy. Mystique and magic can make a serious young princess very popular. Magnificent palaces, jewels and finery and unimaginable wealth add to the romance. But romance cannot sustain a democracy. Mystery and magic, when used to hide skulduggery, is poison to it.
Featured image by Steve Johnson on Pexels.