The man who could become our head of state at any moment is ‘very engaged’ in New Zealand, says Jacinda Ardern. That alone should jolt us on to the republican path, argues Toby Manhire.
Alongside the free-trade pacts and a Nato summit, on Jacinda Ardern’s European agenda this week is a friendly royal chat. Or, as the prime minister described her planned appointment with Prince William, a chance to “touch base”. Is it too much to hope her choice of idiom, deriving as it does from baseball, the sport popularised by a nation forged in its divorce from the United Kingdom, was a hint at an appetite for republicanism?
Yes. Of course it is. But indulge me. Imagine the scene at Kensington Palace. Ardern clears her throat, glancing up at William from the cup of Earl Grey rested in her palm. We could not be more thrilled for the Queen – the Queen of New Zealand no less – on her platinum jubilee, she might say. Seventy uplifting years of grace and distinction, restraint and good judgment. It was inspiring to see the tributes. The British people christened a 118km-long rail line in her honour. In New Zealand we renamed after her a 58-metre walking track. That concert looked a lot of fun, especially when Brian May came out of a cake. The bit with Paddington and your gran was brilliant. Speaking of, do send her our love. And if you wouldn’t mind, let her know that we’re going to become a republic.
William looks like the kind of chap who would get it. He’d furrow his brow and nod understandingly. There are worse ways to find out, he’d resolve, his mind flashing back to the “perfect storm” tour of Jamaica a few months ago, when his and Kate’s efforts were rewarded with a message from that nation’s government: we’re done, we’re becoming a republic.
Jamaica intends to complete its conscious uncoupling from the monarchy by 2025, following the lead of Barbados, which last year became a republic – but remained, as other countries have, a member of the Commonwealth. Australia, meanwhile, inches (or advances in units of 2.54 centimetres, if we’re being strictly post-imperial) towards cutting the cord, with the new Labor government creating a position of “assistant minister for a republic”.
And New Zealand? Nothing much. Ardern reckons we’ll become a republic within her lifetime, but – and I’m paraphrasing here – sure as shinola she’s not going to be the one to do it. The traumas of the flag thing, I guess, run deep, but in the meantime this modern, progressive democracy of ours continues to blink awake every day to find its head of state is someone from a random British family.
Which is not to have a go at Elizabeth II. On the contrary: her 70-year-old monarchy is a marvel, a paragon of decorum, integrity, humility. The mistake, though, would be imagining that’s the way it always has or always will be. Since few of us know any different – she is literally the only reigning monarch to have set foot in New Zealand – it’s easy to think she is somehow permanent. Elizabeth is a lot of things but she is not immortal. And in the cosmic lottery of a hereditary monarchy, she’s a fluke.
The deep, deep weirdness of an arrangement that sees some individual from the other side of the world made New Zealand’s head of state by an accident of birth becomes suddenly obvious if you pan down the family portrait to the next in line: Charles Mountbatten-Windsor. If his mum stands as a decades-long exception to the assumption that every person born not just with a silver spoon in their mouth but a jewel-encrusted crown upon their bonce must inevitably incline towards deluded over-confidence, haughty imperiousness and a narcissism bordering on the solipsistic, Charles – well, there he is.
Revealed in 2015 to have routinely penned correspondence to government ministers – described as the “black spider” letters – the heir to the throne is notorious for meddling in political territories his mother studiously avoids. He’s a vocal champion of homeopathy and “complementary medicine” and opponent of genetic modification; an enemy of political correctness and advocate for military spending. HRH has never let the lack of any qualification stop him from banging on about urban planning or architecture he disapproves of, once describing a proposed extension to the National Gallery (later halted) as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”.
Just last week, Charles was reported by British media to have lambasted the policy of Boris Johnson’s government to send people seeking asylum to Rwanda as “appalling” (a report disputed by Clarence House). I personally agree wholeheartedly with that assessment. But I just as wholeheartedly deplore an almost-king sticking his snout into democratic processes.
Charles, who once complained of the “nonsensical rubbish” he had to put up from New Zealanders during a 1981 visit, composed in 2003 what may be the least self-aware sentences in the history of the world. “What is wrong with everyone nowadays?” he wrote to a staffer. “Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their technical capabilities?”
We can be grateful, perhaps, that he was born before his little brother, Andrew, but that’s about all.
True though it is that Charles has acknowledged he needs to be less gobby as king and act within “constitutional parameters”, he is also reported to be set upon “continuing with his heartfelt interventions”. And if you think that New Zealand is too distant and detached for Charles to stick his oar in, I would direct you to the freshly published Democracy in Aotearoa: A Survival Guide, by Geoffrey Palmer and Gwen Palmer Steeds. It includes an interview with Jacinda Ardern, in which the prime minister describes how much she hears from the palace. “I’ve spoken to Her Majesty, since the pandemic, twice. She just wanted to see how New Zealand was,” she says. Bless.
Not-so-bless: “I’ve spoken to Prince Charles on a number of occasions. He’s incredibly interested in what we do on environmental issues, very engaged.” Very engaged is, I would argue, the very last thing you want this man to be.
There are many important constitutional questions that a decision to cut the monarchical cord entails. Chief among them: what form would a new head of state take, and how would they be selected? And, linked to that, how would we ensure the commitments of Te Tiriti are integral to the new model?
But those complexities and the time they’ll take to resolve just make it more urgent to get cracking. We can begin by taking a leaf out of Australia’s book. There, the federal government now boasts an assistant minister for a republic. Anthony Albanese has signalled that “Indigenous recognition” in the constitution is a necessary precursor to becoming a republic, but the appointment was about “starting the serious conversation once again about what comes next for Australia after Queen Elizabeth’s reign ends.”
That’s a conversation Aotearoa, too, should be running towards. Much to his credit, even Charles gets it. “I want to say clearly, as I have said before, that each member’s constitutional arrangement, as republic or monarchy, is purely a matter for each member country to decide,” he said in his opening address at the Commonwealth summit in Kigali over the weekend. At 73, the prince knows the way the wind is blowing.
“The benefit of long life brings me the experience that arrangements such as these can change calmly and without rancour,” he said. Quite right. Let’s crack on.