Over at his Kiwiblog, National Party psephologist David Farrar recently tried to provoke a constitutional debate, by asking his readers whether they are looking forward to having the eccentric and allegedly meddlesome Prince Charles as the head of the New Zealand state. A number of monarchists responded to Farrar's challenge. Presenting themselves as conservative defenders of tradition, they have offered a series of arguments in favour of keeping a member of the Windsor family as the head of the New Zealand state.
Ideas and political positions that are portrayed as ‘conservative’ or ‘traditional’ by their proponents – and by their detractors, for that matter – often turn out to be, on careful inspection, decidedly contemporary. When a subject like New Zealand's relationship with Britain is debated, there’s a tendency to create a dichotomy between republicans and monarchists, and to present the monarchists as the upholders of some straightforwardly traditional relationship between New Zealand and Britain.
But the arguments that contemporary Kiwi monarchists make would seem strange indeed to their nineteenth and early twentieth century ancestors. The two arguments for the monarchy used repeatedly in the thread at Kiwiblog – the claim that a faraway British monarch would be less likely to interfere in New Zealand politics than some local elected leader, and the claim that the British monarchy is a symbolic reminder of the role Britain played in New Zealand’s early history – both rely on the assumption that New Zealand and Britain are separate nations, and that New Zealand’s interests must be considered separately from those of Britain. Such assumptions are, of course, almost universal in New Zealand today, but they would have seemed culpably radical a century ago.
As I've swum through nineteenth century newspapers for the past few months, I've become used to finding my ancestors using terms like ‘South Britain’ and ‘the Britain of the South Seas’ as synonyms for New Zealand. Until at least the middle of the twentieth century, and probably later, a large majority of Pakeha would have answered the question ‘Why should the British monarch reign over New Zealanders?’ with an answer as simple as ‘Because New Zealanders are British’.
As Tony Ballantyne has repeatedly reminded us, New Zealand was part of a complex and worldwide ‘web of empire’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Britain was always a corporate nation, and British identity has always belonged to multiple populations. In the second half of the nineteenth century, as the British empire expanded, New Zealanders, Australians, and Canadians joined the English, Scots, Welsh, and Ulstermen as holders of the identity. We became ‘South Britain’, just as Scotland had become ‘North Britain’.
There were, of course, some Pakeha who refused a British identity. Many Irish emigrants hated the empire that had occupied their nation for centuries, and a few, like the band of Fenian gold miners who supplied Te Kooti's army with ammunition, supported Maori resistance to the colonisation. For a big majority of Pakeha, though, New Zealand was no less a part of Britain than Cornwall or Yorkshire.
Although colonial New Zealand and the imperial homeland often found themselves in disagreement – they had very different attitudes, for example, to the wars that were fought in the Waikato and in Taranaki for Maori land – the colonists tended to deal with these disagreements by asserting that they, and not the administrators and politicians in London, represented the true spirit of the Britain. It is significant that, when New Zealand leaders lobbied for British support for the annexation of the islands of the tropical Pacific in the late nineteenth century, they presented themselves as the vanguard of the British Empire. The mandarins of London had lost some of the vigour and courage that had made the empire great; the colonial boys in Wellington could help them recover it.
And it wasn’t only on the right of the political spectrum that the identity of Britain and New Zealand was assumed – when early advocates of a welfare state and other left-wing reforms made their case, they often justified these measures by talking about New Zealand as a ‘better Britain’, where Anglo-Saxon civilisation could be rid of its injustices and thus perfected.
The notion of the British monarch as a distant and powerless figure, who is preferable to a local head of state mainly because he or she will do less damage than a local, would have horrified conservative New Zealanders of earlier generations. The idea that Britain enjoyed an important relationship with New Zealand, but that New Zealand had nevertheless evolved into a separate nation, would also have seemed heretical.
If we take a long view of New Zealand history, then, we can see that the Republicans and monarchists of the twenty-first century agree about a lot more than they differ. Both accept that New Zealanders are no longer Britons. Britain and British identity were extraordinarily effective inventions, but in the twenty-first century they are losing their meaning, even in the old imperial homeland. Britain's slow, century-long decline as a world power has forced its former affiliates to find new allies and new identities.
The only genuine supporters of the traditional relationship between New Zealand and Britain are individuals like Aidan Work, who advocates the reintegration of this country into a revived British Empire, and organisations like the British Israelites, whose members believe that the British Empire was blessed and directed by Jehovah, and will be revived in the eschatological future. Ninety years ago the British Israelites could count New Zealand’s Prime Minister as a member; today they are obscure eccentrics.
Instead of trying to associate themselves with a tradition that no longer exists, monarchists should acknowledge that their worldview and arguments are as contemporary as those of republicans.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]