The Queen's Birthday Explained
Written by Bruce A Knox   
Monday, 09 August 2004

There is a sense in which observance of an "official" Queen's Birthday on 9th June or thereabouts is an odd custom: one is tempted to think of race-horses. But there is nothing irrational about it. HM's real birthday is on 21st April. To have established this as the occasion for a holiday would have been to run the risk of coming into collision with Easter and it will not do to have public holidays - occasions well thought-of in our society - grouped too closely together. Nor is there anything unnatural about the observance itself, whenever it may be placed. It had originally, no doubt, to do with the desire or need of officers, civil and military, never averse to find a reason for partying, to maintain consciousness of the metropolis at great distances from it. In this sense, and as a general holiday, it attained a distinctively imperial quality - very much in accord with the history of Australia.

There are those who seriously wish to dispose of the observance precisely because of this, and who try to make much of its "colonial" origins - employing what has become a bogey word - regardless of its established place in Australian life. They are misguided. They are also rather willing to merge their dismay at things "imperial" or "colonial" with their insistence that the Queen is "not Australia". To ask why this should be would be to enter into a discussion of the psychology of Australian republicanism, which is not the present concern.

In any event, on her official birthday, the Queen herself is partially obscured. For our celebration does not depend upon who it is who occupies the throne. It is in the nature of monarchy, constitutional or otherwise, that the person of the sovereign be accorded honour, respect and deference to a degree far beyond any other. This has in fact little to do with the individual, though individuals can make the actions easier. "Majesty" recognizes the office of king as something above ordinary things and people; in particular, of course, since early last century, those who wield power in carrying on the King's business of government.

In earlier times, the mere fact that the sovereign's Coronation invoked the idea of "the Lord's Anointed" was sufficient. Today we might be said to have substantially lost sight of that aspect. Nor, indeed ought we to be carried away by it. The doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings was an exaggeration of the religious character of kingship, with pretty dreadful consequences in England and, much later, France. But the English (British) monarchy revived and survived, and by surviving enabled a peculiar political and constitutional development.

It is our good fortune that it attained its classic forms at the very time in the middle of the 19th century when the British government saw fit to erect in Australia and North America a number of nascent colonial monarchies. This was an experiment of perilous, almost reckless, nature. That it succeeded here and in Canada is a tribute both to its origins and to the colonies concerned. To celebrate majesty was thus entirely appropriate to colonial life; it was appropriate to the Commonwealth of Australia when it was formed; and it remains appropriate as a national tribute to a national achievement.

By the 1850's the monarchy had ceased to be an active instrument of government; it had become the repository of the power and authority of the State. As a kind of hereditary trustee, Queen Victoria was charged with meting out that authority to those who laid claim to it by virtue of being able to point to popular (though not by any means necessarily democratic) approval or tolerance. This was the age in which Walter Bagheot felt able to distinguish between the "dignified" (the monarch) and the "efficient" (the cabinet) parts of the constitution. His distinctionwas perhaps too clear cut. Queen Victoria and her successors efficiently established (beyond recall, one is tempted to say) a process by which power in the State passed in a regulated fashion from one contending group to another, in the arena of parliament. It became an integral and essential part of the transition to, precisely, that democracy which is the pretended shibboleth of Western liberty in these days.

At our peril do we forget that this process devolved upon the colonies, unexpected, basically unplanned, and with a curious ability to accommodate local peculiarities. In company with Great Britain we enjoy as a result a degree of stability, continuity and - dare I say it? - decency in our political existence, travestied though it may seem to be by professional politicians. Whether those qualities can continue to withstand the grosser aspects of present day social change remains to be seen. I confess to a certain optimism. Certainly, I see no reason to undertake new experiments - "the republic" - deriving from theory or doctrine.

In the last few years, a number of troubles have come upon HMQ, and thus upon the monarchy as an institution. One part of them deserves special notice, and it has an instructive antecedent. By the early 1870's Queen Victoria herself had given much grievance by her apparently unending seclusion following the untimely death of the Prince Consort. But the antics of her son and heir in, as one observer said, "the matter of women", boded worse. The same writer feared that the Prince's behaviour "would most likely create…an acknowledged Republican party, bent on putting an end to the monarchy after the Queen's death." It is an indication of the extent to which personal behaviour and reputation could and, a fortiori, can react upon the position of the most august institution. But, while we detect some contemporary resonance, let us beware of crude reactions. Edward, Prince of Wales, remained somewhat wayward to the end, but it did not prevent him from eventually filling his kingly role with dignity and to the satisfaction of his ministers and subjects: and he was personally very popular.

I am far from suggesting any serious likeness between Edward VII in his younger days and the present Prince of Wales. But the campaign in this country to abolish the monarchy hangs its arguments not a little upon what its practitioners can contrive to portray as the behaviour and personal oddities of Prince Charles. They have been much assisted by salacious and malicious pursuit of the Prince by, especially, the cheaper media. Many people of goodwill find it hard entirely to disagree with the strictures placed upon him. I would submit to such people something like what I have just been saying about the Crown's functions. Even if it were convincingly shown that HRH has behaved in seriously dubious ways - and I do not subscribe to such a view - there is nothing to indicate that his kingship would be flawed or compromised.

The truth is that several recent kings and queens have unwittingly given us unreal and unnecessary expectations of the occupant of the throne. Long live Queen Elizabeth, I say, but let us not forswear the possibility that our monarchs are interesting partly because their succession exhibits a certain Chaucerian diversity.