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Book Review: God Save The Queen: The Strange Persistence of Monarchies

20 Feb 2022
Reviewed by Robert Aldrich

Dennis Altman explores the durability and continuing influence of monarchies. Altman effectively balances both the criticisms and potential benefits of the modern monarchy.

In a speech given at Salt Pan Creek in Sydney in 1933, King Burraga (Joe Anderson) made a plea for parliamentary representation for Indigenous Australians. He referred to the sovereigns of precolonial Aboriginal nations and situated himself personally in a royal lineage: “Before the white man set foot in Australia, my ancestors had kings in their own right, and I, Aboriginal King Burraga, am a direct descendant of the royal line.” He called for “a corroboree of the natives in New South Wales to send a petition to the King [George V] in an endeavour to improve our conditions.” That speech is particularly interesting in the history of modern monarchy, both for Anderson’s evocation of Indigenous kingship and for the idea of a petition to the imperial king. It established a consonance between Indigenous and European monarchy — despite the great differences in political structures between precontact Australia and modern Europe — and it affirmed that the paramount ruler, the British king-emperor, could offer the ultimate source of constitutional justice for Indigenous subjects. Ninety years later, Australia remains a monarchy, and some Indigenous citizens in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada still identify a privileged relationship between First Nations and the Crown.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, with monarchs who were indigenous sovereigns, vassals of imperial overlords, or rulers of colonial empires, monarchy was the most common form of political organisation outside the Western hemisphere. Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Romanovs, Ottomans, and Spanish Bourbons sat on European thrones, and there were emperors in China, Japan, and Ethiopia. Queen Victoria reigned over a quarter of the globe. Revolutions, republicanism, and decolonisation have reduced their number. Most recently, Barbados dethroned Queen Elizabeth II in favour of an elected president. However, there are still forty-four monarchies, including those that claim Elizabeth as head of state. They range from absolutist monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia and Brunei, to constitutional monarchies in Europe, on to Japan, whose ruler is officially described as a “symbol emperor.” In addition, there are “sub-national” hereditary rulers with official positions, such as the Sultan of Yogyakarta, who is by rights a provincial governor in republican Indonesia, and the Zulu king and other traditional authorities formally recognised in South Africa’s constitution. Still other extant sub-national dynasties, and some deposed ones, enjoy informal recognition and wield considerable social and cultural influence.

God Save the Queen, a succinct, wide-ranging, and very readable volume by Dennis Altman, one of Australia’s most eminent political scientists and social commentators, addresses the issue of the persistence of monarchy in the modern world. With Altman’s credentials, one might expect a lambasting analysis of this seemingly anachronistic institution. But even with his avowed republicanism, Altman presents a balanced and rather sympathetic approach to monarchy. He notes that “those countries that have developed constitutional monarchies rank among the most democratic and egalitarian: the Scandinavian and Benelux states all have hereditary heads of state.”  He is “intrigued by the possibility that constitutional monarchy might be a bulwark against the worst sort of populist authoritarianism.”  He looks at the ways in which monarchs embody national identity, historical legacy, and, in some places, religion, and how they exercise soft power. The book shows how sentiment as much as law enshrines monarchy.

The benefits of monarchy, of course, don’t negate legitimate criticism of an institution based on hereditary rights (sometimes restricted to or favouring male heirs), and questions about the cost of monarchy to taxpayers, abuse of privilege, and the wayward behaviour of various royals. The sexual affairs and financial dealings of the former king of Spain, now living in voluntary exile, and the king of the Belgians, whose paternity of a “love child” was proved by court-ordered DNA testing to which the monarch long refused to submit, not to mention the alleged sexual activities of Prince Andrew, have done little to burnish reputations.

Yet, as Altman points out, monarchies have a great capacity for rehabilitation, evolution, and re-invention. Marriage by a royal to a divorced person was taboo when Edward VIII wanted to wed Wallis Simpson in the 1930s and when Princess Margaret fell in love with Peter Townsend in the 1950s, but Princess Anne divorced and happily remarried, as did Prince Charles after the death of Diana. Royals now marry commoners — which was eschewed in the not-too-distant past — because of the scarcity of eligible royal partners and because marriages are love-matches, not dynastic unions. The Spanish queen is a former journalist, the queen of the Netherlands is Argentinian-born, and the crown princess of Denmark comes from Tasmania. Royals have embraced new broadcast technologies and the internet, sought to portray themselves as down-to-earth people, and become promoters of ecological issues and multiculturalism. Such strategies are intended to ensure the popularity, and indeed the survival, of monarchies, but their gestures can be very powerful.  A 2016 address by Norway’s King Harald V, for instance, represented a moving statement about diversity: “Norwegians come from many regions,” he said, and “Norwegians have also immigrated from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Poland, Sweden, Somalia, and Syria…  Norwegians are girls who love girls, boys who like boys, and boys and girls who are fond of each other…. Norwegians believe in God, Allah, Everything, and Nothing.”

Monarchy is far more than the title-tattle of tell-all biographies, and one of the merits of Altman’s volume is that it treats monarchy seriously. He also underlines the crucial difference between countries with a resident, native-born monarch, and those, like Australia, with an overseas one. His book provides comparative background to the political theory and global history of monarchy and sovereignty. He offers leads to the growing body of scholarly literature on modern monarchy – by my count, around fifty specialised academic books on modern monarchy have been published or are in press just since 2020. The University of Sydney has created a research network on Modern Monarchy and will host a conference on Australia and the monarchy in June 2022. There is a Royal Studies Network and journal headquartered in Britain. Museums have also been holding noteworthy exhibitions, such as an upcoming one on connections between the Japanese and British monarchies at the Queen’s Gallery of Buckingham Palace.

The “platinum jubilee” will undoubtedly prompt calls in Australia for a new referendum on the monarchy, despite the apparently diminishing support for a republic. Such issues as recognition of Indigenous Australians in the constitution are still bound up with Australia’s monarchical heritage and, in Altman’s view, are more urgent that the question of a republic. In the Asia-Pacific, challenges surrounding monarchies in Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Japan, and Tonga command steady monitoring. Altman’s book is a fine overview of modern monarchy and a reminder that kings, queens, and other hereditary rulers warrant consideration beyond the gossip of popular magazines and dismissal of the institution as a relic of the past.

This is a review of Dennis Altman, God Save the Queen: The Strange Persistence of Monarchies (Scribe Publications, 2021).  ISBN (13): 9781922310569

Robert Aldrich is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Sydney, author of Banished Potentates Dethroning and exiling indigenous monarchs under British and French colonial rule, 1815-1955, and co-editor (with Cindy McCreery) of Crowns and Colonies: European monarchies and overseas empires, Royals on Tour: Politics, pageantry and colonialism, and Monarchies and Decolonisation in Asia, as well as a special issue of the Royal Studies Journal on twentieth-century British royal visits to Australia and the other Dominions.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.