2007 National Conference: The Kraken Waking
Written by Bruce Knox   
Friday, 31 August 2007

ACM National Conference, 2007

Saturday, 25 August, 2007

The Indispensable Crown:The Way Forward

The Kraken Waking

Bruce Knox* 

Colossal Octopus by Pierre Denys de Montfort















Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far Far beneath in the abysmal sea, 
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep 
The Kraken sleepeth:
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie 
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep, 
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep; 
Then once by man and angels to be seen, 
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.


These are lines from a poem by the young Alfred Tennyson, written in 1830. A modified sonnet of fifteen lines, it was drawn upon by John Wyndham for his great science fiction novel (1953) The Kraken Wakes. But I must explain that the Kraken is a mythical Norwegian monster dwelling at the bottom of the sea, sleeping but not quite motionless, destined to rise at some time to the surface, there to wreak havoc but then to die. For John Wyndham the Kraken was a host of extra-terrestial invaders who in due course melted the ice-caps, causing havoc indeed for mankind who lost almost everything which sustained civilization (presaging "global warming" perhaps?!); then they died, as had the Martians in H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. My Kraken however is Republicanism, far from extra-terrestial; and you will have noticed that the metaphor breaks down at the end. For my Kraken, while it has indeed risen and created havoc of a kind, has not died, nor will it die. Alas.

To represent Republicanism as a monster is a slander perhaps on something espoused by (amongst others) many intelligent and well-meaning people: but in practice it is a perfectly apt image. This monster has slept "for ages", awaiting a "latter fire" which would give it full life and allow it to rise, making itself felt on the surface of a political and constitutional world which had appeared to be stable and secure. The "fire" (to which I return later) appeared in the second half of the twentieth century. Thus quickened, the "Kraken" became the republican movement of the last decade and a half. That movement is unprecedented in Australian history (a point upon which, I have to say, I disagree with Professor David Flint), with its organisation, its overt malice, its determination, its blitzkrieg tactics,  its capture of one political party and suborning of another, so that a government was forced to undertake the expensive and disturbing process of changing the Constitution. But while it has been asleep, Kraken-like, republicanism has been present in the "abysmal sea" of Antipodean political and social life from the start. It was in fact as natural and serious an importation to New Holland as the rule of law, the English language, and government under the authority of the Crown. 


 New South Wales was created by the British government in one of the most turbulent periods of European history. It would have been strange had republicanism not been part of its baggage. The late 18th century was awash with republicanism and revolution; and for many people of traditional instincts and understanding, by the middle of the 1790s at least, to call a man a republican or a democrat was tantamount to calling him a revolutionary. There had been plenty of precedent. England might even be said to have produced the most potent republican ideas of all, considering the Civil Wars of the 1640s, the murder of the King, the abolition of the office of king, and the establishment of the regicide Commonwealth. That Commonwealth did not last, but its apologists and theorists did. The works of, for instance, John Milton (who wished to justify more than the ways of God to Man) and Algernon Sidney were constantly available in the following century. The greatest politcal writer of the age, John Locke, was no revolutionary or republican, but his works were easily adapted by those who were. All these formed part of the "intellectual origins" of both the American and the French Revolutions. 


 These two revolutions of course were the original irruptions of republicanism in the modern era; and they were truly monstrous, having effects far beyond their geographical locations. For various reasons much opinion in England was sympathetic with the English colonists in America in their rebellion against the authority of King and parliament, and to the mixed bag of principles and justifications expounded in their Declaration of Independence; the French Revolution was enthusiastically welcomed by poets, preachers and assorted optimists, whose reactions died down in most cases—but not all—after the horrendous events of 1791-3, even to the extent of reversal. On lower levels of society actual disaffection was rife. It was not for nothing that William Pitt's government secured punitive repressive measures as early as 1795, not least against those who circulated, absorbed or propagated the ideas of Tom Paine's The Rights of Man, and Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women—basic, lucid denunciations of traditional institutions, monarchy chief amongst them. It is inconceivable that amongst the motley arrivals in New South Wales by the start of the new century—and not merely Irish rebels or naïve speculators—there were not some who were imbued with republican ideas. Such men provided the protoplasm (so to speak) of the particular Kraken in the new country.  


A favourite notion of our republicans is that an actual republic was always present in Australia—The Captive Republic struggling to be free. That is self-serving fantasy. It is true however that the colony of New South Wales was the product of an age of rationalism, Benthamism, utilitarianism, scepticism—and a growing popular objection to aristocratic domination. Established institutions were not safe. The great reform of parliament in 1830-32 began to erode the influence of the aristocracy, and by 1834 had pretty well established that the King could not choose his ministers without reference to parliamentary majorities. "Reform that you may preserve", T.B. Macaulay memorably told the House of Commons in 1831. And that is what saved England from revolution and the monarchy from abolition—though, as its opponents correctly warned, it did not in the end save England from Democracy. The Age of Reform, the Age also of Improvement, withstood for the time being what might have been fatal challenges. The aristocracy was not displaced, the authority of the Crown was secured though within narrower limits: but both were under continuous scrutiny and criticism from commercial and intellectual middle classes and, indirectly, from that truly working class movement, the Chartists.  


The combination of Reform and Improvement also saved the colonies. We must remember that the overwhelming majority of the colonists arriving in New South Wales from, say, 1815 onwards were drawn either from ambitious (or desperate) professionals (especially lawyers) or from classes which lacked property and were unfranchised—the have-nots rather than the haves. There were many frustrated Chartists amongst them; many were literate enough to have have been influenced by anti-monarchical, even revolutionary, tracts. It was moreover their social experience, their values, customs, expectations, which dominated the body social and politic in its growth. And they came from an old society, with its ranks, grades, stratifications, understood relations, to something very close to a tabula rasa: a land where there was no existing civilised society, where a new society had to be formed.  


We must be clear about colonial society. It did not replicate, nor was it intended to replicate, English society (at least, not as recently urged by the virtuoso historian, David Cannadine). Rudimentary agencies of government were of course provided. But colonization did not mean the exportation of social organisation; it was an exportation of individuals. In particular, the colonies could contain no class of gentlemen, let alone anything resembling an aristocracy. It follows that aristocratic government—government, not by a nobility, but by gentlemen—was never a prospect in Australia, however much it was hoped for by such as W.C. Wentworth. There was therefore a natural tendency towards democracy. In the eyes of most observers this did not augur well for the future systems of colonial government, not least of monarchy, even monarchy as it had developed in England. It goes almost without saying that democracy implied republicanism. In the 1850s-70s more than once it appeared that democracy would lead to what was so feared—"a strange motley chaos of struggling Democracy … a livid monster at which the Frankenstein might well tremble", as an insightful novelist-statesman put it. For it was not until much later that, to the surprise of all, democracy, first in its colonial and shortly in its British forms and settings proved to be compatible with, indeed enhanced by, the advantages secured by parliamentary government—an aristocratic invention!—including the monarchical principle.  


The republican Kraken continued to sleep. But his tentacles, like those in Tennyson's poem, waved around, creating small disturbances, feeding upon "huge seaworms" (shall we take that as an image for the ARM?) in colonial politics and society. It could be seen in the turbulence of the late 1840s to the middle of the '50s, when a new form of colonial government was in contemplation. The Age of Reform determined the result. In 1852 the British government authorized the legislatures of NSW, Victoria (recently created), Tasmania and South Australia, to draft constitutions under which "the form of [their] Institutions should be more nearly assimilated to that prevailing in the Mother Country"—as close as could be to what had been sought by New South Wales politicians, and which was being tried in British North America. There were three complications, all of which, on their face, might have nourished republicanism. One was that the standard expectation for colonies, looking at ancient Greek examples as well as the fairly recent experience in America, was that they would and should become independent states. The second was that the constitutions about to be created would be invested with one of the great experiments of British governance in the 19th century—colonial "responsible" government, which conferred a serious kind of independence upon the colonial governments and legislatures. And in England there were, as there had long been, "frantic philosophers and penny-wise economists" who calculated the value of empire only in £.s.d. or derided it as a plaything of the aristocracy and who therefore desired to "get rid of the colonies".  


There were, then, many in England and in the colonies who did not doubt that the result of colonial responsible government would be the separation of the colonies from the mother country and the establishment of independent republics. But they were so far wrong that by the early 1870s that wily politician Benjamin Disraeli was able to exploit their views to the detriment of the Liberal Party. In Australia, the Rev. Dr. John Dunmore Lang's Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia  at mid-century, the Bulletin and the Boomerang in the 80s and 90s, notwithstanding, the republican Kraken remained somnolent. This was because the new systems of government of the 1850s quite plainly worked in favour of those who wished to be democratic and independent. They had received, without bloodshed, "all the points of the Charter" and saw no reason to repudiate their sovereign—a tribute in part to Queen Victoria personally—or the advantages of empire. The termagant Victorian politician/Chief Justice, George Higinbotham, is sometimes described as a republican; and a recent scholarly article attempts to do the same for his protegé Alfred Deakin. Such views confuse two quite separate things. Both Higinbotham and Deakin were strong Empire men, both held their sovereign in proper respect; but both had a jaundiced view (itself mistaken, in my opinion) of the functions of the Secretary of State for the Colonies and thus the role of the British government. Unsurprisingly, the Constitution for the new Commonwealth of Australia was drafted with no genuflection towards a republic and with a clear statement of the basic monarchical principle.  


 I now jump over the long intervening years—Dominion Status, the Great War, the Statute of Westminster, 1931—asking you to accept, for now at least, that the Kraken remained in his "abysmal sea" showing no more signs of life than were involved in the waving of his long tentacles in response to "the thunders of the upper deep". But he was alive. He needed but a "latter fire" to make him dangerous. Such a heat was kindled during and after the second World War. Fuel and flame was amply provided by the "end of empire" which came on apace from the 1950s onwards, a process now rendered peculiarly odious by the British government's commitment to the European Union. In a very short period it removed the framework which had been apparently inseparable from the monarchy, and by which, the Dominions (as distinct from mere dependent territories) had become international personalities, and which was so much an integral part of their experience and their tradition. Colonial or Dominion "nationalism", which was meaningful only within the empire framework, became redundant; the way was paved for the present braggart nativism (oddly compromised by reverence for "multi-culturalism") and truckling to the ideologies of the "new Commonwealth" and other ex-colonies, travesties of nation states as so many are.  


 I suggest that (amongst other things) this framework was indispensable to the comfortable and contented affection with which Australians generally regarded their constitutional connection with the United Kingdom: the Australia Acts of 1986 ought not to be uncritically praised for their effects. In the absence of the framework, those who had always found it irksome, those who resented or had a class or tribal grudge against England and English ways, perceived an opportunity to turn their feelings to practical use. And so they did, led especially by the late Donald Horne and Geoffrey Dutton in the 1960s. The 1990s brought forth the lucubrations of the likes of Thomas Keneally and Paul Keating; and it spawned the Australian Republican Movement. This I throw out for what may be made of it. 


 The "latter fire", then, was applied to Australian depths. The sleeping Kraken of republicanism was awoken; and he has risen to the surface. Since a decade and a half ago he has lashed about, nourishing himself on ignorance, malice and bewilderment. His thrashing convulsions in the 1990s so drained his energies that he failed to complete the havoc which he began. He has retreated for the time being. I fear however that the heat was such—and it is being refuelled—that he will not again sink into the abyss, let alone die. He will come again with perhaps increased fury. If he can get all his parts to act in concert he will be formidable indeed. 


  To put it in plain language: if the republicans can agree on what precisely they wish to establish in the place of the monarchy, and on the precise way in which it can be achieved; and if they are less arrogant and crude, but as deceitful and unscrupulous as they were before 1999, we shall have an even greater fight on our hands. We must not underestimate the visceral strength of mere sentiment: I have heard highly intelligent individuals say, "I don't care what 'model' of republic we get: I just want a republic". They have plenty of ignorance, chauvinism and thoughtless fickleness to work upon; indifference to the "debate" ought not to be confused with disfavour for the republican abstraction. The republic referendum of 1999 was defeated, not by a resurgence of affection for the monarchy, but because the republicans fell upon and rent each other—encouraged, I'm happy to say, by a remarkable "NO" campaign organised not a million miles from this place. We must hope that they continue their internecine struggles.  


 *[Bruce Knox is an Honorary Research Associate of the History Department of Monash University, Melbourne, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He has been involved in the republican debate (in one way or another) since the 1960’s.]