After the nauseating display of royal excess and dynastic exceptionalism last week, an Australian republic cannot come soon enough.
On 2 May, four days before his coronation, King Charles III gave the royal assent to a controversial new Public Order Act, signing it into law. The Act gives the UK police unprecedented powers to stop and search without suspicion of any offence, to deny access to designated areas, and to arrest people as a preventative measure to prevent ‘protest and disruption’, before any protest has even taken place. Although the Home Office insisted that the timing of this draconian Bill, which cut sharply across the right to political protest, so close to the coronation was purely coincidental, it was of course no such thing.
At 7.30am on the morning of the coronation, the chief executive of the anti-monarchy group Republic UK, Graham Smith, and 5 other senior members of Republic UK were targeted, arrested, and locked up. Late on Saturday night all 6 were released on bail, although exactly what they had been charged with remained unclear. Two days later police announced that they would not be pursuing charges against any of the Republic UK leaders, and it appeared they had been arrested purely in order to detain them for the duration of the coronation.
Graham Smith, who had worked assiduously to secure police approval for Republic UK to hold a peaceful protest well away from the coronation path, with placards reading ‘Not My King’ as their main message, was clearly shocked; ‘what is the point in being open and candid with the police, working with their liaison officers, if all their promises and undertakings turn out to be a lie?’, he said on release. The aim, as one senior police acknowledged, was simple – ‘to get them off the streets quick and early’.
The removal of anti-monarchy protestors was central to the construction of an imagined revered monarchy with the coronation as its centre-piece spectacle, presenting to the world an unflinching, united, national endorsement of the new King Charles and Queen Camilla, and of monarchy itself. As the culture secretary, Lucy Frazer, put it; ‘we were on the global stage .. at an event with millions of people watching… I think it was really important that [the police] took that into account when making their decision’. The conservative party’s vice-chair called on republicans to leave the country and emigrate instead of protesting. So much for the coronation as ‘the homage of the people’.
In this tightly stage-managed, tax-payer funded, £100 million (AUD$187 million) extravaganza of religious ritual, stupendous wealth, and dynastic privilege, even the BBC coverage was vetted by the Palace. Clear directives were given on what could and could not be shown, camera positioning and framing, and Charles himself vetoed broadcasting his anointing with holy oil by the archbishop of Canterbury. Since the BBC provided the feed for other networks’ coverage of the coronation, this amounted to an absolute Palace control.
All of which was paid for by the British people themselves, rather than the King whose vast personal wealth is estimated at £1.8 billion (AUD$3.4 billion), buoyed by his royal exemption from income tax, inheritance tax, and financial transparency laws. Under the ‘monarch’s consent’ power the then Queen’s lawyers intervened in the drafting of financial transparency legislation introduced in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal, specifically to conceal the finances of the monarch and the heir from its reach before the Bill was tabled in parliament.
And yet still we hear the insistent refrain that the monarchy today wields no power and is not involved in political matters. It does and it is. It is simply staggering that despite the revelation by The Guardian of the direct involvement of the monarch in the drafting of legislation on any matter which may affect them through the ‘monarch’s consent’, the Palace continues to deny it and the British people continue to accept it.
The monarch is neither powerless nor politically uninvolved, and Charles has relished the capacity to exercise both.
From his boorish, untutored, views on architecture which led to several world-leading architectural commissions in the UK being dropped, to his letters to the Blair government on his favoured policy positions, Charles’s political interventions as Prince of Wales are well known. They show an opinionated, entitled, ‘meddling Prince’ who saw it as his right to push a political position to government, despite the professed requirement for political neutrality.
With Charles’s ascension as King Charles III of Australia, it is his involvement in governor-general Sir John Kerr’s 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government that should trouble us today. Charles’s coronation serves as a reminder of just how extensive the involvement of our new King, and the then Queen and her private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, was in Kerr’s dismissal of the elected government. And, like all royal political interventions, this has been emphatically denied by the Palace for decades, despite clear evidence to the contrary in Kerr’s archives and of course in the Palace letters. As Kerr later told his friend, the South Australian lieutenant governor Sir Walter Crocker, ‘for good reasons, I never had any doubt about what the Palace’s attitude was on this important point’.
In this, Charles played a pivotal role as the lynchpin between Kerr, who considered himself a friend, and the Palace. As I have written here previously, it was a conversation between Charles and Kerr in September 1975, during the PNG independence day celebrations in Port Moresby, that first drew the Queen and Charteris into Kerr’s planning and decision to dismiss Whitlam. Kerr told Charles that he was ‘considering having to dismiss the government’ should the Opposition block the government’s Supply bills – one month before Supply had even been deferred in the Senate.
From there, as the Palace letters and Kerr’s notes confirm, Charles relayed their conversation to the Queen and Charteris who then began a regular secret correspondence with Kerr about the ‘general principles’ involved – including ‘the reserve powers of the Crown’, whether their use would cause the monarchy ‘any avoidable harm’, Kerr’s likely refusal to accept the advice of the attorney-general and the solicitor-general Sir Maurice Byers on the reserve powers, and ultimately the dismissal of the Whitlam government.
All of this was of course secret from the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who always believed that the Queen knew nothing of Kerr’s plans because, as Whitlam later said, ‘Her immediate reaction would have been, “Have you consulted your Prime Minister?” or “What is your prime minister’s advice?”’. It is striking that these critical questions are never asked of Kerr. Neither Charles nor the Queen suggested that Kerr speak to the Prime Minister as his constitutional advisor and head of elected government about these intensely political matters, which clearly required the advice of the Prime Minister to resolve. Not only was the Palace thereby made a party to Kerr’s deception of Whitlam, the deception itself was a profound breach of the cardinal principle of constitutional monarchy that the monarch and their vice-regal representative act on the advice of ‘responsible’ elected ministers. Even Kerr’s secret advisor, High Court justice Sir Anthony Mason told him that, ‘If you do not warn Whitlam you run the risk of being seen as deceptive’.
This pivotal conversation between Charles and Kerr in September 1975 traversed more than the possible dismissal of the government and Kerr’s fear that Whitlam might recall him as governor-general – as if that were not enough. Following the High Court’s decision in the Palace letters case, the National Archives released an intriguing document in Kerr’s papers which it had previously withheld from me. It provides further details not just about this conversation in PNG, but about ‘several important discussions’ between Kerr and Charles, and their ‘friendly relationship’ leading up to the dismissal.
During a visit to Australia in October 1974, Charles had approached Kerr with the extraordinary proposal that Kerr would, at some stage in the future, stand down to make way for Charles to become governor-general of Australia. This, Kerr writes, was ‘something which was very dear to his heart’ and which Charles sought fervently in several discussions involving the Queen, Charteris, Charles and Charles’s private secretary. What is remarkable is that none of these discussions about Charles’s great desire to be governor-general, certainly as described by Kerr, included any consultation with the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on whose sole advice the appointment of governor-general must be made. It was as though the choice of governor-general was still a decision of the British monarch.
Charles’s own interest stemmed from his view of the governor-general as a sort of training run for monarchy, in Kerr’s pompous description as ‘not irrelevant to what would be his later experience on ascending the throne’. It was a comical, impossible, equivalence which would only have bolstered the vain, ingratiating, royal manque Kerr’s view of the governor-general as akin to royalty itself, vested with discretionary ‘reserve powers’ beyond the advice of the Prime Minister.
And if we needed any further confirmation that our new King Charles III of Australia fully supported Kerr’s deceptive dismissal of Whitlam, it can be found in his handwritten letter to the embattled governor-general, then besieged by protests at every public appearance, four months after the dismissal; ‘I appreciate what you do and admire the way you have performed… What you did last year was right and the courageous thing to do’.
The lasting image of the coronation for me will always be of King Charles, draped in ermine and diamonds in his heated gold carriage, complaining at waiting five minutes for the coronation to begin, while the National Health System crumbles, pensioners cut their heating to just four hours a day, and food banks grow exponentially. French left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said the coronation, ‘is a reminder to us why we are so deeply republican .. Kings are monsters who accept such a display in front of so much suffering’.
After this nauseating display of royal excess and dynastic exceptionalism, an Australian republic cannot come soon enough.