The romanticism and dazzle of royal pageantry are keeping Australia from becoming a republic, writes Dr Stuart Edser.
ON 2 SEPTEMBER 2022, just six days before Queen Elizabeth died, I just happen to have been taking a tour through Westminster Palace in London. Having explored the Great Hall, where the Queen’s casket rests upon its catafalque even now, we were shown into the inner sanctums of this extraordinary building.
Things really became very interesting once we arrived at the Robing Room, the room where the king or queen vests in the royal robes of statehood and dons the Imperial State Crown before walking into the House of Lords to sit on a golden throne and read the monarch’s speech, written by the government of the day. The Robing Room is splendid with lots of paintings from the Arthurian legends and even a throne upon which the last person to have sat was Queen Victoria herself.
Once enrobed, the monarch must walk through an even more extraordinary room, now known as the Royal Gallery, before reaching the House of Lords. As I passed from the Robing Room into its long rectangular length, this Republican’s breath was taken aback as I beheld the statues and portraits of the former kings and queens going back into the past. It was a Tolkienian moment.
Over the huge doors through which I had just entered were the portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, the then reigning monarch and her consort Prince Philip. Just in front of them were the statues on both sides of the room of the warrior kings and queens, blazoning in stone their majesty and power: Alfred the Great, Richard I, Henry V and Elizabeth I.
After the statues, around the walls are the large portraits of all the kings, queens and their consorts going back to Georgian times. The two portraits over the end doors get removed when a new monarch accedes and everyone gets moved down one.
The monarch must process through these portraits and statues, dressed in royal attire and wearing the crown. There are attendants and servants and those fawning until eventually, there is the pomp of processing into the Lords and up onto the platform there to sit on the golden throne.
Queen Elizabeth was enrobed in Queen Victoria’s robing room and passed through the middle of the kings and queens of Great Britain many times over her long reign. It must have been nerve-wracking. The whole thing is designed to evoke a sense of continuity, a sense of centuries of time having passed, a sense of majesty and power and grandeur in the crown.
Now here is where I want to get personal. To my own astonishment, I found myself getting caught up in the power of this spectacle, the mystique and romance of it, the epic nature of the sequence of carefully protocolled events and I found myself marvelling at the ostentatious display of continuity. It reminded me a little of the Catholic Church and its claim to authority going back through the bishops to the apostles and thence to Christ himself.
It struck me how easily conservatives can get hooked into this kind of thing. After all, they do love the past. It allowed me to see how people like former PMs Tony Abbott and John Howard can be such avowed monarchists, for when you give your allegiance to this royal show, in a way, you become part of it. In your head, you become one of them.
That’s why conservatives love knights and damehoods, the trappings of royal patronage. Feeling the weight of this upon me walking through that room to enter the grand doors of the Lords, I can see now that it is not only conservatives who can be swept up by royal majesty.
As a psychologist, I understand the importance of in-group, out-group processes. It’s seductive to feel you belong to this powerful group. I also understand the power of symbolism and the power of mystique and romance. Robes, trumpets, servants, golden coaches, crowns and thrones, distance, and a bloodline that is second to none, all centring on a single human being, no matter how extraordinary or how ordinary they are. It is easy to see how most people can fall under its bewitching spell.
I am still in the UK as I write this. Britain is in the process of saying goodbye to the Queen. They are processing her death rightly I believe, as the end of an era. They are ready to say goodbye and move on. In fact, they are already singing ‘God Save the King’. It is an inevitable process.
It is also time for Australia to move on. To say goodbye to a monarchy that is clearly British down to its DNA, an anachronism even to many British people. That we continue to be a realm of the new King sits uncomfortably with us in 2022. Australia has no bloodline aristocracy. We have always aspired to equality.
The Indigenous owners of our land proclaim the oldest living continuous civilisation on the planet, pre-dating the House of Windsor by 60,000 years. When I see here in the UK just how little Australia matters to them in everyday life, how inconsequential we are to them, I am perplexed that we still use their monarch as our head of state.
While I might have been caught up momentarily in the imagined pomp of an opening of the British Parliament, I was not so starry-eyed as to fall for the siren call of a new Elven King. Australia is a mature liberal democracy whose values around royalty and aristocracy differ from that of the United Kingdom. Mystique and romance have reached their use-by date. It will no longer do. Australia needs more than royal pageantry. Like any child that has grown up and become adult, we need to be a fully independent nation with our own head of state championing our own values.
Our head of state would be one of us, would live here, would be highly respected and would be above the fray of our politics. We have such people. With the death of Queen Elizabeth II, it is absolutely the right time to have this conversation.
Dr Stuart Edser is a Newcastle-based Counselling Psychologist in private practice.
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