The past, wrote L. P. Hartley in The Go-Between, is a foreign country. Even a decade as relatively recent as the 1950s seems alien to us now. And if it comes to mind at all we feel a quasi-xenophobic superiority. Vapid ‘lifestyle’ magazines sneer at the 1950s as the last gasp of dreary old ‘Anglo’ Australia before the arrival of Mediterranean migrants made garlic and the Gaggia central to our diet and a vineyard sprouting on every sheep paddock. The ‘arts’ Mafia occasionally lifts its snout from the trough to deride the era as an arid cultural wasteland with not a subsidy in sight, a desert that had to wait for enlightened Gough before springing into bloom under the refreshing rain of taxpayers’ money he showered on its thirsting talents – with the Medicean results we see all around us. ‘Intellectuals’ dismiss the 1950s as an epoch of stifling monocultural conformity, tut-tutting patronisingly about its ‘cultural cringe’ (as though that’s something long gone, when in reality our pretensions to being ‘world class’ in everything show we genuflect lower than ever to ‘overseas’ opinion). For most people it’s a decade dead and all but forgotten. A child of the 1950s is now a valued senior citizen or a potential candidate for euthanasia, depending on which government department you consult.
If we could go back in a time machine we would find 1950s life barely recognisable. The public issues of the decade, if still current, appear in a different guise: where for example we are now considering a ‘treaty’ with Aboriginal ‘nations’, in the 1950s we were, apparently, stealing their forebears. The White Australia policy – a Labor invention, be it ever remembered – has been transformed into the anything-but-white Australia policy. Anzac Day continues, but where for thousands of families in the 1950s the then still-recent personal losses of war – a dead brother, a TPI dad, a nursing sister drowned by Japanese torpedoes – made it a day of both grief and pride, Anzac Day has since become the object of cowardly academic and feminist ridicule.
All the personalities that strode the world stage of the 1950s, the Maos, the Eisenhowers, the Stalins, are long gone. Except for one.
Next Saturday, 21 April, is the Queen’s ninety-second birthday. It is not her ‘official’ birthday, a Gilbertian contrivance whose survival as a public holiday in this country annoys republicans, though they don’t mind taking it off. It is her real birthday. She was 26 when she succeeded to the throne and she is still doing the same job she was doing in the 1950s. No one under 65 can remember the world without her. She has been a constant, like the weather, you might say – ignore her or not she is there. She was there riding side-saddle in grainy black and white in the old Movietone News titles, and she’s still there opening things in flawless colour on satellite TV, always with gloves and bag and unwieldy hats of varying degrees of absurdity. She has visited Australia sixteen times, lastly in 2011, when she was already 85. Her portrait once presided over every government and municipal office – usually in the sweeping Annigoni version or the 1954 William Dargie one with the yellow wattle dress – until creeping republicanism engineered her stealthy removal in the 1980s. But she’s still there on coins and the $5 note.
She has been one of the few fixed points in our world, but from time to time a chill or a cancelled engagement reminds us that she won’t be forever. What will happen to the monarchy, and what will happen to the monarchy in Australia, when she dies?
The Queen’s mother lived to be 101 and like her Elizabeth II is a strong and healthy woman. With luck she’ll survive to see her realm liberated from Frau Merkel’s Fourth Reich and its boozy gauleiter Jean-Claude Juncker, who from premier of the comic-opera duchy of Luxembourg has by some strange undemocratic alchemy found himself nominal master of Europe, with the Queen as one of his ‘subjects’. No one knows what the Queen thinks of the EU – you can guess – in fact no one knows what she privately thinks about anything, and this inscrutability has been one of the strengths of her reign. Her son and heir, on the other hand, is always airing his opinions, some quite eccentric, which doesn’t augur well for the monarchy’s apolitical future. This, as much as duty, might be a reason Her Majesty seems never to have contemplated abdication.
The conservative journalist James Delingpole in this magazine (24 March) said that when the Queen dies he’ll turn republican. He presumably means that the prospect of Charles III is an unappealing one, but this is to miss the point of monarchy. Elizabeth II has been an exemplary monarch but the principle of monarchy does not depend on the royal personality (all that ill-advised 1970s-onward TV reality on the royal family has helped conflate the holder with the office). It’s either a good system or it’s not. It should work just as well under King Charles III as under his mother.
Britain will adapt to Charles and he to being king but in Australia the monarchy is less secure. According to the latest republican spin it survives only out of respect for the Queen and with her off the scene a republic is a certainty. Is it? Surely that will depend as in 1999 on what sort of republic’s being cooked up. Respect for the scheming mediocrities who govern us has never been lower, so Mr Shorten should avoid proposing a president elected by parliament if he wants to win his wasteful referendum. If it’s a direct ‘people’s vote’ the heart quails at the sort of potential presidents who’ll be put forward: Warnie, Tim Flannery, Dylan Voller – oops, sorry, they’re men – Rosie Batty, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Magda. ‘Quotas’ and identity politics will befoul the selection; the first Australian president, we’ll be told, should be disabled or Muslim or ‘transing’ – indeed, why not a committee of presidents drawn from all of the letters LGBTIQZYZ? National unity will be the last criterion.
A sane electorate would stick with Charles. After him we’ll get Wills and Kate and Princess Markle and the rest who are making up for what they lack in regal gravitas by putting fantasy back into the monarchy – even if it’s the celebrity-gossip fantasy of Hello! magazine and not the inaccessible mystique of symbolism that surrounded the Queen when she came to the throne in the faraway 1950s.