It’s a sad fact that in politics sometimes people can be right for the wrong reasons. I struggle with this frequently when I find myself agreeing with people whose reasoning is very different from mine.
As it is with the monarchy, the republic, and the Queen’s Jubilee.
I have no feelings of emotional attachment to the Queen, nor any liking for the ceremony associated with royalty. I find the Loyal Toast a cloying insincerity. Royal celebrations from weddings to birthday weekends are a folly devoid of meaning. I do not acknowledge that any Australians ever fought ‘for ‘Queen and country’. Too often blood and soil nationalism and monarchism go hand-in-hand. And the behaviour of our current monarch – exemplary though it has been – is no argument for the quality of the institution.
Yet on balance I am a constitutional monarchist, if that means I support the current situation.
This is despite my unequivocal belief that it would be better for an Australian to be head of state. Despite too, my belief that the inherited succession of our heads of state sets a terrible example and is out of keeping with the rest of our liberal institutions.
So far, so self-contradictory.
This generalised distaste for a non-Australian monarchy is countered by applying another, higher order principle: prudence.
History suggests that political and social stability is far more fragile than most people believe. It also suggests that states and societies aren’t rationally organised entities that run on logical structure. Rather, they are organic, inconsistent and rely on custom and emotion to function at all (this is reasonably accepted across theories that disagree about the content or desirability of those customs). Social functioning requires people to treat norms as sacred or quasi-sacred: in every society there are things that you just don’t do, or do do, without the necessity for intellectual justification.
This customary and emotional element of society adds a greater level of risk to political and social change.
Prudence suggests that what has been shown to work in specific social circumstances shouldn’t be fiddled with for the sake of intellectual neatness, or for the sake of creating a symbol. Change makes sense in order to preserve what is important (freedom and prosperity, for example) or to institute general values not fully applied (voting rights, for example). But not for intellectual and moral neatness. That goes double for changing something as important as a Constitution when it won’t change any right, or touch ordinary peoples’ lives at all.
Changing from a proven political structure and deliberately creating a position likely to become a competing head of power (as a President would be, especially if elected) would be imprudent in the extreme.
Once institutions are made ‘rational’ rather than partially customary, there is nothing to stop further institutional change based on what, by the standards of the moment, seems neater or for the ‘greater good’.
And as I have written recently, many of our liberal institutions have already been tweaked so much that they are now seen as a means to an end rather than valuable in themselves. Their customary or conventional power has been eaten away.
To many, that may sound just fine. But to someone concerned about liberal democracy, social stability and social longevity, it is playing with fire to have a Constitution that is seen as infinitely malleable.
It is even more imprudent if, as is likely, any President would be a member of the Smart Class, with that class’ tendency to moral hubris and obsession with their own identity. We would not get as President someone as duty-bound and publicly self-effacing as our current Queen. Far more likely would be a combination of Geoffrey Robertson and Dick Smith: a loudmouth hypocrite certain of their moral and intellectual superiority, with a lifetime of political class connections, and a fixation on self-promotion.
Can you imagine any member of our Smart Class refraining from public political comment for 60 years? Our current Governor-General barely restrains her political leanings. Imagine if she had the imprimatur of election.
We can even see the Smart Class problem in the Prince of Wales, who has been unable to remain policy neutral during his long role as heir to the throne.
But prudence isn’t a slogan to get the electorate’s motor running. It isn’t even one to get conservatives’ motors running.
The politics of prudence is a subset of conservative politics that, because of its messiness and inconsistency, sits separately from the neatness of libertarian systems, religious certainty, neo-conservatism, committed monarchists, and even the moral positioning of classical liberalism.
Because of its messiness, prudence is an argument that can be misused. It requires scepticism and thought every time it is presented, rather like the fallacy of the ‘precautionary principle’. Otherwise it can be used to justify almost any action or inaction.
To ignore it, however, would be a far greater folly.
Prudence has never been, nor will be, an effective basis for getting elected. It should be, however, a basis for any constitutional change.
And thus I am a Republican Monarchist.