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Monday 09 April 2012

Diamonds for an old Queen

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 24th February 2012

In 2012, Queen Elizabeth II will celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of her coronation. But is it time for LGBT New Zealanders to prefer a republic to our current constitutional monarchy?

In the background, I could be faintly heard grumbling away at the Royal Wedding last year. It's no secret that I am an advocate of republicanism as part of a greater commitment to increased democratic depth within our political institutions, which also includes a written constitution. One additional reform is the advant of an elected president to replace our current unelected, hereditary constitutional monarch.

Think about it. Elizabeth II has been queen for sixty years now, longer than almost any of her predecessors, apart from Queen Victoria. In four years time, she will pass even that milestone. She is already the oldest reigning monarch in British history. I do not mean to belittle her selfless commitment to public service and duty over the last six decades, but over that time, there have been many social and economic changes in the United Kingdom, as well as in New Zealand.

When her father George VI died of lung cancer and the throne passed to his eldest daughter, homosexuality was still illegal in the United Kingdom and New Zealand alike. Granted, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret were apparently surrounded by doting gay servants and celebrity friends, but despite frequent speculation to the contrary, there are no lesbian or gay senior royals. At the same time, though, lesbians and gay men can now contract civil unions, may soon be able to undertake same-sex marriages and can adopt children in the United Kingdom. Eventually, the same will occur in New Zealand when we next elect a centre-left government.

And when we do, we will probably revisit the perennial question of whether or not we should relinquish our ties to the monarchy. Yes, there have been cadet royal lesbian and gays- Prince Albert Victor was the eldest son of the future Edward VII and was almost caught in the Cleveland Street gay brothel scandal in the 1880s, and Prince George of Kent was bisexual but died during the Second World War in combat- and was an uncle of the current queen. Queen Anne was the last reigning lesbian or bisexual monarch, reportedly devoted to Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, but that was three centuries ago (1702-1714). However, that isn't the point- James VI/I, William III and Mary II may have chased after their same-sex favourites or been passionately in love with them, but whatever their merits or otherwise, their same-sex lovers could never be royal consorts and male homosexuality was illegal, as it had been since Henry VIII passed the Buggery Act in 1530. In the eighteenth century, things got worse, thanks to the Societies for Reformation of Manners, the first Christian Right. This fundamentalist pressure group succeeded in persuading the stolid and conservative Hanoverian monarchs to introduce the death penalty for male homosexuality. Whatever lesbian or gay royals or aristocrats might get up to, commoners were not so fortunate.

Would a republic be any better? Let's leave the United States on one side- it broke away from the United Kingdom in the late eighteenth century and has many blemishes- its toleration of slavery until the American Civil War, its lack of a comprehensive welfare state and strong trade union movement, and abnormally high levels of Christian religious observance compared to the mainstream western world render it an atypical model for comparison. In addition, it has an 'imperial presidency' that may not be representative of the republican model.

Changing to a republic would mean an elected incumbent would occupy the position of head of state, and they need not have considerable executive powers. In Ireland and Israel, for example, that is not the case. Insofar as modernisation is concerned, there's also the question of lesbian or gay incumbents. Had Irish media coverage been not quite so frankly homophobic, Senator David Norris might have become Ireland's first lesbian or gay president- he came fourth in the presidential race. David Norris was the figure that took Ireland to the European Court of Human Rights and forced it to finally decriminalise male homosexuality in 1994. (Since then, though, progress has been rapid on LGBT rights, let it be added). In Finland, Greens Presidential candidate Pekka Haavisto finished second to the new conservative incumbent, which suggests that there may soon be a breakthrough.

What are the arguments for a constitutional monarchy? There aren't any- merely sentiment, respect for tradition and inertia-based populism. I admire the current Queen as much as any monarchist and I think it would be futile to hold a referendum on the issue until she passes away. However, despite Prince Charles' admirable multicultural and green values, the New Zealand public should be able to choose whether or not he becomes our head of state. Whatever historic and cultural ties link us to the United Kingdom, New Zealand is an Asia/Pacific nation and China is more significant for our future than our one-time trading links to the United Kingdom. I wish Her Majesty well for her Diamond Jubilee, but it is worth remembering that her great-great-grandmother died only four years after her own. Incapacity and mortality may strike sooner than anyone wishes at her advanced age. Shouldn't LGBT New Zealanders, and our general public, be able to choose who we want as our next head of state?

Craig Young - 24th February 2012

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